If coaching hadn’t been so addictive to Michigan’s new men’s head swimming and diving coach Mike Bottom, you might have ended up watching him on television talk shows or reading his books.
In the early 1990s, Bottom was an assistant coach under David Marsh at Auburn while he worked toward his masters degree in counseling psychology. His goal was to continue coaching while working on a Ph.D in sport psychology. But Bottom received some unexpected advice from Marsh, who won 12 national titles at Auburn: don’t get addicted to coaching.
“As a coach, you have a very narrow influence on the bigger picture,” Bottom said. “David felt like by what I was doing (with psychology), I could write books, be on talk shows and really have an effect on the world.”
But Bottom was already addicted. Although he finished the coursework for a Ph.D, he never earned the degree.
“I fooled myself into thinking I would stay away from swimming,” Bottom said. “To see the joy in a guy when he touches the wall and puts is hands over his head, the exhilaration you feel as a coach is an adrenaline … It’s a powerful emotion, and once you get a sip of that, it’s addicting.”
So addicting that Bottom is now entering his 18th year of collegiate coaching.
Bottom accepted the Michigan job in June after Bob Bowman announced that he would leave the program to become CEO of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in Maryland. Bowman, best-known for being the personal coach of Michael Phelps, served as Michigan’s coach for four seasons. Phelps trained with Bowman at Michigan from 2004 until leaving for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where he won eight gold medals.
Bottom’s first opportunity to introduce himself to his new team came at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in early July. Bottom made time to meet with Michigan’s swimmers at the meet.
His goal may have been just to meet the guys on the team, but the meeting did more than that. For senior co-captain Jamie Martone, it eliminated many of the concerns he had about working with a new coach.
“I’ll never forget that meeting,” Martone said. “We were in the corner by a warm-down hot tub and at the very end, he said, ‘Can we get a Go Blue?’ And that just really tickled me because we were at the Olympic trials, which is a very individualized competition, and to know he was already thinking about saying, ‘Go Blue and Go Michigan,’ I knew he was going to be a phenomenal coach to work with.”
Bottom’s success with sprint swimmers in college and at the Olympics has earned him the reputation as one of the world’s best sprinting coaches. Between the 1996-2004 Olympiads, nine of 18 medals awarded in the men’s 50- and 100- meter freestyles were won by swimmers training with Bottom.
The key to his coaching philosophy is building strong working and personal relationships with his swimmers.
Spend a few minutes with Bottom, and his passion for helping his swimmers succeed in their lives on dry land becomes quite clear. When asked about his goals for the program, his first response is getting each athlete to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
“When we come in, he is always asking us about our families and our classes and offering his help,” Martone said. “It’s a relief that we know he’s setting us up to perform to the best of our ability in the pool, and in life.”
It’s proof that the new coach hasn’t completely lost touch with his background in psychology. In fact, his experiences working with young athletes have taught him he never really had to choose between coaching and counseling. The two are more connected than he imagined.
“I know the developmental struggles of these guys,” Bottom said. “And that knowledge helps me to be able to look in their eyes and not see them as a swimmer only, but as a person who is developing and becoming a man and that’s truly what it’s all about.”
So far, swimmers and coaches say the coaching transition has been smooth. First year assistant coach Josh White is pleased with way the athletes have responded.
“This has been the easiest coaching transition I’ve been a part of by far,” White said. “The team has no reluctance at all to doing new things and have been both accepting of us as people and also open to different coaching techniques than they’ve had in the past.”
Bottom is just the sixth head swimming coach at Michigan in the last 83 years. During that time, the program has been the best team in its conference, winning 31 Big Ten titles — most recently, last season — and 11 national championships. Jon Urbanchek, Michigan’s swimming and diving coach from 1982-2004, who led the Wolverines to 13 Big Ten titles and one national championship, has been instrumental in helping to make the transition to Bottom. Urbanchek will serve as a volunteer coach for the next year or two. Bottom said it’s an honor to work with him, and has named him the program’s coach emeritus.
Martone said that seeing a familiar face on the pool deck has been invaluable in helping the swimmers through the transition. He said having a “Michigan Man” work alongside the new coaches has created a positive work environment.
“He’s a legend on this deck and someone we all know,” Martone said. “There is no nervous tension on deck. The atmosphere is very subdued and focused, and that has helped us tremendously to move forward.”
From 1997 to 2007, Bottom was the co-head coach at California. During his 10 seasons in Berkeley, the Golden Bears had nine consecutive top 10 finishes at the NCAA championships. After leaving California, Bottom was the head coach of an elite-level training group called The Race Club in the Florida Keys. The Race Club was founded in 2003 by 10-time Olympic medalist Gary Hall Jr., who has trained with Bottom for the last 13 years.
Bottom admits that he had no plans to return to collegiate swimming, but he started thinking about pursuing the Michigan job after having dinner with former Michigan captain Davis Tarwater at a training camp in Colorado. Tarwater, who now swims for Club Wolverine, was concerned that the Athletic Department hadn’t found a new coach. He asked Bottom if he would consider taking the job.
Bottom points to the rich tradition of Michigan’s swimming and diving program and the strength of its academic programs as the main reasons he chose to join the Wolverines.
“There is no other school in the country that has the tradition Michigan has,” he said. “I wouldn’t have come back if it were another school. Michigan was just the right chemistry for me to be coming back to college.”