Q&A With McKendree University Coach Jimmy Tierney


Q&A With McKendree University Coach Jimmy Tierney

Born into a swimming family, Jimmy Tierney has never strayed far from his aquatic roots. A longtime Northwestern women’s coach, he is now in his ninth year directing NCAA Division II powerhouse McKendree University. His service to the sport includes six three-year terms on the ASCA board of directors.

Jimmy Tierney

Head Coach

McKendree University

Lebanon, Illinois

  • Louisville University, B.A., mathematics, 1980
  • Southern Illinois University, M.A., sports management, 1988
  • Head men’s and women’s coach, McKendree University, 2015-present
  • Led Bearcat men (third) and women (11th) at NCAA D-II Championships, winning five firsts and setting 15 school records, 2023
  • Named CSCAA D-II Coach of the Year (with Indy coach Brent Noble), 2023
  • Since 2017 at McKendree, compiled dual meet records of 52-16 (men) and 23-39 (women)
  • Mentored 43 swimmers and divers to 160 CSCAA All-America and 89 honorable mention recognitions
  • Head coach, women’s swimming and diving, Northwestern University, 1994-2016
  • Assistant men’s and women’s swimming coach, Northwestern University, 1988-94
  • Assistant swimming coach, Southern Illinois University, 1986-88
  • Assistant coach, Lakeside Swim Club, 1980-86
  • USA Swimming junior national team coach, 2019, 2020
  • Assistant women’s coach, World University Games, 1999, 2007
  • Head women’s coach, national junior team, 2001
  • Big Ten Swimming Coach of the Year, 2008
  • Led Northwestern women to seven top-12 NCAA finishes and a dual meet record of 126-94-1
  • At Northwestern, coached 74 individual NCAA All-America honorees, 26 Big Ten champions and 39 All-Big Ten honorees
  • Has served on ASCA board of directors for six three-year terms
  • Board member, CSCAA, D-II representative

SWIMMING WORLD: Growing up in Louisville, swimming was a big deal for the Tierney family. What was the attraction for you?COACH JIMMY TIERNEY: Being a part of Louisville, Ky.’s swimming community was an incredible experience. We had such a fabulous time at Lakeside Swim Club, literally growing up summers there at the famous quarry. The swimming history was incredibly rich for a modest-size Midwest town…although we like to say we’re a part of the South.

My mom, a mother of eight, was well-known. She would swim her mile daily to stay in shape (and probably get some peace of mind away from us!). She was the influence that led us all into the pool until at least the age of 12 when we could choose to stick with swimming or move on to something else. Four of us swam at Division I schools. Dorsey (the youngest and 16-time CSCAA All-American at Texas) was easily the most accomplished.

There is a long history of great swimming in the Louisville area. Plantation Country Club hosted the summer U.S. nationals in 1969 and 1971. I was in heaven working at the meet and watching the country’s elite swimmers compete in our hometown. Of course, Doc Counsilman’s Indiana University guys were among the stars there.

SW: Early on you became enmeshed in the Lakeside program. How did Mary T. Meagher and their other great swimmers influence you?

JT: Mary T. Meagher joined the club a couple of years into Denny Pursley’s tenure there, where he developed Mary and Lisa Buese into two of the best flyers in the U.S. and eventually the world. I was fortunate enough to be taken to U.S. nationals in Brown Deer, Wis. in 1981 by then head coach Bill Peak. He gave me the job of doing swimmer rubdowns. I had no idea what I was doing, but several days later, we had Mary T’s two (100-200 meter butterfly) world records to take back to the Ville. While I was already totally over-the-top about coaching, this pushed me past the point of no return!

SW: And how did coaches Pursley and Peak shape your interest as a swimmer?

JT: I was enthralled with high-level swimming! The most significant factor in my swimming life and that of Louisville swimming was the hiring of Denny Pursley as our Lakeside head coach. He pulled our club back together after some tumultuous years with an incredible infusion of hard work and motivation. That gave us quite a shot of confidence.

Denny, who coached me, and Bill, who first hired me at Lakeside, were both amazing personal and professional influences. They became very good friends. Sadly, we lost Bill, an ISHOF candidate in my mind, to cancer way too early.

SW: You once said if you could relive your earlier coaching years, you would have made practices a bit more fun. These days, how do you inject “fun” into workouts?

JT: I am not a huge “game”-type coach. Yet I do believe in having a fun atmosphere on the deck. When I was younger, I was too concerned with squeezing everything I could out of a two-hour practice, rarely getting done early and often going overtime. Now I still have a “work-works” belief, but I understand the importance of having people smile and laugh at practice, even at the expense of training time.

SW: While you have coached club and Masters programs, most of your day jobs have been in college programs. Why the college environment as opposed to club?

JT: I coached at Lakeside for six years and loved it! It helped that I was coaching with a great friend and incredible coach in Scott Miller. But nothing lasts forever, and once most of my friends were gone, it was time for me to move on. A position at SIU opened up with the legendary Doug Ingram. After two years there, I was sold on college swimming. An assistant position opened up at Northwestern, and the course of my career took an amazing turn toward something very special.

