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Hi! My name is Hannah Jenkins, and I am one of the copy editors here at the North Wind. I am a sophomore at NMU, and I love all things writing and editing-related. I am proud to be a part of this great...

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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Dallas WiertellaApril 30, 2024

Q-and-A: former NMU swim coach Jon Wilson

A month after resigning from his position as the head coach of the NMU swimming and diving program, Jon Wilson was packing up the contents of his house on Sept. 1 when NorthWind Sports Editor Kyle Whitney sat down with him for an interview.

Kyle Whitney: Since resigning, what has life consisted of for you?

Jon Wilson: Lots, actually. My last day at Northern was August 3. Since then I have been living in Madison. I’ve been working in Whitewater for the past month. I started in Whitewater on August 6. I was working with at-risk kids that were pulled out of high school and I would teach them for two hours a day and they worked in a factory for six hours a day and I supervised them as they were working in the factory.

It was a pretty challenging position; it was very different from college coaching. These are kids that are in high school that had like two credits after their sophomore year, so they’re in danger of-they’re kids that aren’t going to graduate from high school, basically.

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They were not necessarily troublemakers or drug users, but there was certainly some of that. They were just really unmotivated kids and that was a big change from college coaching.

However, about two weeks into that job, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh called me and expressed interest in having me come and be their coach. I have said for years that I am a Division-III coach. 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.

So I resigned in Whitewater, my last day was Friday (August 31) and we are now in the process of moving to Oshkosh. My wife’s job in Madison is actually transferable to Appleton, which is right outside of Oshkosh. My kids are starting school on Tuesday in Oshkosh, so now I’m the head coach at UW-Oshkosh for both men and women.

KW: What, in your opinion, is the difference between a D-II and D-III mentality?

JW: To me it has always been about the money. Not salary for me, but scholarships for the athletes.

The nice thing about D-III is that those men and women are doing it because they love it. They are doing it because they want to, because they have a level of respect for the sport and respect for the coaching staff, or whatever. What I found in D-II was that you had a lot of people that loved swimming at one point, but it was a job for them. There wasn’t the same passion for swimming, because it was paying for their school or whatever, so it turned into a job for them. And that part always kind of bothered me, that people didn’t really like swimming, but they needed it to finish school.

I think the talent level that you can get when you’re recruiting with money is probably a little bit better, at least initially, so I think your freshman and sophomore classes that are going to be coming in (at D-II) are typically better than D-III classes. That being said, the national times, D-II and D-III, are 100 percent comparable. If you look at the top D-III swimmers and the top D-II swimmers, there is no difference.

I also really wanted a men’s team back. I really wanted to have a team of both and having only women at Northern was difficult for me. That was a little more challenging than I thought it was going to be. For me to get men’s and women’s back was kind of nice.

And it was the right move for our family. Oshkosh is a place that we always wanted to be. It’s close enough to our extended family and it’s the size of community that we want. Not that we didn’t love Marquette and Negaunee, but we wanted to be a little closer to everything.

KW: What has this constantly-changing lifestyle been like on your kids?

JW: They are pretty adaptable; they are 12, 11 and 9. They actually spend the summers in Madison anyways. They swim on a neighborhood team in Madison and stay at my parent’s house. That part of it is not a big change for them.

They were actually registered for school in Madison and they were ready to go meet their teachers in like three days and I came home-my wife and I had talked about the Oshkosh thing already without letting anyone know. So we came home one day and sat everyone down and said, ‘Alright, we’re going to move to Oshkosh.’

We used to live in Ripon, which is about 25 minutes outside of Oshkosh, so that was a big selling point, as far as convincing the kids that this is a good thing. They would get to see some of their Ripon friends.

The kids were up here a couple weeks ago and are having a hard time moving from here, but they are good kids and they’re pretty adaptable.

Madison was not the place for us. It has changed considerably since my wife and I grew up there. You can’t go home again.

KW: Looking back now, when you accepted the Northern job four years ago, what were your ultimate hopes for the program?

JW: Northern swimming has great tradition. Honestly, I think that they are in a position where they can compete on a national level. There’s no reason that this team shouldn’t be top-ten in the country.

My dream has always been to coach a conference championship team and to be in the running at a national meet. Initially, I felt that Northern was the place where that was going to happen for me. It turns out that-obviously-it’s hard to develop a national caliber team.

We were all happy to stay here and see that that came true. The announcement about the pool closing kind of sped things along a little bit for me. To me, there’s just not a true commitment to swimming at Northern right now. 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.

I just didn’t know what the future held for the program and this just seemed like a good time to move, with my wife starting a job and my kids at the age they’re at. It seemed like a good time to move along.

We knew that we didn’t want to move once my oldest son is in high school. 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.

KW: What role did the NMU athletic department and their handling of the pool situation ultimately play in your departure?

JW: The pool announcement was a big deal-the fact that they’re not willing to commit either way-and I don’t know if that’s the athletic department or Ken (Godfrey, NMU Athletic Director), himself.

I do think Ken is in a tough spot, because the school doesn’t have any money and I get that. But I think that the fact that they are unwilling to commit either way and say, ‘It’s going to be a year’ or say, ‘we’ll totally support the program from here on out’ made it a much easier decision for me. There was just not a lot of personal gratification from the athletic department on my end. I never got a raise, never got a, ‘hey, nice job hosting the conference meet.’

To host that GLIAC meet two years ago was a huge undertaking and nothing has ever been said from the administration about it. And it’s not that I felt like I was under-appreciated or anything, but the commitment of the department to the sport was questionable, at best, and that was a big reason for the move.

