Head coach Bob Thomas leaves mark on Ball State swimming and diving program

<p>Head coach Bob Thomas talks to assistant coach Dave Costill during the meet against Grand Valley State on Nov. 18 in Lewellen Pool. <strong>Kaiti Sullivan, DN</strong></p>

Head coach Bob Thomas talks to assistant coach Dave Costill during the meet against Grand Valley State on Nov. 18 in Lewellen Pool. Kaiti Sullivan, DN

Bob Thomas spent 14,235 days serving as the head coach of Ball State men’s swimming and diving program. On April 11, the coach announced his retirement.

RELATED: Head coach Bob Thomas announces retirement from Ball State men's swimming

Thomas has been around the pool all his life. During his swimming career at Eastern Illinois University, he was a Division II champion in two events from 1973-1974. After graduating from EIU, he became a volunteer coach and won 14 national championships; seven NAIA national titles in 1971 and 1972; and seven NCAA Division II titles in 1973 and 1974.

“I went from competitive swimming into a volunteer coach while I was getting my master’s, and I enjoyed it thoroughly,” Thomas said.

Before he even swam at EIU, Thomas had one coach that stood by his side: his mom.

“[My mom] had a big part in it,” Thomas said. “She had been my coach on-and-off throughout my development. Then, as I progressed through swimming, the coaches that I was involved with became mentors in terms of that is something that I would like to become. It’s not one person in particular. It’s a lot of people.”

Thomas was named head coach for Ball State men’s swim and dive program in June 1979. Throughout his 39 years of coaching, Thomas has achieved more than 217 wins, and while the wins are important, Thomas never let his team’s success drive his coaching experience.

“When you look back at it, it’s nice to see what you have been able to achieve. But while you’re in it, you start all over, and you just try to do the best you can,” Thomas said. “I really never looked at how many wins or losses there were. That’s more for the record books for someone else to go after.”

Without the Ball State community, Thomas wouldn’t have the opportunity to coach this program. Thomas said he was drawn to Ball State because it was a school that respected all of its programs.

“I wanted to raise my family in a nice town,” Thomas said. “I wanted them to move up through the ranks. They all went to college here, and it was very rewarding in that regard, to be able to stay in one place for such a lengthy time.”

While coaching, Thomas impacted the lives of hundreds of student-athletes. Under his guidance, the men’s swim and dive team has achieved academic success. In all but one semester, his student-athletes were named to the College Swimming Coaches of America Academic All-America Team.

“You’re working toward an education and typically, the better you do in the classroom, the better your opportunities are when you graduate,” Thomas said. “My feeling is that we’re going to approach this with education being the priority. The swimming and diving is the fun part of the day. The education plays a bigger part in what happens later on.”

Junior swimmer Cullen Tyler has enjoyed his time at Ball State under Thomas. One memory Tyler enjoyed this season was winning the 200-yard breaststroke at the Eastern Michigan Invitational, and neither him nor Thomas realized it. 

“[Thomas] was just smiling and laughing after I had won the 200-yard breaststroke,” Tyler said. “He thought that it was hilarious that I didn’t realize I had won. He thought that it was so funny that I wasn’t even paying attention.”

Tyler also enjoyed the humor Thomas incorporated into the team’s training. Once, when the team was doing a small swimming set but was supposed to be doing 4x100’s, Thomas told everyone to stop after the third 100 unless they thought they could go faster. 

“I was like, ‘I still think I can go faster,’” Tyler said. “Then, they timed me, and I broke a minute by about .4 seconds, and he looked at me and said, ‘You never thought that you would be able to do that, did you?’ I told him ‘no,’ and he started laughing and just thought it was the funniest thing.”

Aside from the fun the team shared with Thomas, sophomore Ben Andrew has learned from Thomas by taking each day at a time.

“A big takeaway that I’ve learned from [Thomas] is to not be thinking too far ahead while I’m at the meet,” Andrew said. “Just to think about one race. You can’t think about all of the meet. You just have to do whatever is in front of you the best you can.”

While the mark left on swimmers was an integral part of his career, Thomas also made an impact on other Cardinal coaches.

Ball State men’s tennis head coach Bill Richards and Thomas have remained close friends, as their offices are right down the hall from each other. Richards said he respects Thomas’ coaching, given the program’s lack of funding.

Because the men’s swimming and diving team receives no scholarships from the school, other coaches pride Thomas in his ability to keep his athletes motivated. 

“I have so much respect for him because for the last 15 years, he’s coached a program without any scholarships,” Richards said. “The funding has been minimal, and I’m not sure if I could have done that, quite honestly. I give him all the credit in the world.”

With his retirement, Thomas plans to devote more time to his family.

Contact Patrick Murphy with comments at prmurphy2@bsu.edu or on Twitter @PMURPH505.


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