SPORTS

  /  

April 7, 2006

Villarreal’s exit sets change in motion

After steadily improving over each of the last three seasons, men’s swimming has never been stronger in the modern era. Next year, they’ll have to try to continue their development without the man who helped take them to that level.

The athletic department officially announced in a March 7 press release that men’s swimming head coach and aquatics director George Villarreal has resigned his position. While he will remain available through the end of the academic year, most of his coaching responsibilities since the conclusion of winter quarter have fallen to assistant coach Jason Weber. The men’s assistant has also split pool management duties with women’s assistant coach Sue Templeman.

Coordinated with the opening of the Myers-McLoraine Pool and encompassing the beginning of the Maroons’ evolution into a national contender, Villarreal’s tenure was a short but memorable one. Competing in one of the toughest men’s swimming leagues in Division III, he led the team out of the depths of the UAA standings and brought the program its first All-American in 13 years.

“The program improved dramatically under Coach Villarreal’s leadership,” athletic director Tom Weingartner said. “He had a large impact.”

While his squad’s success in the water has been undeniable, the dual nature of Villareal’s position proved not to his satisfaction. He felt that the myriad duties of simultaneously managing a major swim facility and coaching the team occasionally limited his overall effectiveness. Over the course of this winter, Villarreal began to consider seeking a job with a more fulfilling balance of responsibilities.

“I liked some of the administrative duties that I was doing, but I found that a lot of that got in the way of what I was best at—on-deck coaching, mentoring, and face time with student-athletes,” Villarreal said. “What I enjoy the most is pure coaching and teaching.

“I was pulled in a lot of different directions. I think I could have done any of those things effectively, but doing all of them at the same time is tough.”

The 11-year coaching veteran made the final decision to leave Chicago after considerable soul-searching and multiple conversations with Weingartner. He is currently in the process of applying for a variety of coaching positions and hopes to have a job lined up by July.

“I think I’m looking for an opportunity to coach that best fits my talents as a ‘coaches’ coach’ or a ‘swimmers’ coach’: being on-deck, doing the recruitment work, doing the season planning, making coaching my primary responsibility,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal, a 1994 graduate of league rival Emory University where he was an All-American his senior year, has been a collegiate head coach since the 1995–1996 season. His experience proved to be a boon for the men’s swimming program almost immediately upon his arrival on campus in June 2003. While the squad went 0–4 and finished last in the UAA in his first season with the program, Northe Saunders (A.B. ’05) became the first men’s swimmer to compete at the Division III NCAA Championships since Kris Alden (A.B. ’91) did so in 1991. Saunders earned Chicago a 32nd-place team standing at the meet.

“[Villarreal] really bonds well with his swimmers, and helps build good team chemistry,” third-year Nate Roberts said. “This ultimately makes him someone you’re willing to give your best effort for in practices and meets. George is also a fantastic recruiter, something the program is going to miss.”

That skill was amply demonstrated in Villarreal’s second season. With his recruits greatly increasing the squad’s talent level and depth, the team earned a 7–2 dual meet record and a sixth-place showing at the league meet. Saunders punctuated his final season by winning a second All-American certificate at nationals for a 37th-place team finish.

This past winter, another great recruiting class led by first-year Shane Carlson pushed the Maroons to a 5–3–1 mark and another sixth-place finish at UAAs. The team pulled within 100 points of fourth to record the program’s best ever back-to-back finishes at the meet.

“He took this team from being the laughingstock of our conference to being a nationally-ranked program that is on the verge of becoming one of the best teams in Division III swimming,” said Weber, who has served as Villarreal’s assistant for the last two years.

“The biggest thing is that the team’s entire attitude changed from my first year to the second,” Villarreal said. “They assumed an attitude of confidence and developed a true sense of team and of a common goal. They came so far in such a short time. It was a complete change in everything about the team.”

That change may have made this transition even harder on the Maroons. Villarreal informed the men’s swimmers of his resignation in what all parties describe as an emotional closed meeting on February 14, three days after the conference championships.

