By Jeff Commings
BOWLING GREEN, Kentucky, January 24. BILL Powell officially retired on January 1 as one of the most successful college swimming coaches in history. His 336 dual meet wins in 36 years as men's head coach at Western Kentucky University ranks him second all-time behind Yale's Bob Kiphuth's 528. His 90 wins in just seven years for the women's teams are just as impressive.
In 2005, he stepped down as head coach, handing the reins to his assistant Bruce Marchionda, but Powell remained on deck as an assistant coach for seven more seasons.
Statistics, conference championships and school records are nice, but a recent conversation with the 75-year-old focused very little on what he accomplished with his athletes in the pool. The people they became, and the relationships he continued to foster after their collegiate careers ended are the aspects of his life at Western Kentucky that he ranks as his best achievements.
Swimming World: How's retirement treating you?
Bill Powell: Good. I'm keeping so busy I don't realize I'm retired. I'm coaching the masters swimmers a couple of nights a week out at the high school (name of school), and I'm still teaching my classes at Western. I teach a swim for fitness and a beginning swimming class every semester. I just took a job by accident — I'm a chauffeur. My wife and I were going to Jacksonville to see our daughter who lives there, and we went to a benefit the week before and they had a silent auction. One of the things at the silent auction was a chauffeur service to the airport. We got it and the chauffeur shows up, and he has a daughter on the high school swimming team, so of course he knew who I was. He said, “Oh my gosh, I get to take Coach Powell to the airport!”
I told him that he had a great job. I love to drive. I love talking strangers, and he had a beautiful car. I was just throwing it out there to make him feel good. He said that I should come to work for them. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but two weeks later when I came back home I had a job application, and now I'm driving to the airport about every other day. It keeps me busy, keeps me hopping.
I still swim, I do a couple of miles a day if I can.
SW: Were you actively swimming when you were the head coach at Western Kentucky and even when you were assistant coach?
Powell: I tried to swim every morning. I swam in my first Masters meet in 10 years last week. I'm in the 75-79 age group, which is a nice age group. I'm at the bottom of my age group. When you're 75, you're swimming against those 79-year-old geezers. When you're 79, you're swimming against those 75-year-old kids.
The last time I swam in a Masters meet was 10 years ago, at the Masters (nationals) in Honolulu. I had never been to Honolulu, and I accidentally told someone that I'd like to go to that (meet), and my alums took up a collection and we didn't pay a penny. We went for a week and stayed on Waikiki Beach and ate free. It was a great trip.
SW: I'm glad to hear that you're keeping active.
Powell: I really am. I'm staying with the swim team. I retired about seven years ago, and my assistant got the head job when I retired. I wanted to see what this retirement thing was all about, so I sat down for about three days, walked up to campus and said to my assistant, who's now the head coach, and said “How about hiring me as an assistant?”
SW: Were you getting that itch after that third day?
Powell: Oh yeah. I couldn't sit still. I didn't want to sit around and look at the television. I was still on the pool deck eight hours a day as an assistant, so that kept me going. My health took me out of it this year. I had a tough 2012, and I had never been sick a day in my life. I got a terrible spinal injury, and I had to have surgery, and that knocked me out for about three months. I recovered from that pretty well, and then I got diagnosed with prostate cancer in August. I thought that if I was going to fight this I wasn't going to stand on the pool deck for eight hours a day while doing it, so I was real aggressive. Ten days after I got diagnosed they gave me radiation treatment, and I'm doing great.
SW: No issues from that?
Powell: No. They had to put a new bone in my back from a cadaver (to treat the spinal injury). That laid me up more than the cancer. I was unconscious from the surgery for 28 straight hours. It was very, very delicate. My doctor in Bowling Green wouldn't do it because he was afraid he'd lose me on the (operating) table. I didn't know what I was going to do. My son, who lives in Nashville, just happened to be talking to a doctor, and my son calls me who said the doctor (treated) a woman who was 93 years old who hadn't walked in three years now able to go up and down the stairs without a cane. The doctor was a kid who swam for me for 20 years. He started out when he was 5 and swam for me for literally 20 years. He'd come home from medical school in the summer and still swim for me. His name is Jim Johnson. He was the United States Olympic team doctor and then at the world championships. My swimmers always say that I can't go anywhere without me running into someone that swam for me.
