Q&A With Matt Crispino, Head Men’s Coach at Princeton University

Matt Crispino

Q&A With Matt Crispino, Head Men’s Coach at Princeton University

From Colgate to William & Mary to Princeton, Matt Crispino has charted a course of aquatic excellence for institutions deeply rooted in academic success.

Matt Crispino
Head Men’s Coach
Princeton University

• College of William & Mary, B.A., government, 2002; M.A., physical education, Florida State University, 2003
Head men’s coach, Princeton University, 2019-present
• Head coach, William & Mary, 2007-2019
• Assistant coach, Colgate University, 2006-2007
• Assistant coach, United States Military Academy, 2003-2006
• Graduate assistant, Florida State University, 2002-2003
• Recipient of W&M’s Plumeri Award for outstanding achievements in teaching, research and service (first member of the athletic department to be so honored)
• W&M team captain, MVP, 2002
• At W&M produced 76 CAA men’s and 40 women’s individual or team champions
• Coached 96 percent of William & Mary’s top-10 performances and 2,351 lifetime best performances
• 7x CAA coach of the year
• Coached 3 CAA swimmers of the year, 7 top championship meet performers, 10 OT swimmers

Swimming World: How did you come to an aquatic life?
Coach Matt Crispino: I grew up in an athletic family. When my two older brothers joined the local Y team in Southington, Connecticut, I followed. I enjoyed soccer more than swimming, but I was a better swimmer and grew to love it more. In high school I saw my hard work pay off.

SW: And find William & Mary?
MC: I wanted an out-of-state small school with world-class academics. I wasn’t fast enough for big time Division I swimming, but I was a strong student wanting to be challenged academically and athletically. William & Mary was a natural fit. At the time, Ned Skinner was amassing a very respectable collection of swimmers for a mid-major program with no scholarships, a subpar facility and few resources. I was excited to join that momentum. Ned left before I arrived, but I had a memorable experience at W&M and feel deeply connected to the place having spent 16 years there.

SW: Who were some of your swimming and coaching influences?
MC: Don Prigitano coached me from day one through high school. He was not a full-time coach, but he put full-time effort into making me better. My freshman season at W&M I was coached by Greg Meehan, who remains a friend and mentor to this day. I worked under John O’Neill (West Point) and Steve Jungbluth (Colgate), who were both mentors. There are tons of other names – too many to list. I attend CSCAA annual meetings every year to learn new things and make new connections in swimming. I’ve also hired great assistant coaches. Each has impacted my life and my career. I probably learn more from my assistants than anyone else.

SW: How does a guy with a degree in government get involved in college swim coaching?
MC: When you go to William & Mary, or any other undergraduate-focused liberal arts university, the whole idea is to pursue academic areas you find compelling. I enjoyed studying government, but the degree was not a means to an end. I knew I’d settle on a career path eventually. I just wasn’t sure what it would be and I wasn’t in a rush to figure it out. As a senior I recognized that collegiate sports were my passion. I was going to work in sport somehow. I applied to a few sport management master’s degree programs and ended up at FSU. I asked Neil Harper and Andy Robins if I could join them on deck as a GA. They said yes.

SW: You and your wife were extremely involved in community life while in Williamsburg. As such you were the first athletic department member to be honored with the school’s Plumeri Award. What was the value of your community participation to the college and you personally?
MC: I love that in college athletics sport is intertwined with higher education and a broader campus community. The more athletic departments and university administrators interact face to face, the better it is for the entire organization. I’ve found that most successful, long-tenured coaches have built relationships and developed a robust “team around the team” as we call it here at Princeton.

SW: With your athletes producing 96 percent of program’s all-time best times and you earning seven CAA coach of the years honors why give up a good thing at William & Mary?
MC: Ultimately, it was not about giving up a good thing but moving on to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Princeton. W&M will always be my second home, and I’m proud of what our swimmers accomplished there; those memories are sacred to me. But Princeton is without question one of the best places in the country for college athletics. We are perennially the top non-Power 5 athletic department. The facilities are spectacular, the resources are abundant, the staff is top-notch, and it just so happens to be the #1 undergraduate institution in the country. Everyone here is a high achiever and is elite at what they do. I love being around people like that. In my mind, this is coaching at the highest level. And I will also say this – leadership matters. The two athletic directors I’ve worked for here at Princeton have inspired and motivated me every day. It’s important to believe in and trust the people you work for.

SW: How has being married to an all-conference swimmer enhanced your personal and professional life?
MC: I can’t even imagine answering this question in a couple of lousy sentences. Liz has enhanced every aspect of my life. She makes me better in every way possible. The life and family we’ve built together are that of which I’m most proud. The work she does, both professionally and as a mother to our daughters, is inspiring. She keeps me centered and grounded.

