BThey are tossed aside in drawers and closets, the trappings of
nearly 50 years in collegiate and international swimming. Watches
from his 13 Big Ten Championship teams. Watches and rings from the
past five Summer Olympic Games, where he served as an assistant
coach for USA Swimming. The 1995 NCAA Championship ring,
significantly gaudier than its 1961 counterpart not far away.
This is just a sampling of Jon Urbanchek’s treasure trove,
which he does not showcase for visitors at his home. Some pieces of
memorabilia have, in fact, been misplaced. This seemingly
indifferent attitude towards his accomplishments appears
incomprehensible, yet Urbanchek’s philosophy is simple.
“The awards will all tarnish with age,” he says.
“But the memories will remain vivid throughout the
The memories — there are so many of them. Urbanchek will
end his 22-year run as the head coach of the men’s swimming
and diving team after this summer’s Olympics, but he has
already begun to delve back into his past. It’s an emotional
task that occasionally brings tears to his eyes. While his
recollections are fuzzy in some places — “My memory is
not that good anymore” — he does remember certain
stories remarkably well. Urbanchek’s efforts to recall his
past reveal a fascinating history of ups and downs.
‘The 100 dollar latte’
A cult has developed among Urbanchek’s current and former
swimmers, who relish retelling lighthearted stories about his
quirky and endearing habits.
Foremost among them are his penchant for getting into trouble
while driving and his addiction to coffee.
There was the time in Colorado Springs when Urbanchek was pulled
over for doing roughly double the speed limit on his way back from
Starbucks —“The $100 latte,” assistant coach Eric
Namesnik calls the incident.
Or the time he received a ticket for parking in a handicap space
to run in for a quick cappuccino.
Former Wolverine Tom Malchow, who owns gold and silver medals
from the past two Olympics, is well-versed in Urbanchek’s
“He spends so much money on coffee,” says Malchow,
one of Urbanchek’s 28 Olympians. “It’s probably
the reason he didn’t retire four years ago.”
It did not take sophomore Davis Tarwater long to realize this
“He usually comes back before finals at night with about
15 cups of coffee, but nobody ever wants to drink it. ‘Who
needs a cappuccino?’ is his favorite line.”
Senior captain Dan Ketchum says Urbanchek’s annual
Christmas present from the team is a $10 gift certificate to
The driving stories are equally amusing. Urbanchek once got lost
on the wrong side of the Charles River in Boston for hours. He made
a U-turn and drove the wrong way on a one-way street during a
parade in Florida. He has been chased by police officers and he has
aroused road rage from California to Texas to New Jersey. And all
this with his terrified swimmers sitting in the car next to
Ketchum remembers what Urbanchek would do when the team
approached a state in which the coach’s license was
“We would always conveniently stop at the border,”
Ketchum says, noting that Urbanchek would then make a suggestion
for somebody to take over the driving for him. “He would
never tell anybody that he couldn’t drive in (the
“I’m very cautious when I’m with the
team,” Urbanchek says in his own defense. “I’ve
got a lot of points (on my record).”
Brent Lang, who swam at Michigan from 1987-90 and won a gold
medal at the 1988 Olympics, sees his former coach’s
periodically less-than-ideal behavior as a positive.
“He was just a human being like we were,” Lang says.
“If we had faults, so did he.”
Namesnik, the owner of silver medals from the 1992 and 1996
Olympics, is amazed at his colleague’s ability to weasel his
way out of serious trouble.
“Jon’s got dumb luck,” he says. “It all
works out in the end.”
Urbanchek’s peculiarities don’t stop at speeding
tickets and cappuccinos. Though he has been described by those who
know him as somebody who enjoys “classical music and
oldies,” former Michigan swimmer and two-time Olympic gold
medalist Tom Dolan remembers Urbanchek taking to a slightly
When Snoop Dogg came out with his first solo album,
“Doggystyle,” in Dolan’s freshman year of 1993,
the team was on a road trip in California. Dolan, who was into rap
at the time, switched the van radio to a Los Angeles rap station to
hear tracks from the new album.
“From then on, (Urbanchek) loved rap and he loved
Snoop,” Dolan says. “He would sit on the deck and hum
the background of the Snoop song.”
Such acclimation to his surroundings has helped
Urbanchek’s swimmers remain calm and loose over the years,
although he does not acknowledge that this story and others like it
are entirely accurate.
