By Greg Earhart
There are so many things to say about Jim Steen who recently handed the reins of the storied Kenyon program over to Jessen Book. The championships, the impact on individuals and the way he made Division III relevant. Each topic is deserving of a book and here’s to hoping Jim will write one (or at least get a Laura Hillenbrand, Kenyon Class of 1989 and author of Seabiscuit to write one about him.)
Jim is an enigma to many, a teacher to the fortunate, and a mentor to those who ask, but something every coach can take from Jim is an exit strategy that ensures the team will thrive in the future. Sure it helps when you leave the new guy a $60 Million facility, but leaving a legacy of championships can be an albatross over that new guy’s neck. In an analysis of team success and sustainability coaching stability is one of the most important components of a successful program – more important than a quality facility and a large budget. Too many programs that have replaced a longtime coach have found themselves either mired in mediocrity or worse – having severed the link between the school, local community and alumni – eliminating their team altogether (witness Nebraska, Kansas, Long Beach State).
At Kenyon Jim could do many things others of us can only dream about, but he did a few things each head coach nearing retirement should do.
• He identified and helped mentor a potential successor. As it turns out it was Jess Book, but there were at least a couple other, equally capable candidates when Jim elected to step back from the women’s team. Make no mistake, the choice was theirs, not Jim’s (he made that very clear to me). Jim, however, was able to separate the wheat from the chaff and ensured a continuation of program excellence regardless of the choice. Few coaches will ever have the ability to turn over half of their team to a new head coach. Most of us do have the ability to recruit good assistants however and those in the horizon of their careers should be identifying someone who can be prepared for the top job.
- He got out of the way. Most coaches are control freaks to some extent. The most successful ones however, have confidence in their own abilities and instill that same confidence in those around them. When Jess came on board to coach the women it became his team. How tough do you think that was for someone who’d invested so much into building the Ladies program up from scratch?
- He maintained and strengthened his alumni network. Part of this was to
get their beautiful new facility completed, but the acquaintances made
and reestablished give Jessen Book a ready and willing army of
supporters. You see them in the stands at NCAA’s, in the donor rolls
and on the recruiting trail.
- He’s staying involved. Who knows what capacity that might be? This is
Jim Steen after all and he can probably do whatever he’d like. His
official role, however, will be secondary to what he can offer as a
sounding board; as someone who can navigate the academic or political
landscape of the college, the NCAA or the swimming world; as someone who
can inspire future Kenyon swimmers from the recruitment through their
giving years. What he won’t be is meddlesome. Few can do those as
well as Jim Steen will, but anyone who has built a successful program
owes it to that program to not just ride off into the sunset.
To his credit, Jessen Book is smart enough to keep Jim involved, and to Jim’s credit he will be encouraged to establish himself and his own program. For every longtime coach who moves on there seem to be two young upstarts bent on building their own legacy with little regard for their predecessor. I call it YCD – the Young Coach Disease – but that’s a topic for another day. In truth, as Jim once explained to me, “coaching is easy ... building a team is tough” because at the highest levels, one coach rarely ‘out-trains’ another. Exceptional coaches, however, connect well with their swimmers in a way that results in exceptional performances.
In professional sports it is the celebrity athlete that holds our
attention. In big time football and basketball it is the fan experience
whether on the tailgate or the sofa that brings people together. In
college swimming, it is the coach who holds our sport together. While Jim can do things few others can, as coaches we owe it to our teams, our athletes, our alumnae, and our sport, to continually set our teams up for the next stage. That next stage isn't this year's conference or NCAA's. It isn't with this year's crop of high school recruits. When you understand this, you can understand the importance of what Jim has done.
Some will argue that Jim is leaving Kenyon two years too late. It’s a valid argument if winning the most recent title is your only benchmark of success. Doing so, would give too little credit to Greg Parini and his staff at Denison University, but I’d argue that in stepping aside now, in preparing his team for the future, Jim is proving himself – as he has for his entire career – years ahead of his competition.