Massachusetts Daily Collegian

In his 40th year as head coach of UMass men’s swimming, Russ Yarworth is still going strong

Yarworth has claimed 14 A-10 Coach of the Year awards over coaching career

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In his 40th year as head coach of UMass men’s swimming, Russ Yarworth is still going strong

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

By Ben Painchaud, Collegian Staff

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It’s hard to be in the presence of UMass men’s swimming coach Russ Yarworth and not feel relaxed. When he greets you with his hearty handshake and big toothy grin, the shoulders loosen and any tension in the face goes away.

Yarworth has what senior Kellen Gray and junior Al Madden would call a “goofy” aura to him.

“I think I have a little bit of a quirky sense of humor…you gotta keep it light-hearted,” Yarworth concedes. “You have to keep it light-hearted…I definitely think I use humor to the advantage of the program.”

Now in his 40th year as head coach of men’s swimming for UMass – making him one of the longest-tenured head coaches at the university – Yarworth uses humor to help maintain the same level of energy and enthusiasm year-in and year-out, both for himself and his student-athletes.

“He’s always just joking around, cracking jokes with the guys when we’re in the pool,” says Kyle Stefanides, a senior from New Jersey. “When practice is really hard, that’s something you want, just to take your mind off of what you’re doing in the water.”

“Having such a positive attitude all the time really helps and makes it much more tolerable to do such a grinding kind of sport,” adds senior Anthony Rizzo, an individual medley specialist.

Though he’s always joking with his team and keeping the mood light, Yarworth is serious when he needs to be and isn’t hesitant to call out any of his swimmers. At a November practice, for example, Yarworth had freshman Jacques Boffa stay behind at the end of practice while the other swimmers left the pool. The team had been working on their starts, and Boffa was having trouble keeping his head down, so Yarworth singled him out to correct his posture.

“I’d say I’m laid-back but aggressive…I expect 100 percent, I want them to give me all that they can every day,” says Yarworth of his coaching style.

At the same time, he acknowledges the need for humor and banter in order to foster an atmosphere in which “[the swimmers] can build off of each other and the coaches are supportive of that.”

It’s a balancing act, but having to juggle is something Yarworth has been doing for a long time.

(Collegian File Photo)

Russ Yarworth never saw himself becoming a coach one day, never mind a coach of 40 years at the same program. Yarworth graduated from UMass in 1978, competing for the Minutemen’s swim and water polo teams all four years.

A biochemistry major, Yarworth wanted to attend medical school after undergrad, but his grades weren’t quite good enough (“that’s because the professors were bad, not my fault,” he reassures with a smirk.) So he spent a year taking various classes, at one point considering a career in education, before being approached by the Athletic Director at the time to be the interim head coach after the previous coach left to take a job in New York.

“At the ripe age of 22,” Yarworth became head coach while also pursuing a master’s in exercise science.

“I had to progress through being a grad student—making very little money—to being a part-time coach making very little money, to finally eventually getting into the full-time program, where I was Aquatics Director as well as swimming coach, and then adding in water polo,” Yarworth says.

First it was coaching and grad school at the same time. Then it was full-time coaching two varsity teams while also serving as Aquatics Director, a role which involved Yarworth overseeing the maintenance, scheduling, and staffing of three pools.

During the 70s and 80s, though, UMass athletics were still mostly “faculty-oriented,” so Yarworth having to juggle multiple roles was not exactly out of the ordinary. Most of the faculty in the school of physical education also took on coaching duties in addition to their teaching responsibilities.

Eventually, after more college sports began hiring coaches full-time, Yarworth was allowed to focus on coaching, although he was only relieved of his role as Aquatics Director “three or four years ago.”

In 2002, water polo was dropped by the University, along with six other varsity sports, in order to free over $1 million, ending Yarworth’s head coaching career in the sport. In his fifteen years at the helm of UMass water polo, Yarworth won eight Eastern championships and advanced to the NCAA tournament seven times. In 2007, he was inducted into the Collegiate Water Polo Association Hall of Fame for his success in the sport with UMass.

However, to this day, he can’t say he preferred coaching one sport over the other.

“When I was coaching them both at the same time, which was most of the year, I was exhausted,” Yarworth says. “But I loved it.”