SW: W&M is a breeding ground for exceptional coaches across a wide range of sports. Mike Tomlin, Sean McDermott, Marv Levy, Lou Holtz, Greg Meehan, Jill Ellis (former US Women’s National Team Coach-Two World Cups) and Matt Crispino come to mind. What is it about the W&M experience that allows coaches to produce at this level?
MC: W&M tends to attract overachiever types who have chips on their shoulders and are eager to prove themselves. This applies to both coaches and students. It’s a “fun” challenge of sorts – how do you create a first-rate athletic experience, complete with conference and national competitiveness, in an environment that isn’t inherently built for that? How do I find the right people and cultivate the right environment for those individuals to succeed beyond their potential… and how do I do this in spite of so many competitive disadvantages? In short, how do we do more with less? If you find the right people, they’ll find answers to these questions.

SW: You coached a combined team at W&M. Now with a single gender program, what are some of the differences?
MC: There aren’t a ton of differences. There are subtle modifications in how you approach a given situation with a group of only men. Perhaps motivational tactics or manner of communicating might change, or there are some differences in training and recovery. Ultimately, though, the art of motivating and inspiring young people to succeed hasn’t changed for me. While I coach only men, we have a strong group of female swimmers and divers at Princeton who I’ve come to know well. Our staffs collaborate and work well together. In many ways, we are two separate programs but one team.

SW: At virtually every stop your swimmers have excelled academically. Why is that?
MC: I don’t know. I try to instill the importance of having two main priorities during the undergraduate years – academics 1a, swimming 1b. We encourage them to exceed the standard when it comes to their academic habits. But the real reason they are successful is because I think we’ve made good choices as a staff about who to bring on to our team. My assistant coaches at Princeton, first Doug Lennox and now Abby Brethauer, have been masterful at helping me identify the right people to join the PUCSDT family. When you find people whose priorities align with yours, it’s not hard to motivate them to excel academically. And even better, your culture evolves in a really positive direction. This is exactly what’s happened in my first three-and-a-half years at Princeton.

SW: One observer notes that you are an emotional male coach whose emotions inform the decisions you make. What are some competitive instances where that paid off for you and your team?
MC: I’ve made it a point to model vulnerability with my team. I think it’s important, as these young men develop their own concepts surrounding masculinity, to see a coach/leader who can be authentic and open. I also encourage our swimmers, divers and assistant coaches to do the same. Finding your voice and your identity is an important part of the college years. Hopefully I’m providing them with space to do that. Ultimately, I can’t expect them to be forthright with me if I’m not doing the same. This level of honesty lends some transparency to tough decisions, and ultimately, leads to mutual respect.

SW: Family plays a huge role in your life. How has being a father influenced your coaching style?
MC: Being a father has enhanced my patience, my time management, and my appreciation for the work that goes into raising these young people before they ever arrive on our teams. I’m much more inclined to try to help someone arrive at a solution to a problem than to try to solve it myself. I know that I can’t protect my swimmers or my kids from all forms of harm; but I can arm them with the strength and knowledge to handle this adversity when it comes their way.

SW: You have Raunak Khosla, a solid current roster and a heralded recruiting class for this year. What does it take for Princeton to be a constant Ivy League champion?
MC: The Princeton men have won 26 Ivy League titles, so there is precedent. This program is rich in history, including 40 years under the guidance of the legendary C. Rob Orr. I’m just building on his legacy and tradition of winning, and I believe a return to Ivy League domination is imminent.

It takes consistent high-level recruiting, the right culture and a supportive and inclusive atmosphere. It also takes the right staff, great coaching and complete buy-in from the students. Add to that a whole lot of hard work, some luck and big-time relays and great divers. Support from the Princeton community, the President to the AD and the people who clean our pool is crucial. We have all that and more. I am confident that this program will perennially contend for Ivy titles and, equally importantly, be a force at the national and international level for a long time to come.

SW: In many ways Olympic sports are an endangered species on college campuses. Is that an issue at Princeton? If not, why not?
MC: The heralded “Friends of Princeton Swimming & Diving” have made sure our program’s future will never come into question. Our alumni are as invested and as supportive as any group in the country. They make sure we are on solid footing financially, and they support the program in so many other ways. Our University and athletic department are committed to a broad-based athletics program. We have 38 sports. Last year, we added a sport (women’s rugby) at a time when other athletic departments are downsizing. Princeton will continue to be a leader in this regard. And if anyone needs advice on how to save a swimming program from being cut, just chat with any William & Mary swimming alum – we all have advanced degrees in this field!

SW: Tyler Fenwick used to beat you like a drum in fantasy football. How did that make you feel?
MC: For the record, this is back when fantasy football drafts and scoring were done in a dorm room, scribbled in someone’s history notebook. Lots of room for fudging of numbers if you ask me. Also, how was I to know Daunte Culpepper would blow out his knee and never return to form?

SW: Truth or Dare. You were a regular playing Trivial Pursuit at the Colgate Inn. Were you really as good at that game as you think you were?
MC: Dominant is the only word that comes to mind. If memory serves, our team was undefeated for the 2006-2007 academic year. That’s mostly due to Elizabeth Lykins’ expertise though. My only major area of contribution was college/university nicknames.

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1 year ago

That’s so cool! You are a role model to me!

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