“What the guys will tell you is only partially
true,” Urbanchek says with a wink. “Everything is
probably greatly, greatly exaggerated. So take it with a grain of
‘I’m a people person’
Perhaps Urbanchek’s most important memory is something he
is not proud of. He reached his peak as a swimmer during his
sophomore year at Michigan in 1959, when he helped his team capture
the NCAA Championship. Urbanchek’s junior year proved to be
far more difficult. He flunked Organic Chemistry 5E and was ruled
ineligible for swimming. When the team failed to win the National
Championship in 1960, Urbanchek felt guilty.
“I felt like I could have contributed to the team and
didn’t,” he says with misty eyes.
Urbanchek’s advisor, Prof. Quackenbush, convinced him to
leave engineering for the physical education department. It was a
move that would change his life.
“I can’t see myself working with inanimate
objects,” Urbanchek says. “I’m a people person,
and I made the right choice. Sometimes something positive comes out
of something negative. I don’t think I would be here as a
coach today if I didn’t leave the school of
Urbanchek would go on to win another national championship ring
in 1961 when he returned to the team, in some ways atoning for his
past difficulties and cementing the confidence that would become a
hallmark of his coaching career.
Back to the top
Urbanchek returned to a floundering Michigan swimming program as
the head coach in 1982 after two decades of high school and college
coaching in southern California. He felt his alma mater could
return to the elite level of college swimming it had maintained for
so many years in the past.
“I saw a pile of ashes as far as the program goes,”
Urbanchek says. “But whenever you see ashes, you know
something stood there before. All we had to do was rebuild
Slowly but surely, Urbanchek and his swimmers did just that.
Michigan began winning Big Ten Championships — actually,
“dominating” might be a better word. From 1986 though
1995, Urbanchek led his teams to 10 straight conference titles,
culminating with the national championship in the streak’s
Urbanchek knew that 1995 would be special when he looked in the
pool and saw so many Olympic-caliber athletes.
“In the back of the minds of every single kid on that
team, they knew we were going to win it,” he says. “We
didn’t have to verbalize it.”
But a careless error on the part of the coaching staff
temporarily put the NCAA Championship in jeopardy. When the wrong
name was placed on the lineup card for the 4X100 freestyle relay,
Michigan was disqualified from the event final.
Urbanchek was particularly distraught because his team was a
favorite in the race.
“We should have won that relay,” Urbanchek says with
Team captain Gustavo Borges reassured his coach that everybody
would step up in other events. When they did, and the championship
was clinched, Urbanchek beamed with pride.
“It was just a once-in-a-lifetime dream for a coach to
have that much talent at one time in the pool,” he says.
“I was very lucky.”
Heart of gold
How does a man roughly five-and-a-half feet tall stand out in a
sport of giants? Urbanchek’s short stature and Hungarian
accent — which Lang says is a necessary part of any
impersonation — make him seem the most unlikely of swimming
legends. As he walks around the pool deck, motivating his swimmers
while wearing shorts, a surfing T-shirt and flip flops, one may
wonder what makes him so special. But his oversized personality
more than makes up for what he lacks in other areas.
Urbanchek inspires intense dedication from his current and
former swimmers. When Borges, who has accumulated four medals from
the past three Olympics, heard that his college coach was planning
to retire at season’s end, he made sure to travel from his
native Brazil to Ann Arbor for one last workout with his
“He was always very approachable,” Lang says.
“He could laugh at himself and make other swimmers laugh at
themselves. People relate to him more on a personal level than on a
pure coaching level.”
Junior Brendan Neligan admires Urbanchek’s
“He doesn’t care about himself,” Neligan says.
“He just wants to see his swimmers make the Olympic team. Jon
could be watching from the stands, Jon could be watching on TV, but
I think Jon just brings an aura of excitement to the pool in his
The final chapter
There was no Big Ten Championship this year. No commemorative
watch to throw in a drawer, no team trophy to set aside. An NCAA
Championship this coming weekend is all but ruled out as a
possibility. But this year has been extra special for Jon
“In swimming, you measure success by doing your best
time,” he says. “In that respect, I think the team was
a tremendous success. It was by far my most enjoyable year to coach
the team. The trophy doesn’t really make a success for
Whether his legacy is measured by trophies won or lives touched,
Urbanchek will leave Michigan with gigantic shoes to fill.
“When your last season is successful and happy, and when
you’re going to walk away from the team with a smile,”
Urbanchek says, “you’re going to carry that smile with