KW: So you feel that the aforementioned lack of commitment has been around for a couple years, at least?JW: Yeah. Yeah. They do a good job supporting the teams and they do support the teams equally. If you take a look at their team room and you look at the way the program is funded, that kind of support is great. Obviously, every coach in the world is going to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to need some more money.’

Swimming’s budget has not increased in 20 years. If you look at the funding they had 20 years ago, it was the same dollar amount. Well, that dollar went a lot further then than it does now.

It hasn’t increased with time, but it was a completely adequate budget for what we needed it for.

I also think getting people to come up to Northern is a tougher sell than it used to be. I also think that not having a men’s team makes it very difficult. Scheduling meets was a constant headache. Most other teams have both men and women and they don’t want to bring just their women’s team up and leave their men’s team at home.

Guy swimmers can’t be left alone. They’ll do whatever.

Everything kind of went into it, but again it was a family decision. I loved my time here and all that being said, I would’ve been happy to stay here a while longer. The pool situation kind of sped things along considerably.

KW: You basically constructed the current team of girls. What effect did your departure have on them and do you think they were surprised?

JW: I didn’t really talk to them after I resigned. They all got the e-mail that everybody got. The girls that were up here, I talked to personally, because I wanted to.

We’re a big family. Those are my kids. 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.

I personally talked to the ones that were up here and told them-before it was even public knowledge-what was going on. The incoming freshmen got the e-mail and I got responses from parents and most of the girls. They were disappointed but understood that it was a family move and that the time was right for us to make the move.

They’ll be fine here. It’s a great class that’s coming in. The sophomores have a year under their belt and they are going to surprise some people this year. It’s a good recruiting class that’s coming in. I would have loved to have a class of 13 or 14 kids. The class of four that we signed is a good balance of what’s needed, though.

They have two divers coming in and that’ll help move them up in the conference standings. They have a breast-stroker coming in that will help solidify them. It’ll be fun to watch and fun for me to be looking online and watching everything happen.

KW: Looking ahead, how difficult of a position is the NMU swimming and diving program in right now?

JW: I think it’s a tough spot. It’s a really difficult position to be in, from a coaching standpoint.

I think (new head coach) Bob Laughna will do a great job. Bob is a great guy and a great coach. He is probably one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. Swimming-wise, he certainly knows his stuff, but I think that with the politics of college athletics, that is a tough position to be in.

It’s not a major sport and it’s not something that the normal fan base would keep track of.

However, I’m shocked at the community support. This is a great community to be a college coach in, but the swimming community is pretty small. The uncertainty of the future of the program makes it hard to recruit. I think it’s going to be even harder to recruit this year.

A decision needs to be made on the pool. If there’s going to be no program the following year, I think everyone has come to terms with it and that’s fine if that’s what happens, but they need a decision to be made. If you’re not going to have a program, you can take those recruiting dollars and give them to women’s soccer or take the team to Hawaii this year or something. You can save those recruiting dollars and you can save the headache of having to go through the recruiting process.

KW: If the program is cut, what then happens with the swimmers and their scholarships?

JW: The way that it was said to me, and I don’t know if this is official, is that they would honor their contract for the year. So, if you’re a freshman and you’re on a full-ride. If something were to happen in the next couple days, they would honor their contract for the year. I don’t know what happens after that.

When the athletes sign their scholarship paper, it’s a year-long contract anyways, so it goes year-to-year. I think it would depend on the timing of the announcement. The athletic department knows that, so I’m sure they’re going to be pushing for an announcement to be made by spring so they wouldn’t have to sign the new people.

Although, now there’s an early signing day in November, so it would be ideal if they would know by then, because this is prime recruiting time for swimming right now.

KW: What is your opinion of new head coach Bob Laughna?

JW: Bob was the interim head coach before I started.

He’s in a unique spot now. If you look at the record board, Bob is the only person connected with Northern Swimming that has been here for all of the head coaches. If you look at the record board, Bob is the only one who has been present for every swim on that record board. It’s kind of cool. I’ve always said that he is a great resource. One, just because of the pure history of the sport at Northern.

He is very passionate about Northern swimming and he doesn’t want to see this program get cut, which is why he was excited to have this opportunity.

KW: As head coach, what can Laughna do to right the ship?

JW: I don’t know if it’s up to him to right the ship. He can continue to move forward in the direction that they’ve been heading for the last couple years.

The decision is on the administration. Not necessarily the athletic department, but from the president’s office down, whoever is going to make the decision about the pool.

I think Bob is in a rough spot. There are a lot more questions than there are answers, certainly, and I think anyone will tell you that. I truly don’t think the administration is intentionally doing this. They truly don’t know what the plan is going to be.

As far as what Bob is going to do, I think he will keep them pointed in the right direction and keep moving forward. The girls are going to be much-improved this year and it’s a good solid group of girls. From an athletic standpoint, they’ll be fine, but having such an uncertain future makes it tough on everyone.

KW: Moving forward, what are your future hopes and plans?

JW: My future is changing every day. The big thing for us right now is to get the house sold and to get on with our personal stuff.

Professionally, I am very excited to be back in the conference that I swam in and Oshkosh is an opportunity that presented itself. I am excited and thrilled to have the opportunity to lead that team. They’re coming off a couple of fifth-place finishes at their conference meet. There’s not a huge immediate expectation there, but I’ve talked to the other coaches in the conference and everybody’s feeling, initially, is that one, I would be good for the job and two, there’s no reason that they’re not in the top three of their conference every year.

The family is excited for the move now and it’s a great community and we’re looking forward to it.

Also see:
Q-and-A with Athletic Director Ken Godfrey

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