March 17, 2010

By Judd Spicer
Special to

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the past year, Kenyon College’s swimming and diving team -- owner of 30 consecutive men’s titles and 23 of the past 26 women’s crowns -- has been no stranger to national publicity. In February of last year, coach Jim Steen was profiled in a lengthy article by The New York Times. In December, Steen and Kenyon were the subject of a nearly eight-minute segment on National Public Radio’s Only a Game program.

But for a recap of those pieces, don’t go to Steen for a summary.

“I don’t ever read anything or listen to radio programs [about us]. I just don’t want to confuse the issue,” says Steen, whose 49 coaching titles are the most for any coach across any level of NCAA competition. “It’s a challenge to just sort of stay in the here-and-now. You start reading what’s written about you and you might be obligated to believe it. I think we’re better just trying to create the story as we go along.

“I think if you talked with any coach who’s had consistent success, they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what their position is. They’re usually too busy just doing.”

And Steen’s athletes will be doing plenty this week, as they compete in the Division III Swimming and Diving Championships at Minnesota’s University Aquatic Center. The Lords entered the event as the favorite on the men’s side and ranked No. 2 on the women’s side. After the first day of competition, the Kenyon men led with 173 points to second-place Emory’s 70.5, while the women’s team is in fourth place with 70. The Emory women lead with 135.

The story created by Steen at Kenyon is one of unparalleled success. A former All Mid-American Conference sprinter and backstroker at Kent State who made his own appearance in the pool at the NCAA championships as a junior swimmer in 1970, Steen began his work at Kenyon in 1975. And while he may not read his own press clippings, it’s readily apparent that his peers have taken note of his success.

While Steen will downplay the meeting, in the spring of 2008 he was contacted by Jim Tressel, the head coach of Ohio State football, who won a 2002 national title. Tressel, who also lays claim to small college success (he won four NAIA titles at Youngstown State), sought out Steen to pick the coach’s brain.

“National attention is great for any program, and it’s going to come to any program that’s been successful. It’s just part of the territory,” Steen said. “Something Jim Tressel and I talked about is that if you’re successful and in the limelight – people are going to want to write about you. But you’re going to take some shots, too. If you’re going to believe the good that’s written about you, you’ve also got to believe the bad that’s written about you.”

With Steen in Minneapolis looking to lead the Lords to their 31st consecutive men’s title and fourth straight women’s championship, there would no doubt seem to be a dearth of the bad. Titles aside, Steen is most often lauded for his ability to connect with student-athletes on an individual level.

“Coach Steen is a great man. He knows what he's doing, and he's been doing it for 35 years now," said sophomore Zach Turk, who defended his 50 freestyle title from last season. "I completely trust him. He always calls us over and makes sure we're prepared for a meet.”

Said Steen: “If you’re going to be fielding teams that expect to do something, you better be able to communicate exactly what you’re going to do. I’ve always enjoyed working with my athletes and I find that training is one thing, but getting them to respond to competition in the right way is another thing.”

With the alacrity of his sprinters, Steen is quick to deflect any connection between his success and the label of being an innovator.

“I don’t know that I would call myself an ‘innovative’ coach,” he says. “I can certainly think of a lot of coaches that are much more innovative than I am. I’m a well-organized coach.”

Employing those communication and organizational tenets as his constants, Steen’s most impressive attribute may lie in his ability to produce similar results, while the rosters and generations are constantly changing.

“I really don’t find the student-athletes all that different from when I was coaching 30 years ago,” Steen said. “I know that a lot of my colleagues feel differently. But most everybody responds to being appreciated and to an attempt made to understand where they’re coming from. I think for those individuals that I’m successful in doing that with, there’s not that much of a difference then when I was coaching in the early years of my career.”