John Hopkins Swimming: George Kennedy retires after 31 years
GREENSBORO, N.C. –For more than three decades, head swimming and diving head coach George Kennedy woke up every morning excited about the opportunity to work with a group of young student-athletes at Johns Hopkins University.
Kennedy laughed with the men and women on his swimming and diving teams, and there came a point where he wondered if he was actually working or playing. Success in the pool eventually brought accolades. Seven times, he was named the DIII national coach of the year.
He is in the Johns Hopkins athletic hall of fame, and two years ago, he was named one of the World’s Fifty Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine.
Yet it was that routine that caused him to be tired at the end of the day, and he’s been battling cancer since 1984. The varying class schedules of his student-athletes often meant that he was on the deck for four or five practice sessions a day. When all was said and done, he just wanted to head home to spend quality time with his wife, Helen.
“My kids are out of the house, and I just want to really be with my wife instead of just tired when I get home,” Kennedy said. “I’ll have more time for family. I also realized that there’s some things I want to do, such as travel. My family doesn’t have a real big history of living too long, so I just wanted to make the decision to get out and do a few things I haven’t done.
“Your level of energy … it could be equal to or more energy than a lot of other people have, but when it’s not the energy you want to give to something, then it’s probably time to make that change. One of my kids one time said my ‘get up and go’ has got up and went.”
Cancer was a factor in his decision, but he insists that it was not the main reason in stepping back.
“I’m doing well,” Kennedy said. “We call it in swimming trying to get ahead of the curve. I’ve had melanoma and some significant skin cancer. I just want to spend more time taking care of myself and try to get ahead of that curve a little bit. You’re constantly giving more time to other things, when you need to eat properly and that kind of thing. It’s all good.
“In fact, just recently, I had a fairly significant surgery on my ear. It’s not the reason why I’m quitting. It just tires me out and the surgeries have tired me out. It’s just a great time to do it. They’re ready and I’m ready. I’m kind of intrigued more than scared.”
He’s not leaving with his squads in shambles, either.
“The team is absolutely in a fantastic place mentally and physically,” Kennedy continued. “We got great kids in the program, and a lot of them are coming back. It’s just amazing. So … it’s the right time. I guess timing is everything.
“For thirty-one years, to some extent, you try to create a near-perfect culture. This is the closest we’ve ever come to it. I think many coaches would just stay and see through many of our top athletes. But I want to give the next guy a chance to really come in and be successful.”
Kennedy’s successor has not been named, but he already has some advice in mind. Be patient. Good things will come about if you stick to your plan, and tweak that plan when necessary. Prepare your student-athletes for their world and not yours.
Coaching now, Kennedy continues, is about trying to create a connection rather than a climate of fear and intimidation. Not that they need a best friend, necessarily, but they do need a relationship.
“Gone is that Machiavellian theory of fear,” Kennedy said. “You’ve got to lead with warmth. I’ve seen that this year. There’s so many smiles on this team. Just the way they handled my announcement to them, I know they’re going to be great.”
Tuesday night, Kennedy spoke at a pre-tournament banquet. His message was a simple one.
“Swimming is a sport where we need to … and we must … reach out to our own,” he concluded. “I had a coach when I was a younger coach that sat down next to me when I was really struggling at a meet, and he basically said, ‘It’s okay. You can coach. You can do this. Go out and do it.’
“I think all we ever need sometimes is a glimmer of hope. That moment really sparked me. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, and somebody picked me up.”