(Collegian File Photo)

The swim program’s breakthrough 1996 season was also one of its worst.

During a January 10th swim meet at Dartmouth College, standout swimmer Greg Menton, a 20-year-old junior, collapsed suddenly and died of a heart attack. He was Yarworth’s first and only full-scholarship athlete who competed on both the swimming and water polo teams.

“It turned out after the fact that he had a congenital defect in his heart that hadn’t manifested itself until that moment,” reflects Yarworth, whose arms Menton “passed away in, basically.”

Following the tragic incident, the team took some time off to fly out to Portland, Oregon for the funeral. When they eventually got back into their usual training regiment, the swimmers and coaches alike were noticeably “shaky” and “off-base.”

It would have been easy for the program to chalk up that ’95-96 season as lost, but, fueled by the loss of their teammate, the Minutemen surged back to win their first-ever Atlantic 10 championship that year.

“It was probably one of the most impressive feats I’ve seen from a group of young men,” says Yarworth in hindsight.

Since then, Yarworth has tacked on fifteen more A-10 championships, as well as 14 A-10 Coach of the Year awards.

Of course, all the accolades acquired over his 40 years of coaching are nice, but what Yarworth really takes great pride in is how many of his alumni have found success after college.

“Not the swimming success, but the life success,” Yarworth says. “Professionally, personally…When we have alumni events, to see guys from 30 years ago hanging out with guys from 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and they’re all connected because of UMass swimming, they have that friendship and camaraderie [that I love to see.]”

The close relationships that Yarworth has with his swimmers, which create lasting memories and bonds that want to be shared and renewed, are undoubtedly a main reason for why UMass swimming alumni are so connected. You won’t come across anyone involved with the program who Yarworth hasn’t affected with his energy and persistence in some way.

“My freshmen year…was something unparalleled to anything I’ve had before,” says Gray. “It was exhilarating, it was fun, it was hard, it taught me discipline, it taught me leadership, it taught me hierarchy. It taught me everything, really.”

A Florida native, Al Madden appreciates Yarworth for truly caring about the academic success of his swimmers and for going the extra mile to check up on the out-of-state guys, who are nervous at first by being so far away from home.

After his freshman year, Madden was unsure if he would continue swimming at the collegiate level, but Yarworth’s attentiveness helped him make the decision to return.

“Russ just helped me through it, coached me through it…called me all the time over the summer to see how I was doing, if I was ready to come back again for another season,” Madden says. “[He’s] just a great support system.”

Assistant coach Sean Clark, who swam under Yarworth at UMass from ’90-94, found Yarworth’s “energy and authority in the sport hard to not be around.”

“That’s why I came to UMass,” Clark says.

What impresses Clark about Yarworth is the culture he creates and his knack for instilling habits that lead to life success out of the pool for UMass swimming’s graduates.

“I know that what we do is not just important for their swimming careers, but it’s important for their real careers, and the relationships they make, and how they respond to each other, respond to authority, find the ability to prepare for challenging things,” Yarworth says. “And because I know how important that is, I want to make sure that I’m supporting that, having the same goals, making sure that our student-athletes turn into powerful graduates.”

(Collegian File Photo)

Swimming is Russ Yarworth’s livelihood and joy, but it doesn’t encompass his whole being. When he’s not coaching or recruiting, Yarworth is an avid fan of the outdoors—“I’d rather be outdoors than indoors”—and enjoys biking, kayaking, and going to the beach during the summers. (Well, not so much anymore. “I don’t like the sharks,” he jokes.)

Before the end of his tenure, he would like to see UMass build a new facility for the program and give it more funding, but again, the satisfaction of knowing that his graduates are well-prepared for life outside of the pool is enough for Yarworth.

Did he ever consider leaving?

“There were some opportunities that I could have pursued, but I realized UMass was in my blood, UMass Amherst was my home,” Yarworth says. “It’s a great place to live and work. I can’t think of any other place in the country I’d really want to be.”

Even after all these years, the same energy and commitment is still there on a daily basis. UMass swimming and diving will probably never gain the same kind of popularity and fanbase as football or basketball or hockey, but nevertheless, Russ Yarworth will continue to chug away and do what he does best: have fun.

Ben Painchaud can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Ben_Painchaud.

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