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.
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?