SW: You had some halcyon years with the Wildcats in Evanston. With its great academic reputation and beautiful campus, how difficult was it to attract swimmers to NU going against uber-competitive Big Ten programs like Michigan and Indiana?

JT: I loved my time at Northwestern and grew to love everything about the school and area. Along with NU athletics, I became obsessed with the Bears, Cubs and Bulls. We had some great times on the North Shore!

The school certainly attracted some wonderful student-athletes, but also posed a challenge due to its steep academic standards and high cost of attendance. But we loved the lakefront setting of Lake Michigan. It was an incredible community and a wonderful place to raise a family.

SW: You started the swim teams at McKendree nine years ago and quickly made your mark at the NCAA D-II Championships. How hard a sell was recruiting to McKendree in the early years?

JT: When I got the job/challenge to start a new program at McKendree University, I really wasn’t sure what I was doing. I had no blueprint to follow, so I got my thoughts together and set sail with little navigation. Early on, it was very tough, as most people I met had never heard of McKendree. That required describing where we were located and who we were. It took some time to feel confident in the latter part. The people at McKendree were incredibly welcoming and quite open to helping me out.

Fortunately, I found a few domestic student-athletes who not only became good swimmers, but excellent leaders and recruiters. I was also very blessed to connect with a few talented internationals who played integral roles in our success, too.

I wanted a very strong team atmosphere, and I stressed that constantly. Those first couple of years, that was my big message during the recruitment process. We talked about building this program together. I had some unbelievable help making that a reality. To this day, I remain indebted to my first group of Bearcats. We would not be nearly as successful without their spirit and drive.

Early on, my domestic recruiting was strong in places like Texas and Alaska…and not as much in Illinois and Missouri (just 30 minutes away). Even though I was confused by that fact, I didn’t worry about it since I was getting some wonderful men and women to follow my dream of building something special. Over time, we became recognized for our successes, both in the pool and in the classroom, so the locals started to pay more attention to us.

SW: What was the main attraction for swimmers aside from your reputation as a coach?

JT: I love having a beautiful, somewhat rural campus with a big city (St. Louis, Mo.) and entertainment just down the road. It is the perfect combination for the life of a student-athlete. It allows them to focus on training and schoolwork without huge distractions at their doorstep. We offer 36 sports at McKendree, so there are plenty of opportunities to cheer on our fellow Bearcats.

We have a wonderful community of talented and caring people who work hard to make the student experience at McKendree something special. There is a great faculty/student ratio with an average class size of just 14. This is a very important factor as our students get attention and access to professors and other faculty. Lebanon is a close-knit community with a big-family atmosphere. We work as one in pursuit of excellence.

SW: And what is your pitch to lure potential athletes to rural Illinois?

JT: The plans for a brand new Rec Plex with two pools, three levels for diving, an ice hockey arena and gyms was a big factor in my decision. It was also encouraging to hear the president and AD tell me that they wanted to win!

SW: Championship swimming at the D-II level is extremely fast. Many of the top 10 programs have a heavy international roster presence. Is it imperative these days for a team to have internationals to be competitive?

JT: I really don’t pay much attention to the number of internationals vs. U.S. team members. My goal is to find the best student-athletes who buy into our team environment and want to help us build a highly successful team. If they are not the cream of the crop and ultimately Division I NCAA qualifiers, then maybe they’ll embrace the opportunity to help us win some championships. Many like that have chosen to join us here. Those decisions have been very fortunate for me and made for an incredibly fun journey!

SW: Your service to American swimming is beyond the call. You have coached several USA teams internationally, are currently a CSCAA board member and served six three-year terms for ASCA. Why so dedicated?

JT: I really enjoy being involved and giving back. Several of my mentors like Doug Ingram and Denny Pursley were highly engaged in the various aspects of our sport. I felt their passion for giving back to the sport they embraced. I love finding ways to make our profession and swimming even more special. I have been so blessed to have been a part of swimming and meeting so many wonderful people. I’m proud to be a part of it.

Michael J. Stott is an ASCA Level 5 coach, golf and swimming writer. His critically acclaimed coming-of-age golf novel, “Too Much Loft,” is in its third printing, and is available from store.Bookbaby.com, Amazon, B&N and distributors worldwide.

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Ginny Gustafson Johnston
Ginny Gustafson Johnston
4 months ago

Congratulations on your success Jimmy. Having known your family all of my life I am really proud of you and all of their accomplishments. Your sister Nancy was a great friend to me and I loved your mother very much. Great that these young student athletes have you as their coach. Lakeside gave us all experience we can never forget.

Jeff Goelz
Jeff Goelz
4 months ago

One of the BEST coaches and all around person I know!

4 months ago

McKendree Bearcats and Coach Jimmy was an excellent choice for my son. He’s cultured a great environment on his team

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