Winning Assistants: The Jim Steen Effect and How Mentoring is a Head Coaching Duty
Winning Assistants: The Jim Steen Effect and How Mentoring is a Head Coaching Duty
Is the past really prologue? In this first of two articles, Swimming World explores the thoughts of legendary Kenyon coach Jim Steen and the qualities he saw that augured future success for his assistants.
A Kent State grad, Jim Steen coached in Gambier, Ohio from 1975-2012. In that time, he won more NCAA titles (50) than any other coach in any sport: 29 men’s and 21 women’s D-III swimming and diving championships. He was a 16-time CSCAA Coach of the Year and directed 328 All-America swimmers and divers to 471 championship event titles and 155 NCAA records. He also mentored 46 athletes to NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships.
A soul of boundless energy, he also invented the now industry-standard Power Rack and founded his Total Performance Sports Camps. As for other personal accolades, he was a 26-time winner of the ASCA Certificate of Excellence, the National Collegiate and Scholastic Swimming Trophy, the ASCA Gold Award of Excellence and the CSCAA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In September, he was inducted into the Kenyon Hall of Fame. Today he remains active in the professional lives of many of his former swimmers and assistants. That list is lengthy, and virtually every man and woman carries on his winning way.
THE BEAT GOES ON
Recently retired University of Georgia swim coach Jack Bauerle won seven NCAA D-I swim and dive titles, was a multi-time Olympic coach, produced tens of national champions and nurtured lives for post-college success. He says, “As a head coach, you have one job: Help assistants become head coaches.”
Steen has done that very well: “In my experience, the swimmers who enjoy being coached often make very good coaches themselves.” That was certainly true of Gregg Parini (Denison), Jon Howell (Emory), Jess Book (Kenyon), Abby Brethauer (Princeton), Ben Hewitt (Nova Southeastern), Arthur Albiero (Louisville), Kate Kovenock (Brown), John Young (Davidson), Peter Casares (Bates), Matt Kinney (Carnegie Mellon), Kami Gardner (Washington and Lee) and many others. “They really enjoyed being coached and all that entails. Besides having their own characteristics, they were also very competitive,” he says.
“Gregg was a guy who hated to lose. Jon loved to win. Abby liked having a good time and making it fun for everyone. All three were invested in the team and took the best of their Kenyon experience, added a spin of their own, and have been quite successful. They really loved and were totally invested in the team and have brought that experience to their own institutions. The ones who have gone on to successful coaching careers were just fun to coach,” he says.
LET US COUNT THE WAYS
As with a parent, athletes often adopt some characteristics of their coaches. Gregg Parini, head coach at Denison for the last 35 years, has led the Big Red to five men’s and two women’s D-III titles, and has finished in the top 10 at NCAAs 68 times. He also owns 12 CSCAA Coach of the Year awards, is the recipient of the CSCAA’s National Collegiate and Scholastic Trophy (its highest award) and Denison’s Charles A. Brickman Teaching Excellence Award.
Parini swam at Kenyon and was a part of Steen’s first national championship squad in 1980. He finished his career in Gambier as a team captain, a member of three national championship teams, the holder of five D-III national records and as an 18-time CSCAA All-American.
Parini was from Michigan, so why Kenyon?
“Kenyon resonated with me. It had what I wanted from an academic and cultural standpoint. The standards and demands were high,” he says. When he arrived as a backstroker and IMer, the coach made him a sprinter, and Parini found out that “Steen was pretty unrelenting in his expectations and standards. That was one of my bigger takeaways from him as a coach.
“Steen demonstrated a remarkable discipline in the day-to-day things; he showed up every day and modeled a high standard of excellence. He was constantly evaluating what he was doing and continued to change and evolve as a coach.
“The best coaches are mentors and often involved in kids’ lives beyond the pool,” says Parini. “Jim tapped into that. He understood at a pretty profound level that he had to have a focus and a focused athlete with minimal distractions in order for kids to go fast.”
Jon Howell, head coach at Emory for the last 25 years, also swam for Steen. As a 1990 grad and sprinter, he finished as a team captain, 21-time CSCAA All-American and 11-time national champion.
Steen once remarked, “We all sort of drift into coaching.” Comments Howell, “That was certainly true for me. Following college, I did some club and Masters coaching in North Carolina while also running a restaurant. I enjoyed coaching, and it kept drawing me in. Ultimately, I took Steen’s offer as an assistant to see if that was the path I wanted to go down.”
That led to a post as Kenyon head coach in 1995-96 while Steen was on sabbatical and then the job at Emory in 1998. Since then, Howell has amassed 15 NCAA D-III national titles and eight NCAA Coach of the Year awards. His athletes have notched 109 national titles (58 individual, 51 relay), collected 1,340 All-America certificates and 52 NCAA postgraduate scholarships. He also has received the CSCAA National Collegiate and Scholastic Trophy as well as Emory’s prestigious Jefferson Award for enriching the Emory community’s intellectual and civic life.
