Gus Stager Celebration of Life Attended by Many Former Michigan Swimmers

gus stager

Gus Stager, the legendary Michigan swimming coach, who died in July, had his Celebration of Life last week with many former swimmers in attendance at the University of Michigan League Ballroom.
Some of the swimmers came from as far as Peru to celebrate the life of their coach, as well as the 60-year anniversary of one of the beat teams of all time.
Cy Hopkins, the captain of Gus’s great 1959 NCAA championship team was the Master of Ceremonies for the affair, and the speakers were Frank Legacki, Fritz Damm, Jon Urbancheck, John Feeney and Gus’s daughter, Ann, who presented a slide show, mostly comprised of family pictures.
There was an open-mike session and some wonderful tributes were paid by former Michigan track star Elmo Morales, Denny Floden, Mike Bottom, Stu Issac, Tom Szuba, Dick Kimball, Fernando Canales, among others.
A booklet of tributes was prepared for the occasion, which was a 32-page compilation of Stager’s obituary, pictures from throughout his life and about 75 written tributes by former Michigan swimmers and friends.

Stager was an All-American swimmer for Michigan (1947-50) served as head coach for 26 years (1954-79, 1982). He led the Wolverines to four NCAA championships (1957-59, 1961). Stager was head coach of the 1959 Michigan team that is still regarded as “the best team of all-time.” The story on Stager’s 1959 Wolverines can be read in the May 2019 issue of Swimming World.

He also served as head coach for the U.S. Olympic Team at the 1960 Games in Rome. In 1982, Stager was enshrined in both the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the U-M Athletics Hall of Honor.

Gus Stager’s ISHOF bio:

From 1923 until 1978, the University of Michigan had only two swim coaches: Matt Mann and Gus Stager, both Hall of Famers. Matt’s coaching philosophy included the premise “always follow a punker”. Gus Stager, an outstanding middle distance freestyler under Matt, chose to ignore this advice when he took over the Michigan reigns from the world’s most successful coach in 1953. All he did to contradict his otherwise eloquent master was win four NCAA team titles, win the 1960 Rome Olympics over a favored Australian team that had totally dominated in 1956, and won the Pan American Games in 1967. Stager completed his hat trick by coaching the U.S. team to victory in the first World Championships at Belgrade in 1973. In 25 years as Michigan head coach, Gus’ teams finished first or second in the Big Ten 23 times. His 1959 college team was perhaps the most overwhelming in NCAA history, out-scoring the 2nd, 3rd and 4th place teams combined.

After prepping at Newark Academy, Gus was a 3-time NCAA finalist as a swimmer. His coaching career began at Dearborn High School where he won a mythical National Championship and the State Crown 3 times in four years before going to Michigan. His retirement after the 1978 season at Michigan was interrupted by another year of interim coaching in 1981-92. Stager’s many great swimmers included Olympians Carl Robie, Dave Gillanders, Dick Hanley, Bill Farley, the Wardrop twins and Juan Bello. NCAA high point winner Tony Tashnik heads an impressive list of national champions including Fritz Myers, Cy Hopkins, Breezy Nelson, Ron Clark, Frank Legacki, and many more. On the lighter side, Gus the competitor beat all of his swimmers at walking on the bottom of the pool and jousting from over-turned starting blocks. He is proudest of his part in key rule changes such as the no-touch turn, electronic judging and adding the thousand and the second diving event to the NCAA dual meet program.