Wandering down the entranceway of Canham Natatorium, it is easy to get lost in a sea of endless memories.
Photos of past teams line the corridor, and for the fans who can”t help but notice, these portraits offer a glimpse of Michigan swimming and diving history.
But amidst the decades of change visible on this single wall, there is one constant a small wiry man with intense eyes and a gentle smile: Men”s and women”s diving coach Dick Kimball.
His hair grays as the years pass, and his wrinkles deepen, but he”s always there.
In 1956, Michigan was blessed with the arrival of Kimball the athlete. Three years later Michigan had no problem making Kimball the coach. And now, after a lifetime of irreplaceable tutelage in and out of the pool, he leaves as Dick Kimball the legend.
After this season Kimball, 66, will step down from a job that was given to him by Fritz Crisler, making him the last coach who remained from Crisler”s era as athletic director. Although his love for coaching and the sport will remain with him always, the year-round demands of recruiting were no longer what he wanted.
Throughout his 43 years of heading the Michigan diving program, Kimball has had unparalleled success. He has been part of 33 Big Ten champions, and five NCAA champions three as a diver and two as coach. He was named Big Ten Coach of Year four times, and NCAA Coach of the year in 1984 and 1988. Kimball”s divers have succeeded internationally as well nine winning Olympic medals and four of those taking home the gold.
But Kimball”s mark on the sport extends well beyond statistics, awards or even championships.
“He”s impacted the way I live my life,” sophomore Jason Coben said.
Coben has undergone a transformation since his arrival at Michigan. As a lax freshman, he was overwhelmed by Kimball”s grueling practice schedule and was not totally committed to academics.
“I didn”t have that hard of a work ethic,” Coben said. “My grades were slipping. My attitude was basically (that) I had to dive to keep my scholarship. I wanted to go to the Olympics, but I didn”t know how to work that hard. He sat me down and talked with me, and the things he said inspired me to do better.”
Coben”s accomplishments this season are a testament to Kimball”s ability to get through to his divers. By Michigan”s third meet this season Coben had qualified for the NCAA Diving Zones, and he recently earned recognition as Big Ten Diver of the Week. Coben said his grades have improved too.
The once unmotivated diver now thrives on hard work and shares his coach”s passion for the sport.
Women”s swimming coach Jim Richardson knows that the achievements of athletes like Coben have occurred frequently with Kimball at the helm.
“He has this great ability to read people and know how to motivate them to do things that they don”t think they can do,” Richardson said. “With some kids, he”s had to be patient, and in some probably more loving. With others he”s had to be a tough task-master. But in either way, Kimball knows how to reach them.”
The relationship that has developed between Coben and his coach is so strong that when Kimball told the team this would be his final year, Coben”s immediate reaction was anger.
“To dive for someone for two years, see them every day, and then just have them out of your life, that would be rough,” Coben said.
Time, and Kimball”s promise that he will be around if needed, have eased the young diver”s anxiety, and Coben is sure that Kimball”s influence will linger long after he”s gone.
“That work ethic that he has instilled in us, we”ll have that for the rest of our lives,” Coben said, adding that when he talks to former Michigan divers, the things Kimball taught them are evident. “They go to work early and when they don”t have anything to do, they have to clean the house or something. They have to be always doing something. Just like Kimball.”
It”s not just divers that Kimball touched at Michigan. He has a unique interest in and knowledge of swimming.
“He”s one of the few old-timers who sees swimming and diving as one team All the swimmers love him,” men”s swimming coach Jon Urbanchek said.
Even when removed from the duties of coaching, Kimball, like many of his divers, will always be first in line to lend a helping hand or a friendly hello for the Michigan program.
“I”ll help out here to get the next coach situated here, if he wants me to,” Kimball said, alluding to his own desire to have a second coach around to assist in managing either the women”s or men”s divers when their schedules conflict.
“Not getting up at six in the morning every day will be nice, but on most days I”ll be usually be up early,” Kimball said. “I told my players I”d be by just to wave at them (during morning practices) as I go out rollerblading.”
