As the Northern Michigan swimming and diving team prepares for the 2007 season, they must also attempt to adapt to a new coach and a fresh system after former coach Jon Wilson resigned over the summer.
Wilson, in the meantime, moved south to Wisconsin and has recently accepted the head coaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, a Division-III university that competes in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, a grouping of nine Wisconsin schools.
“I have said for years that I am a D-III coach,” Wilson said. “I have a D-III mentality, I swam D-III and I have said for a long time that Oshkosh was the one job that I would pretty much do whatever to get.”
Wilson said he and his wife had talked about moving in the past, but were still unsure of their future. If they were going to move, they decided, the time to do so comfortably was fast approaching.
“We knew that we didn’t want to move once my oldest son was in high school,” he said. “That was important to us. He’s going to be in seventh grade, so we are a year ahead of schedule from where I thought we’d be. Either we were going to be here forever or we were going to move by the end of next year anyways.”
Despite pondering his departure for the last several months, Wilson said that his last day on the job was a difficult one.
“We’re a big family. Those are my kids,” he said. “Those are my girls and I had a hard time leaving them. It was very emotional-more emotional than I thought it would be for me.”
Changing of the Guard
Replacing Wilson at Northern is Robert Laughna, who has been involved with NMU swimming and diving, largely as a volunteer, for 22 years.
Laughna, who has spent time as the head coach of both the United States Developmental Deaf Swim Team and the United States Deaflympic Team, was hired after an extensive national search.
“It probably took about a month or so to complete the whole process,” NMU Athletic Director Ken Godfrey said. “We interviewed three different candidates and Bob was, by far, the top candidate.”
Laughna, who was the interim head coach during the 2002-2003 season, is acquainted with most of the swimmers and already has the team’s confidence.
“I know that he has the experience that he needs to give the girls the workouts that we’re going to need to do,” senior swimmer Amelia Marschall said of Laughna. “I know we’re going to continue a good looking program, which we’ve had the last year or two.”
At this point, Laughna-who has been present for every swim on the NMU record board-has been around Northern swimming and diving longer than anyone on campus. He recalls working with numerous Wildcat swim coaches over the course of his career and is appreciative of everything that he has gained thanks to them.
“I have worked well with every one of them,” Laughna said. “And I’ve learned a great deal from each one of them.”
The traits that Laughna picked up from the previous coaches are obvious, Marschall said, and while Laughna’s coaching style does resemble that of his immediate predecessor, he focuses more on minute details in a swimmer’s stroke.
A Cloudy Forecast
Laughna takes the reins of the swimming and diving program at a time when the future is uncertain, at best.
Questions about that future began to arise recently, after it was announced that NMU’s home pool, located in the Physical Education Instructional Facility (PEIF), was in need of repairs that would likely cost more than $2 million. Without care, the pool could become unfit for use by the team or the community.
The other available option is to construct a new pool, a project that would have to be done to the tune of $4-6 million. With no simple way to raise the money, the swimming and diving team is currently operating on a year-to-year basis and is facing possible elimination.
Therefore, swimmers and staff members-including Laughna-may face the end of their NMU careers in the near future.
“He lives in Marquette, he knows the situation with the pool-the uncertainty with the pool and everything like that-so he knows what he’s getting himself into,” NMU Athletic Director Ken Godfrey said. “It’s no big surprise to him.”
If the pool is no longer available or if the program is cut, the athletic department has agreed to honor the player scholarships for the current academic year.
Until the situation arises, though, the administration is considering fund-raising options to raise money.
“I’m trying to be optimistic,” Godfrey said. “We’re going to have to raise the money and we’re not talking a couple hundred thousand. We’re talking millions of dollars and I think it’s very important that people realize that it’s a major undertaking to raise that kind of money.”
The current state of the Michigan economy, and oft-tumbling education budgets, make it difficult to spare cash for any extra-curricular causes, Godfrey added.
That includes the construction, or repair, of a swimming pool.
Wilson understands these funding difficulties, but feels that there may be a deeper problem.
“To me, there’s just not a true commitment to swimming at Northern right now,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s fair to say or not, but the impression that I got is that they’re not willing to put the money into the pool right now.”
The Season Ahead
The ‘Cats practiced with their new coach for the first time on Tuesday morning and finally began to concentrate on the fast-approaching 2007 season.
This may prove difficult for the group, considering the pressure that they are under to perform.
“Some of the girls are really worried about [the situation], especially some of the freshman,” Marschall said. “I know if I was in that situation, I would be pretty upset.I think that everyone is just going to try to do the best that they can this year and I don’t know what girls will do next year.”
Laughna said that he feels a strong showing this season could make a major difference, pushing the possibility of a program cut into the public eye and rallying support around his team.
“I hope that it continues, I really do,” the coach said of the swimming and diving program. “It depends on the pool. I hope that we step up and show how important it is to have a team on campus.”
And the Wildcat swimmers could be in one of their best positions in recent memory when it comes to delivering a memorable year. After a fifth-place finish in the GLIAC standings last season, a young Wildcat squad added a freshman class of four this off-season, bumping the size of the team to more than 20 swimmers.
“We have a bigger team than in the years that I’ve been here,” Marschall said. “I think that’s one thing that will definitely help us. We have enough to have a full line-up at meets and to be a little more competitive against some teams.”
The season opens for the ‘Cats on Oct. 6 with the NMU Green and Gold Swim, which will be in the PEIF pool.
More information on this subject:
Q-and-A with former swim coach Jon Wilson
Q-and-A with Athletic Director Ken Godfrey