Last fall, the Michigan men’s swim team was working out at Elbel Field. Assistant coach Dr. Josh White had the team playing Ultimate Frisbee, but instead of using a Frisbee, the Wolverines used medicine balls for training. With an odd number of guys at practice, the team needed another person to play, so White yelled at retired Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek to get in the game.
“I was just joking, but I should have known,” White said laughing. “Before I know it, he’s pulled his shirt off, running right in there and playing with them.”
White should have known. Not only because Urbanchek is in great physical shape — he’s been running outside every morning for 20 years and still lifts weights with the team — but because he’s always willing to help out in any way he can. And he does.
After retiring in 2004 at the end of his 22nd season as Michigan’s head coach, he became an assistant coach with Club Wolverine, helping the high-performance group prepare for the 2008 Olympics. In July, when current head coach Mike Bottom was hired to replace former coach Bob Bowman, he immediately asked Urbanchek to stay and help.
“When I first started coaching, I had a list of about six coaches I wanted to work with,” Bottom said. “And Jon was on the top of that list.”
Urbanchek now serves as the team’s volunteer coach emeritus and is still involved in everything from meet and practice preparation to showing recruits around Ann Arbor.
Bottom said the team is “blessed” to have Urbanchek on deck and that there is no better ambassador for Michigan swimming. Before coaching the Wolverines, Urbanckek swam at Michigan from 1958-62 and was a member of three NCAA Championship teams.
As head coach from 1982 to 2004, he won 13 Big Ten titles, including 10 straight from 1986 to 1995, and led the Wolverines to a 100-4 record against Big Ten teams. In 1995, Michigan won its 11th and most recent NCAA National Championship, pulling even with Ohio State for the national record.
In addition to his collegiate success, Urbanchek cultivated a program that produced Big Ten and NCAA champion swimmers who were also competitive at international competitions.
“At Michigan, it’s more than just the Big Tens or the NCAAs,” Urbanchek said. “It’s about going beyond that, because there is always another level. That’s why Michigan has been so successful for decades, because we put more emphasis on the Olympics and World Championships.”
Urbanchek has served as an assistant coach at every Summer Olympics since 1988 and worked with world-record holders and Olympic gold medalists including Tom Dolan, Tom Malchow and Michael Phelps.
Urbanchek’s accomplishments have earned him the Big Ten Coach of the Year award nine times (more than any other men’s swimming coach in conference history) and the American Swimming Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year honor in 1990 and 1995. Last summer, his accomplishments earned him a spot in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. He was the 18th individual affiliated with Michigan to be inducted.
Next month in Detroit, Urbanchek will be inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame as part of a class of 11 that includes former Michigan football and baseball All-American Rick Leach, NASCAR team owner Jack Roush, Red Wings co-owner Marian Illitch and media announcer George Blaha.
But while Urbanchek’s success as a coach is incredible, coaches and swimmers say it’s his personality that has given him staying power.
“He’s a man’s man,” Bottom said. “He talks to the guys the way guys like to be talked to in testosterone terms, and yet he communicates with absolute respect. There is no one in the country that doesn’t, when you say Jon Urbanchek, just smile, nod their head and say, ‘Oh, yes, that guy is the man.’ ”
White says he frequently asks Urbanchek for advice and is amazed by his humility.
“This is a guy whose name is on the scoreboard (over the pool), and when you go see the athletic administrators, they have signed pictures of him hanging in their offices,” White said, “But ego doesn’t drive Jon. He never implies that he has all the answers. I’ve learned so much from the answers that he has given me and just watching him interact with guys.”
Many of the relationships Urbanchek builds with his athletes last a lifetime. He is routinely invited to their weddings. They fill his Facebook profile with greetings, and he receives calls and text messages from Olympians who simply want to catch up.
Along with his volunteer position at Michigan, Urbanchek also works with USA Swimming as a special assistant to the National Team Director. He says that despite his love of swimming, the time will come when he will want to spend more time with his family or enjoying his other passion — riding and caring for his two horses, which he keeps in a local stable.
Though he’s not sure when that time will be, Urbanchek says he could stop coaching knowing there’s not much left for him to chase. For now, he continues to coach not only because he loves the sport and the athletes, but because he felt he owed it to the school.
“I’ve gotten a lot out of Michigan and I owe a lot to Michigan,” he said. “When I went to school here, I got my five years here on scholarship. I figured I could pay back all the money I received when I was a student. So I think we’re even now.”