So Long Skippy

by Casey Barrett

Big coaching gigs up for grabs… Stanford men, Michigan women, who’s next?

Your coach may be eyeing the exit. It’s not that he doesn’t care about you. It’s not that Olympic Trials – and your taper – aren’t the most important looming priority. It’s just that this is his career. And some big fat opportunities are dangling out there. They’re the white whales of the coaching profession. Forgive him if he’s been going a little Ahab lately…

This month two of the most successful coaches in NCAA history stepped down simultaneously. On May 16, Stanford men’s Skip Kenney and Michigan women’s Jim Richardson announced their respective retirements. Both careers feature a feast of achievements. The CV for Richardson: 2-time NCAA Coach of the Year; 14 Big Ten titles; 162 All-Americans. The CV for Kenney: 7 NCAA team titles; 6-time Coach of the Year; 72 NCAA champions; 23 Olympians; and the most disgusting (for non-Stanford Pac-12’ers) stat of all: 31 straight Pac 10 / 12 titles.

Love ’em or hate ’em, these two are Hall of Famers who helped change countless lives. A mighty bow is due to both men. But almost immediately after their announcements, the conversation was not about their past careers, but about who would take over these oh-so coveted positions. Will it go to a young up and comer, a la Dave Durden at Cal? Or will it be awarded to a man or woman of equal stature, who might have an eye on more prestigious pastures?

When a friend emailed me about Skip Kenney stepping down, his next line was: “Is Dave Marsh going to take over?”

Suppose that’s as good a bet as any. Particularly considering Stanford’s perception of itself. As opposed to their cross bay rivals, one just can’t see the position going to a young coach still making his bones at a step-below program. After all, there’s a smug cloud that permanently hangs over the Farm. That three-decade flawless conference streak is not going to be entrusted to just anyone…

As for the Michigan gig, the campus might lack the balmy weather of Palo Alto, but if there’s a cooler college town than Ann Arbor please let me know. It sounds like the perfect place for a coach to raise a family, with a reasonable standard of living and a well funded and ever supportive athletic department. (Just a guess, but a fine 3-bedroom home in Ann Arbor might be just a bit less than in Palo Alto, home to hoards of garden variety tech billionaires…)

The Stanford and Michigan jobs were just the latest on the coaching carousel, of course. Tennessee and Alabama came before that. I’ve heard nothing but glowing things about Matt Kredich at Tennessee, who ascended from women’s coach to take over the combined program for the Volunteers. So, that program appears to be in winning hands. As for the Alabama job, another Hall of Famer has returned to the collegiate ranks — Crimson Tide alum and longtime USA Swimming National Team Director, Dennis Pursley. Joining him will be fellow ‘Bama alum and world class coach, Jonty Skinner. A guy who’s coached 17 Olympic champions, and used to be a world record holder himself. After well over a decade of being dominated by their hated rival, Auburn, I would not want to be in Brett Hawke’s shoes right now… Recruiting in the South just got a lot harder for the Tigers.

When major coaching positions change hands, recruiting becomes a whole new ball game. And not necessarily in the ways you might suspect… When a legend steps down, the assumption might be that his particular school is now less of a draw. In fact, the reverse is true in some cases. For instance, I know of one supremely coveted recruit next year who became a lot more interested in Stanford when he heard the news about Kenney. That’s not meant to knock a man on his way out, it’s simply a fact. The swimming world witnessed this at Cal. There are few coaches on earth worthy of more respect than Nort Thorton, but when he let go of the reins, those Bears raced to the front of the pack under Durden’s new command.

With Berkeley’s recent success as a template, if I were the AD at Stanford or Michigan, I’d be taking a hard look at those young coaches at second tier swim schools. The ones perhaps mentored by a Marsh or a Troy as a graduate assistant, ones who learned from the greats, spent a few years leading slightly lesser talents, who are now ready for the big time.

Does that sound like your coach? Are you that coach?

If so, time to buy a new suit. Good luck on your interviews…