Mental-health challenges have shaped Georgia Tech assistant Julian Swartz

Georgia Tech assistant coach Julian Swartz prior to the Yellow Jackets' season opener against Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 9, 2021 at McCamish Pavilion. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

Georgia Tech assistant coach Julian Swartz prior to the Yellow Jackets' season opener against Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 9, 2021 at McCamish Pavilion. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Georgia Tech assistant coach Julian Swartz’s one season playing for Wisconsin was at once a high and a low. A freshman forward who had been the Wisconsin state player of the year as a high-school senior, Swartz was a backup for coach Dick Bennett’s team that made an unlikely run to the 2000 Final Four.

At the same time, Swartz was battling mental-health issues that consumed him and ultimately led him to leave school, never to play Division I basketball again. But now, two decades later, Swartz can look at his time with Wisconsin with perspective and have appreciation for that chapter in his life. That past resurfaces Wednesday night when the Yellow Jackets face the Badgers at McCamish Pavilion as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

“Nothing but great memories,” Swartz told the AJC.

Those who knew his struggles then take joy in seeing Swartz succeeding professionally and in a good place mentally. That includes Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who that year was a volunteer manager for his father’s team as he was just beginning his coaching career. Bennett and Swartz grew close that year and remain good friends.

“Life’s hard for everyone, but it’s a hard battle,” Bennett told the AJC. “To see what he’s done with it makes me just so proud of him.”

From the outside, Swartz’s journey to his spot on the Badgers roster looked like a storybook tale. Swartz was a star at Waukesha (Wis.) South High, playing for his father, Bill Swartz. He was a three-time all-state player, set the county career scoring record and was the state player of the year as a senior. He graduated in the top 5% of his class.

When it came to his recruitment, he had eyes only for the Badgers and Dick Bennett, who had coached with his father years earlier at the high-school level. Bennett was at the start of building a winner out of barren ground, and Swartz was eager to join the crusade. He committed before the start of his junior year.

But, all was not as it seemed. As a child, Swartz demonstrated behaviors such as repeatedly washing his hands and checking and re-checking appliances to make sure they were off and doors to make sure they were locked. Early in high school, he was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and was able to better manage the condition, but it still fed a perfectionist orientation that prevented him from being mentally healthy.

“For instance, in high school, I could score 30 points in a game, but if I missed a few 3-point shots and our team won, I would go home and that would just stick with me and bother me,” he said.

It followed him to Wisconsin. As a freshman, Swartz wasn’t able to contribute much on the court to a team heavy with juniors and seniors. At one level, he could recognize that it was normal for a freshman not to play much, but it tormented him regardless.

“The perfectionism was then, I just felt like I was a failure, and I just let everybody down,” he said.

The feelings of failure, even as he was a member of a Final Four team, prompted suicidal thoughts. He left the team and school, and spent the next year speaking out about his condition and the strength he gained from his Christian faith, a decision that attracted coverage from Sports Illustrated, ESPN and NBC News, among several outlets. In a better place mentally, he returned to Wisconsin the following year hoping to resume his career, but his anxiety returned.

“It was the right time to simply just kind of step away, and I did,” Swartz said.

He enrolled at Carroll College (now Carroll University), a small school in his hometown of Waukesha, and helped coach at his high-school alma mater.

“I really felt those first two years coaching high school is when I really fell in love with just really everything coaching kind of is,” he said.

It was the start of a path to a life in coaching. He was a graduate assistant at Marquette, where he worked for coach Tom Crean, now at Georgia, and earned a master’s in school counseling there. He returned to Waukesha South as an assistant coach while serving as a school counselor in a nearby school district.

During that time in Wisconsin, Swartz often met on a weekly basis with a therapist, Terry Young, whom he merely hails as the greatest in the world.

“What he has really helped me do is just put my past into perspective and into being able to use those experiences and understand the why and so forth,” Swartz said, “and not only help me, but then for me to be able to use that.”

A connection Swartz made at a coaching clinic with Josh Pastner – then the coach at Memphis – led to Pastner offering him a position on his staff with the Tigers. Swartz came to Tech with Pastner in 2016, serving in a non-coaching capacity, but was elevated to assistant coach in Pastner’s second season to replace Darryl LaBarrie. He frequently has led recruiting efforts, including with Tech’s freshman trio of Deebo Coleman, Miles Kelly and Jalon Moore.

“Everybody has their own journey, has their own pathway, has their own experience,” Swartz said. “And I’m very lucky and fortunate to still be a part of this game.”

Swartz brings to Pastner’s staff a personal experience that especially is valuable in today’s college athletics climate – a former power-conference basketball player who dealt with mental-health issues while in the spotlight accorded a highly successful team.

“First of all, I think he’s an outstanding person and also a coach,” Tech guard Kyle Sturdivant said. “He’s always there outside of basketball, always an ear to listen and a voice of reason, not only for me, but I feel like for all the players.”

Swartz said he was “so happy” that over the years, the issue of mental health has become less of a stigma. On Monday, in fact, the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 announced a “Teammates for Mental Health” initiative to raise awareness about the importance of mental-health wellness.

“Julian has been a big proponent and an advocate of mental health even before mental health was on the forefront,” Pastner said.

Swartz has sought to take particular care in staying close with Tech’s younger players as they make the adjustment to college basketball and often don’t see the court or enjoy the same success they did in high school. In a culture increasingly seeking instant gratification, Swartz encourages Jackets players that they each have their own path and to focus on what they can control.

Associate head coach Eric Reveno calls Swartz a “really good fundamental basketball coach.” Reveno acknowledged that coaches can sometimes fall in the trap of seeing their players as athletes.

“But sometimes coaches get in trouble when they’re not empathetic to who a player is as a person, and Julian’s good like that,” Reveno said.

Swartz was not relishing Wednesday’s matchup with the Badgers. But it wasn’t because they represent a part of his life he doesn’t want to revisit. Rather, there’s the emotional weight of competing against a team he has long supported and, also, Wisconsin is a bear to play against. And those are great reasons not to want to play Wisconsin.

“I’m just doing excellent,” Swartz said. “Very, very well. (That’s) No. 1. No. 2, I’m doing what I love and what I’m passionate about, and that really, really helps me out.”

The Wisconsin 1999-2000 Final Four team. Julian Swartz is in the front row on the left end, No. 42. (Courtesy University of Wisconsin Athletics)

Credit: University of Wisconsin

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Credit: University of Wisconsin