That energy, which spills into his bubbling personality, has baffled coaches and athletes alike. After more than four decades at Michigan, Kimball hasn”t slowed a bit. Besides rollerblading, he swims a mile every day, dives off the 10-meter platform, and always, always has a joke to share. Coben called him “a four-year-old trapped in a 66-year-old body.”
Bob Webster, who dove at Michigan during Kimball”s first years and won Olympic gold medals in 1960 and 1964, remembers that liveliness. But what really impresses him, and what he thinks has kept Kimball going, is his “total dedication.”
“I”ve always marveled at his tunnel vision,” Webster said. “I got over it. I coached for 20 years and then I said that”s enough, and I moved on to something else. But Dick has that fire in his belly. That”s rare in life, not just in diving.”
Perhaps with the rare combination of a charming persona, fierce competitiveness and love for the sport, it was inevitable that Kimball would excel for so long. He could have found success anywhere. But encouragement from his teammates, soon to be his first coaching class, convinced him to start his career in Ann Arbor and his loyalty has kept him here.
“Dick”s a Michigan man,” Urbanchek said. “He had many opportunities to go to other schools. He was probably the top diving coach in the country, and he could have gone anywhere he wanted to. But he”s true blue. His heart is into Michigan.”
Staying at Michigan didn”t mean that he would miss opportunities to see the world. In fact, he”s been to enough places that it would take a separate article just to list them.
He”s been to every state in the U.S., Japan five times, China and Russia twice each and all over Europe and South America.
But considering every place that he has gone, there is no trip for him like the Olympics which he had been a part of every time from 1964-1996.
“There is no other sporting event which you can compare to the Olympic games,” Kimball said. “You go there as an athlete or a coach and to just meet with the other competitors, to dine with them and to house with them is an unbelievable experience.”
Being in another country, one would think that it would be difficult for someone unfamiliar with the language or culture to be able to teach. For Kimball, though, the universal language of diving is all he needs.
“Coaches in diving are the same all around,” Kimball said. “I can walk into a program, not know the language and still just by signaling the motions, I am able to coach them.”
His ability to coach foreigners has caused problems for him, though, as in one instance he trained a Swedish diver for five weeks at one of his camps, only to have her come back and win a gold medal over his U.S. divers.
Out of all his travel destinations, there is one that Kimball sees as his favorite.
“I really like Japan,” Kimball said. “Every time I”ve been there I”ve enjoyed it. The first time I went there was in 1958, and I was on tour with eight synchronized swimmers and two Michigan divers. We did shows at all of the military bases in Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Hawaii.”
In the time that Kimball spent overseas, he was able to experience history as it was made.
His trip to Korea included a helicopter flight to the North Korean border where, even though there was no fighting at the time, there was still a military presence. He also was one of the first to fly over Russia when its airspace was opened up in the mid-1990s.
Kimball had a taste of the Communist way of life with meets in the former Soviet Union, China and East Germany when the Berlin Wall was still up.
When looking back at those events, Kimball, always a coach first and historian second, still remembers East Germany and the U.S.S.R. not so much for the significance of having Americans in competition there, but because his teams received poor judging in both locations.
With his retirement, Kimball will be able to add more countries to his passport, as his teaching is in high demand world wide.
But Kimball plans to be available at any time to help out the Wolverines, which is certainly good news for whomever takes over this prestigious coaching position.
“You can”t replace a Dick Kimball,” Richardson said. “He”s such a unique combination of tremendous work ethic and a sense of humor. Maybe we can find someone who will grow into that mold with the same kinds of ethics, commitment to his student-athletes and love of the sport.”
Next year, new photographs will hang on that wall in Canham. They will have the same rows of impressionable swimmers and divers, proudly wearing the same maize and blue, but absent will be the lone figure who has always been there before, and seemingly always would.
Yet those who look closer will see Dick Kimball”s legacy in the unity of the teams, in the focus and drive of the divers and in the laughter echoing on the deck.
After all, when your “heart is into Michigan,” you never really leave.