“My takeaway from Jim,” says Howell, “was his consistency of effort. He did all things well and the right way. The program had high integrity; the kids were a class act. Jim had a great work ethic and worked as hard as anybody. I’ve tried to follow that. To his credit, he encouraged me to find my own way. From him, I learned how to run a quality program with great people. Kenyon didn’t have a lot of money. It wasn’t what we did, but how we did it—and that has stuck with me,” says Howell.
IN THE FOLD
Jessen Book was a captain on Kenyon’s 2001 squad, “one of the very best classes we had,” says Steen. “Jess is extremely thoughtful, someone who will help you think through an issue. He is really good at managing all the different parts of a team. He was a great assistant coach for me for four years and could keep all the pieces together.”
Book’s time with Steen has held him in good stead. In 2010, he was made Kenyon’s women’s coach and assumed control of both squads in 2012. Since then, the Lords (now Owls) have won four NCAA championships, the most recent being the women’s crown in 2022. Book has been awarded the CSCAA Coach of the Year award five times.
NOW A TIGER
Abby Brethauer was a team captain, 13-time CSCAA All-American and a part of three Kenyon Ladies’ championship teams. “Abby is an active and engaged individual with swimmers, parents and people,” says Steen. That quality held her in good stead in her eight years as head coach at the University of Mary Washington and assistant at Hamilton College, Tufts, Columbia, Princeton and now head women’s coach at Princeton.
“Coach taught me so much about coaching,” she says, “but also about who I wanted to be as a person in all areas of my life. The thing I go back to most often is the relationships he had with me and all my teammates. He took time to know us as more than just swimmers, and that is something I value beyond compare and something I always want to do in my coaching.
“Choosing Kenyon was a combination of a lot of things. Early on, I was attracted to the community that was/is Kenyon Swimming. On my recruiting trip, I remember meeting the team and thinking they were people I could be friends with. I was right. Coach really understood the college and the type of person that would do well there and knew how to make his conversations specific to each recruit. He sold me on both the competitive nature of the team—I do like to win—and the academic environment.
“He also said, ‘Abby, let’s be honest: You look much better in purple than in any other color.’ And while I would never choose a school based on school color, it made me laugh and showed me that I would be swimming for someone who understood that I couldn’t always be serious. He also just built an incredible community of swimmers and divers who were all very different, but had a common goal. I loved that feeling—being part of something so diverse and successful and feeling like I could contribute to it,” says Brethauer.
“When I wanted to coach, he sat me down and told me all the reasons I didn’t want to do it. Somehow, 20-plus years later, I am still in it. I guess his warnings weren’t scary enough!”
A WIDE NET
Ben Hewitt is head men’s and women’s coach at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. In March, he guided his women’s team to the 2023 NCAA D-II NCAA title. His coaching bona fides include stops at Wabash and DePauw and assistant roles at Nova Southeastern and Kenyon.
Hewitt was recommended to Steen by a former Kenyon assistant, interim head coach and Wabash College coach, Peter Casares (now at Bates). “At Kenyon, I was really green, and the learning curve was high. Coach Steen challenged me in a lot of ways for which I was not prepared. He stuck with me and was very good at locking in on my strengths and keeping me on track with constructive feedback. He set such a high standard. Over time, I began to appreciate and hold myself to the same. As a young and inexperienced coach, he gave me the opportunity to be a part of something exceptional. He has remained a mentor and close friend ever since,” says Hewitt.
“Coach Steen recommended me for jobs at both DePauw and NSU. I also worked his camps over multiple summers. After he retired, he would come down and work with my NSU teams—building relationships with my swimmers, helping me create training plans, providing me with a listening ear and invaluable guidance. He developed so many great athletes and coaches throughout his career, yet he always had time for me and had a genuine interest in me as a person and my growth as a coach.
Says Steen, “Ben is very easy to know and, therefore, an easy guy to like. He has a lot of energy and is very approachable. He did a wonderful job recruiting for me.”
Confesses Hewitt, “I am guilty of utilizing many of his motivational quotes and anecdotes. I have learned not only to focus on where we’re going, but also to take care of the present, knowing that no two seasons are the same, and that each year is its own entity and experience. These days, I try to focus less on winning and losing, and more on being that ‘exciting’ team in big meets.
“The most valuable lesson Coach Steen taught me,” says Hewitt, “is that people are one another’s greatest asset. I carry that with me in my relationships with my staff, swimmers and alumni. That relationship doesn’t end at the time of graduation or when you move on in your career. We can still find ways to work together, connect and engage in a meaningful way.”
Sounds like a winning formula.
Be sure to check back with SwimmingWorldMagazine.com during February for the second part of this article on “Winning Assistants.” We’ll continue with thoughts from the likes of David Marsh, Jack Bauerle and others.
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 book distributors worldwide.