SW: After so many years of coaching, that's bound to happen!
Powell: I've enjoyed every minute of coaching. A lot of coaches say they hate recruiting. I loved recruiting. Mostly I enjoyed the kids. That's what it was all about for me.
SW: Why did you want to step down as head coach in 2005?
Powell: I just thought that I should give someone else a chance. I was 68, and people had been asking when I was going to retire. From what, I would tell people. I've never had a job. I've been a swim coach all my life. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't have done that.
SW: How would you rate Bruce as a head coach?
Powell: He's doing a great job.
SW: And you can't complain when he's got an Olympian (Claire Donahue) on the team.
Powell: Nope, and that was a great thing. She wasn't a great swimmer when she came to us. She was good, but she wasn't great. She was a 54-second 100 butterflyer out of high school. She's a sweet kid to have around.
SW: Looking back on all your years at Western Kentucky, is there one season, one person, one moment that will forever stand out for you as a highlight?
Powell: Well, I really put my hand on one moment. So many good kids, and I still think the world of my kids. I still get fantastic letters from them. One of (my swimmers) who is in his 40s now, he had a terrible home life, and he wasn't a very good swimmer. I kept him around and I knew he was kind of troubled. He said in his letter that he was a terrible swimmer, and his father had shot himself. It was a terrible situation and this kid was adrift. He was the worst (swimmer) on the team, and I gave him the Most Improved Trophy that first year. In his letter he said that he did everything possible I could do to get (me) to kick him off the team. He stuck with me, and he's a wealthy man, and he's doing great. It was touching to hear a story like that.
In 53 years, I haven't forgotten a kid. There was a kid in 1968 who was on my high school team, and recently he happened to be driving through Bowling Green and wondered if I was still alive. He looked in the phone book, called me and spent the night at my house. A week later, he went home to get his wife and brought her up to meet me and spend a couple of more nights here. My memories are of the kids, and every time one of them writes to me, I remember them instantly.
I started the program from scratch at Western. I was doing great coaching high school (in Michigan), but I wanted to coach in college, and Western was starting a program from scratch. So I came down here, got the job too late to do any recruiting and put a notice in the newspaper that we were going to start a swim team. Kids walked into my office, and they would say “I can swim a long way.” And those were the kind of kids I had my first year at Western. I didn't have one kid that had seen a swim meet. I scheduled a responsible (dual meet) list, and I'm still in touch with those kids.
The next year (1969) I had 26 freshmen. I recruited my butt off. I didn't get anybody good. Who's going to come to a program that, in that first year, I got a kid down to 2:45 in the 200-yard freestyle? I got a kid out of Florida. He was a 54-second 100-yard freestyler. He was about the best kid I got. In his junior and senior year, he went to NCAAs. He dropped down to 47.3 from a 54 in high school. That was a thrill.
SW: You've got this great coaching record, with all these wins, but it seems like what you've done outside the pool in shaping these swimmers is more important to you.
Powell: It really is. It really is. Nowadays I hear people saying that it's all about the kids, and some of the ones that are saying that don't really believe it. It's all about winning or money or something like that.
SW: I want to highlight one swimmer in particular: Steve Crocker. Talk about a kid who did really well in your program.
Powell: We had something that was called an all-sports camp at Western. All of the (university's) coaches participated, and the kids were here all day long, and they would major in one sport and do that sport all morning. And they minored in two sports and did those in the afternoon. It was about 95 degrees in the Kentucky heat. Steve was not a swimmer. He was going into his junior year (of high school) and he was majoring in tennis. On the first day, he said he didn't want to do tennis. He wanted to get in the swimming pool. He walked into the pool, and I had about 20 swimmers with Speedos and goggles. Steve walks in with big blue boxer trunks.
I asked him if he could swim, and he said yes. I told him to swim (50 yards). He gets in with not much form, but when he put his hand in the water, things happened.
