Making waves

Wes Watt

If the early bird gets the worm, then Western swimming coach Bill Powell can open the biggest bait shop this side of the fishing pond.

Just as the sun comes up Powell can be found taking the short walk from his home to his office almost everyday.

The man exudes acceptance and can easily be recognized with his frosty white hair and thin khaki covered legs churning out the bottom of his red parka.

But it’s that short walk that provides Powell with a long road of memories.

It has been Powell’s routine nearly everyday since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. And in that 35-year span he has become synonymous with Western and built a file cabinet worth of relationships.

Powell established Western’s swim team in 1969. But starting a team from scratch was nothing new. ?

In fact, that’s what Powell loves.

At age 22, with his first coaching job, Powell took a brand new high school swim team, who didn’t win a meet its entire first year, to an undefeated record nine-years later.

After bringing St. Joseph’s High School to a runner-up finish in the Michigan High School State Championships, offers from colleges and other high schools came knocking at his door.

But the only door he answered had Bowling Green on the other side.

Powell didn’t want to go to an established program, instead he wanted a program he could build from the ground up. Just like he did in Michigan.

When Powell arrived on campus he put an ad in the newspaper announcing try-outs for the swim team. But Powell started to rethink his idea of building from scratch when he found out his recruits knew as much about swimming as Britney Spears knows about the sanctity of marriage.

“I asked them, ‘What do you swim?’ and they said ‘Well, I can swim a long way,'” Powell said. “I thought, ‘Here we go.'”

And what was Powell’s reward for taking such a job?

It was a 50 percent pay cut from his high school job, four times as much work and a chance to live like John Boy and the Waltons. ?

With a two-bedroom cottage and six people, it doesn’t take a mathematician to realize things would be cramped.

Walking through the house at night wasn’t easy, with two children sleeping in the hallway. There wasn’t anymore room in the mattress-stuffed bedrooms. Powell’s family spent two cramped years in that house until they could get more adequate housing.

Powell said he knew it was going to be rough when he took the job here, but it was worth the hardship to be able start a college program the way he wanted.

“Western was starting from scratch, no program, its first team. I said ‘I’m going to do it right,'” Powell said. “That’s the only way to do it.”

But the gamble paid off and Powell’s first season (3-4) was the only losing season he has had in his continuing 35-year dynasty at Western.?Powell went 11-4 the next season and thus the bond between him and Western was formed.

Over the next 32 years Powell would lead his team to eight undefeated seasons with five of them coming in the last seven years.?

With old age comes experience, with experience comes victories and with 319 of them, Powell wrote his name into sports history last Dec. 6.

After a win over an Evansville team that was coached by his former swimmer Nicole Fisher, Powell moved into second place all-time in Division I men’s dual meet wins.

But the men’s competition is not the only place Powell has known success. Western’s women’s swim team emerged in 1997 as the school attempted to meet the Title IX requirements.

To say the women’s team has been a little dominant would be like saying it’s a little chilly in Antarctica. The women’s team has owned the Sun Belt Conference Championship. That team has won every title since the conference added swimming in 2001. And they are going for their fourth title, with a 13-0 record heading into the final dual meet this season.

Athletic Director Wood Selig had trouble putting into words how much Powell means to Western.

“He’s a living legend,” Selig said. “If we could put a historic marker on him, we would.?He is just an absolute delight to work with.”

But Powell’s record goes on an office wall that can easily be mistaken for a trophy room. While the walls are filled to capacity with awards and Coach of the Year honors, Powell said all the awards are just subsequent to his real reward: watching his swimmers grow up.

“That’s what makes coaching a great job,” Powell said.

He said he tries to stay as much involved with his kids out of the pool as he does with them in the pool. Not only to make sure they train hard to compete, but to make sure his swimmers are successful in the most important game of all – the game of life.

It is his relationship with his swimmers that holds the secrets to Powell’s success. Powell believes because he has such a tight bond with each one of his swimmers, he is able to get that little extra.

“You got to know kids,” Powell said. “I know when to back off and when to go hard, I know my kids.”

The success of this effort is shown by the “Powell’s Kids” bumper stickers on the cars of some of his swimmers.

Powell said his secret is to treat everyone the same. Whether a swimmer is a superstar or not, they will be treated the same.

“I like to think I treated everyone the same,” Powell said. “The lowest guy on the team is just as important. Nobody is better than anybody else.”

But Powell’s relationship with his swimmers doesn’t end at graduation. No coach keeps in closer contact with his players than Powell. ?

Phone calls from swimmers of his past ring in almost everyday.

Conversations in his office are difficult, because of the influx of incoming calls.

Powell said that is what his job is about.

It is these types of phone calls and responses that keep Powell coming back day after day. Even with continuing back problems and older age, he said if he didn’t come back he wouldn’t know what he would do.

But Powell knows retirement is not long off and when it is time to hang up the frog skins he wants to know he did the best he could and treated everyone the same.

The walks from his home to office are something Powell looks forward to every day. And Powell said it’s a walk he wants to take at least a few more times.

Reach Wes Watt at [email protected]