“We were all pretty upset about it,” Carlson said. “He made practices enjoyable, and really brought the team together. The meeting was really sad.”

“We’re going to miss his presence on deck. He’s a part of the team as more than just a coach, but as a teammate,” second-year Andrew Kent said. “He’s definitely a character. We enjoy his company, his drive, his motivational speaking.”

All incoming recruits have been contacted by Weber, who has coordinated the last two recruiting cycles. At this point, the assistant coach is predicting that there will be little attrition as a result of Villarreal’s resignation.

“I was very worried that the recruits would see this as a major sign of instability and would choose another school over us. However, it seems as though we won’t lose too many,” he said. “Right now, it looks as though we’ll bring in one of the best recruiting classes in the history of Chicago swimming.”

With both Villarreal and women’s head coach Sheila O’Connor leaving, the athletic department will be combining the men’s and women’s head coaching and aquatics director positions. The logic behind the move is that merging the jobs will make the position more attractive to prospective candidates, increase unity between the teams, and facilitate more appropriate distribution of financial resources between sports.

The two squads had shared a coach as recently as the 2002-2003 season, immediately before Villarreal’s hiring. At that time, the need to add aquatics staff precipitated the choice to split up the jobs. O’Connor had previously run the program on her own since 1994.

“After getting fully staffed with Sue Templeman’s hiring [before the 2005-2006 season] and after getting Ratner online, we have a better understanding of how well we could use assistants,” Weingartner said. “We have a more accurate understanding of the workload.”

O’Connor also resigned in March as part of the other shakeup in the athletic department. Her husband, men’s soccer head coach John O’Connor, made the decision to accept the head coaching position at the University of Rhode Island after 11 years with the Maroons.

“Both the combined and separate swimming coach models are very common, particularly at Division III,” Weingartner said. “We want everyone working under the same set of rules and expectations.”

The women’s team has not been as successful as its brother program in recent seasons. The Maroons finished five points ahead of eighth-place Brandeis at UAAs in February to rise out of the bottom of the standings for the first time since 1998. There has been some concern among the men’s swimmers that hiring a single coach would curb their momentum in favor of helping the women’s team improve.

“We’ve been very successful the past few seasons, and I think some are worriedthat the wider focus of a new head coach on both programs means he or she won’t be able to give the same focus on the men’s team that George did,” Roberts said. “I think it’s a valid concern for us to have, and I think the frustration that guys have felt surrounding George’s departure only enhances these concerns.”

Weingartner emphasized that the department aimed to continue pushing both teams to reach a higher competitive level.

“We felt like we could be every bit as competitive with one coach as two. There should be no drop-off of quality in coaching,” he said.

“What’s key is getting a coach who understands the concern and who we feel will not allow that to happen,” Roberts said. “I think the one coach and separate team models both have their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, though, it’s the coach that makes a successful team. We won because of George and Jason, not the coaching model. If we get a good coach we will continue to improve, as will the women’s team, without sacrificing things.”

Wrestling head coach Leo Kocher will chair the search committee responsible for recommending a candidate for the job. Kocher, along with O’Connor, assistant athletics director for facilities Jennifer Coleman, head track coach Chris Hall, and head women’s basketball coach Aaron Roussell will review applications, develop a short of list of potential candidates, conduct interviews, and make a formal recommendation to athletic director. As is standard with hiring for all new faculty members, any candidate selected by Weingartner would subsequently be submitted to the provost for approal.

Roberts, second-year Zach Ergish, and first-years Kaitlin Roche and Rachel Zarnke will represent the current swim team rosters on the committee.

“The ultimate goal for the program is to become a consistent contender in the UAA and we want someone who can help us take that next step. At the same time, we need someone who fits well at the U of C and with the current team we have assembled,” Roberts said. “I hope we can find someone who is a strong leader and motivator who is going to get the most out of us. In addition, we want someone who is skilled in improving swimmers’ stroke technique and has a training philosophy that’s going to help us crack the top four at UAA’s as early as next season.”

The department aims to have the position filled by the end of the academic year.