I told him that I wanted to time him for a 50. He said, “50 lengths?” I said 50 yards, just up and back. He gets up on the block and I said “Take your mark,” and he bends over and puts his hands on his knees. I said go and he jumped in the pool and swam to the other end. He didn't know how to do a flip turn, so he just kind of wiggled around until he was going in the other direction. When he got to the wall, his time was 26.5. He said, “Is that fast?” I told him that for a swimmer, it's not fast, but for a human, it's really fast.
The second day (of the camp) we were going to work on butterfly. All of the guys could do butterfly, so Steve watched … and then he did it! Every stroke, he just picked up quickly. The fifth day, Friday, they had some free time, so he got up on the diving board, and without any form, he did a back one-and-a-half, a reverse one-and-a-half and an inward one-and-a-half. He was just an athlete.
I didn't know that his mom worked on our faculty, and I suggested that Steve transfer to Bowling Green High and get some swimming practice. His mom called me about Steve transferring and I said, “There's no telling what Steve can do.”
He drove into Bowling Green High and worked out with the team three days a week, and he swam about 23-flat at the end of the year. And in (his senior year), he did it again. He didn't transfer, just came to Bowling Green to train with the team, went to state, won it at 22-flat I think.
I got him here (at Western Kentucky) and he went 21.4 his freshman year, 20.8 his sophomore year, 20.4 his junior year and 19.7 his senior year. Everything we did, he was new at doing.
His freshman year, I didn't know how I was going to use him in a third event (at the conference meet). The 50 free was the first day and the 100 free was the last day. I wasn't sure about the 200 free or the 100 fly (on the second day). He could kind of do the 100 fly. A couple of dual meets out I used him in the 200, and I think the first time he swam the 200 he went 1:49. I thought that wasn't going to get him much in the conference meet, so I'll enter him in the fly. In our last meet, I put him in the medley relay and have him do fly. I had taught him about fly, but not a whole lot, and after the first 25, he touched with one hand. He had the swimming IQ of an 8-and-under in his first year.
I taught him how to touch with two hands and put him in the 100 fly at conference, figuring he wasn't going to score. I was standing with him at the start before prelims, and I was showing him how to touch with two hands. He gets up and goes 51.4 in the second time he had ever swum the 100 fly. That night he went 51.2 in the final and won it.
The first time he qualified for Olympic Trials was in the 100 fly. Of course later he got turned on by that 50 (free) and that was all he wanted to do.
SW: Well, he didn't do too badly by it. (Crocker was a former world record holder in the short course 50 freestyle and third in the Olympic Trials.)
Powell: No, he didn't. How often do you get to find a kid like that, who's really a diamond in the rough, with literally no swimming background whatsoever? It was a lot of fun.
SW: What will you miss most about coaching?
Powell: The kids. No doubt about it. I said to my wife the other day, “This is the first time in history when I don't know the freshmen.” You almost have to be on deck every day with them to get to know them. I can't call of the freshmen by name.
SW: I'm sure Bruce will let you on deck every once in a while if you feel like it.
Powell: I've been too busy to get on deck. When I retired I figured I'd be on deck every day, at least watching practice. I've been announcing the home meets for them, so I'm slowly starting to get to know (the freshmen), but their faces are in the water. You don't have that eye-to-eye contact. I miss everything about it because it's such a great job, and I'm so fortunate.
SW: What do you attribute your long winning streak to?
Powell: The kids wanted to win. We got that started early. That first year, with the 26 freshmen, they were so close. They had something to prove. They set the standard. From then on, our teams were so close. You would walk around campus, and you wouldn't see one swimmer. You would see a whole group of swimmers walking around and talking together. In those days, we didn't have any money, so we traveled around in vans. We didn't have Twitter in those days. We had to talk. We talked all the way there and all the way back, and we told crazy stories and it got everybody closer. The last few years, when I got on the bus, nobody talked. They've all got their little (phones) in front of them. Our closest years were before all this new stuff came in. We didn't even have radios. I heard some wild jokes.