Coaching legend reflects on the past

Retired head coach Bill Powell has worked at WKU for about 43 years. Powell still teaches swim classes at WKU.

Allison Goodan

He has soft blue eyes and a confident yet humble demeanor. He sits upright, hands clasped, donning WKU apparel with a genuine smile.

Bill Powell founded WKU’s swimming program in 1969. He was the head coach for the swim team for 36 seasons, all but the first having winning records.

“I’ve got a lot of pride in it,” Powell said. “My first job was from scratch too.”

The first team he coached was at St. Joseph High School in Michigan. In the beginning, the team lost every meet, but five years later they were undefeated.

Powell was born in Wyandotte, Mich., in 1937. He attended Western Michigan University majoring in physical education with a minor in English.

In 2005, Powell was inducted into the WMU Athletic Hall of Fame for his feats as a swimmer — he won three letters as a backstroker for WMU between 1957 and 1959.

“He’s one of the most brilliant coaches I’ve ever met,” said Jim Ritter, a member of the 2011-12 WKU diving team.

Although the Bowling Green senior isn’t a swimmer, Ritter said Powell helped him become a better diver. Ritter was named Sun Belt Conference Male Diver of the Week last January.

Ritter, 22, is the second generation in his family to train with Powell. He said his father, Mark, swam for Coach Powell as well.

“Just the fact that Coach Powell is a legend — (it) made me want to come,” Ritter said.

Seven years ago, Powell retired from head swim coach at WKU. But he couldn’t stay away from the team for too long.

“I sat down for three days,” he said. “I knew that wasn’t going to work.”

Powell became assistant coach for the WKU swimming and diving team. He currently teaches a beginning swim and swim for fitness class at the university. He also teaches swim classes for adults at Bowling Green High School two days a week, and during the summer he teaches youth at the Bowling Green Country Club.

Outside of coaching, Powell has found other ways to stay busy and involved.

He is also the faculty advisor at the Newman Center of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, and recently, he started chauffeuring. Powell said he started the job because he enjoys driving and talking with new people.

Powell admits he is very competitive, even with himself and is always setting goals. In his forties, the coach started a birthday ritual. Every April 13th, he swims the same amount of lengths as the number of years he’s lived. This year, he completed 75 successfully.

“I’m only 75,” Powell said. “I plan on living for 20 more years!”

Behind all the drive and success is a genuine care for people. His wife, Joanne, said her husband truly cares for the students he teaches.

“He’s been in their wedding parties and been the godfather of their children,” she said.

In 2002, WKU named Preston’s natatorium after Powell.

“I had no idea they were going to do that,” Powell said. “I got called into the athletic department’s office and I wondered what I did wrong.”

There was a surprise reception at the natatorium with alumni swimmers from 1969 to 2002. Powell said the natatorium used to be his home — literally, not just figuratively.

In the 43 years the Powells have lived in Bowling Green, he and his wife had three houses. The first was a cottage that stood in place of what is now Preston’s natatorium. The second house sat on Regents Avenue where Ransdell Hall now stands.

Bill said he took the move from Regents harder than Joanne.

“That’s where all of our kids grew up,” he said.

Though coaching has been a huge part of his life, Powell is a husband of 53 years, a father to four, and grandfather to twelve. For him, family — which also includes his team — is the most important thing.

Powell said the choice he made 43 years ago to coach at WKU has proven to be the perfect one.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”