Lessons from Legends: The Uniqueness of Men's NCAA's Greatest Coaches


By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

When the 84th Men’s NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships take place this week, ambitious coaches will envision leading their charges to a team title someday. Perhaps one of them will be you?

The NCAAs are a coaching challenge like no other competition in the world. The qualifying standards are so difficult that for a coach to be able to assist his or her athletes to get to the meet, and then get faster at it, is more of an art than a science. To win a team championship, of course, means having a large number of athletes all prepared to excel at the right moment in time, which is a much more complex task.

The traditional training to coach a championship team might be thought of as being a successful swimmer in the NCAA system and then apprenticing as an assistant coach in a high-powered program. But those are far from the road two of the greatest NCAA coaches of all time travelled.

Coach Matt Mann continues to hold the NCAA Division I record for coaching the most men’s team championships at 13, at the University of Michigan. Mann’s record has been approached by legendary coaches such as Ohio State’s Mike Peppe and Texas’ Eddie Reese, but the mark has never been equaled.

Mann was a British born age-group swimming champion, who immigrated to Canada before entering the United States as a young man. His passion for coaching was so great that in one season he coached the New York Athletic Club, Yale, Brooklyn's Poly Prep, Lawrenceville, and Navy. Every team was a winner. His Michigan teams reeled off eight NCAA Championships in a row on their way to the eventual record of 13.

Coach Skip Kenney’s path to his run of success at Stanford was curious. Skip grew up as a diver. He did apprentice under a great coach, in Hall of Famer Don Gambril, who was actually a former football coach. But Skip had little college experience having started his work with Gambril as an age-group coach at the Long Beach Swim Club and having only a short stint as Coach Gambril’s assistant at Harvard. Skip made the leap from being a club coach to college when he went from the Cincinnati Pepsi Marlins to becoming the head coach at Stanford. While coaching the Cardinal, his teams not only brought home seven NCAA titles, but they also won a mind boggling record of 27 consecutive Pac-10 Championships.

The psychology of winning and managing a team was common to both these coaches, even though their manner wasn’t always what one would expect. Coach Mann became famous for never knowing a swimmer’s name. Each boy was “son” and each girl was called “honey.” Coach Kenney knew names but could seldom remember times. Skip could tell you how each swimmer performed, but just didn’t put a number to it. Both coaches had a knack for leadership and effectively training athletes.

For any coach with a dream of success there are lessons in their method:

  • Many qualities enhance great coaches’ ability, but the understanding of the psychology of winning and knowing how to lead a team are two necessities for excellence.
  • Each coach brings with him or her, distinct experiences that can enable them to stand out if they embrace their own uniqueness.
  • Imitation will only result in being a second-rate copy of someone else. Steal ideas, but put then into your art form to create your own special recipe for success. 

A great coach in swimming is a great coach in any sport, or so Matt Mann believed. He passed away at age 77 after a full day at poolside. His athletic director called him, “the greatest coach to ever live.” He notably never mentioned swimming. And Then They Won Gold (Small)
For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.  

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