ANNAPOLIS, Md. — John Higgins, head coach of the Navy men's swimming team from 1950-73 and a twice-inducted member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, passed away Sunday in Annapolis at the age of 88 due to pneumonia.
Born May 8, 1916, in Providence, R.I., Higgins placed fourth in the breaststroke for the United States at the 1936 Olympics while still in high school. He would go on to earn All-America status in the breaststroke from 1938-40 and win the 1940 NCAA 200-yard butterfly title
as a student-athlete at Ohio State. At one time he held 10 world and
21 American swimming records and, just like Michael Phelps at last summer's World Championships, once broke five world records in a single meet. Later in life he would go on to win 18 national titles on the masters swimming level.
After graduating from Ohio State in 1940, Higgins enlisted in the Navy and served as a flight instructor in Pensacola, Fla., before reporting to sea duty on aircraft carriers and at naval air stations. He served on active duty from 1941-54 before entering the reserves with the rank of commander.
Higgins was assigned to the Naval Academy in the summer of 1950 as the director of aquatics and as the coach of the swimming program, eventually becoming a civilian instructor and associate professor in 1954.
His Naval Academy teams compiled a 173-112-1 record in his 23-year stint as head coach. His 1960-61-62 squads combined to post a 36-6 record, with his 1961 team being the most successful team he coached at Navy.
The Mids that year posted a 13-1 mark and tied Yale for the Eastern Intercollegiate Swimming League title with a 7-1 league record. Among the Navy victories that season was a 48-47 triumph over Yale that ended the Bulldogs' 16-year, 201-straight dual-meet winning streak. The EISL championship meet began the following season and Navy swimmers and divers totaled 16 individual titles over the remainder of Higgins' tenure.
After his final season as coach of the team, he would serve as Navy's director of aquatics for another decade until his retirement from the Naval Academy. During this time he would help design Lejeune Hall, the present-day home for the Navy swimming and wrestling teams, as well as continue to serve as a swimming instructor.
In addition to sending Naval Academy swimmers and divers to the Olympics and other national and international competitions, Higgins himself frequently served as a coach for the United States in international meets and for the U.S. Armed Forces at various world military games.
Higgins was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as a swimmer in 1971 and as a coach the following year. He also was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage and Aquatics Hall of Fame, the Ohio State University Sports Hall of Fame, and the Maryland Swimming Hall of Fame.
Most recently, Higgins attended and was recognized at the 2002 Patriot League Swimming and Diving Championship held in Lejeune Hall.
His wife, Betts, who passed away in 1993, was one of the founders of the wedding hostesses program at the Naval Academy Chapel.
Higgins is survived by a son, John H. Higgins III of Winter Park, Fla., a daughter, Joan Graham of Annapolis, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at the Naval Academy Chapel the morning of Sept. 9, with inurnment in the columbarium to follow.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Hospice of the Chesapeake, 445 Defense Highway, Annapolis, MD 21401, or the Naval Academy Foundation, 247 King George St., Annapolis, MD 21402, specifying the gifts be for excellence in leadership, swimming, diving and water polo.