Mike Hughes couldn't have scripted a better final year as head coach of the Navy women's rowing team than the one he just completed in 2015.
Hughes, the reigning Patriot League and Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association Region 2 Coach of the Year, led the Midshipmen to their second league title and NCAA championship berth in three seasons.
Then, on June 25, one month after the conclusion of the season, Hughes announced his retirement, ending his 18-year run at the helm of the program he helped turn into a perennial Mid-Atlantic region power.
"I started thinking about it after the season, and I thought I would go out on top. A lot of coaches really don't get a chance to do that," said Hughes, who joined the Navy men's lightweight rowing program as an assistant in 1981. "I just thought, at the age of 65, it was time to see if I could do a few different things."
Hughes, who spent 24 of his 42 years in rowing at Navy, said the decision to step down came at an ideal time in his life. Hughes noted he has been dealing with back issues the last five years and would like to spend more time at home with his family.
Although Navy is still in the process of finding a replacement, Hughes believes the foundation he established during his tenure will leave his successor with plenty to build on.
"I know the people [Navy] is interviewing are very good," Hughes said. "They let me and the coaching staff be a part of the search committee, and I'm pretty confident whomever takes over the legacy is going to do a heck of a job. I could live with any of the candidates."
A four-time Patriot League Coach of the Year, Hughes finished his storied career with three conference titles and the Midshipmen's two NCAA championship bids.
But the Arnold, Md., resident had his share of growing pains early during his tenure, inheriting a program that only had one eight-person boat and one seven-person boat his first year in 1998. Through years of hard work and commitment, Hughes stayed the course, fine-tuning his coaching style and incorporating goal-setting and visualization techniques he picked up from fellow coaches along the way.
"Before every single practice -- and I got this from some basketball coach years ago -- I would say, ‘Who's going to get faster today?' [The rowers] would raise their left hand all the way up," Hughes said. "Then, I would say, ‘Who is the Patriot League champion,' not who will be, and they all raised their right hand. That happened every day, and they were making a statement that they were champions."
In 2005, the year women's rowing became a varsity sport in the Patriot League, Navy proved Hughes a prophet, capturing the inaugural conference championship. Hughes was quick to shower his rowers with praise for believing in his vision and buying into the training methods that netted the Midshipmen two more league titles in 2013 and this past spring.
"As a coach, I have only been as good as the rowers I have had," Hughes said. "They are the ones who deserve the credit for all their accomplishments and achievements. I was honored to work alongside such great student-athletes, team captains, competitors and future officers during my time at Navy."
Not only did Hughes' teams thrive on the water, but they also demonstrated their prowess in the classroom.
Under Hughes' guidance, 39 of his rowers received CRCA National Scholar-Athlete awards, 19 earned CRCA All-Mid-Atlantic Regional accolades and five garnered Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors.
His 2005 and 2013 teams were awarded Navy's Director of Athletics Cup, which recognizes the Midshipmen team that distinguishes itself as a standard bearer in academics, leadership, competition, conduct, aptitude for commission and honor.
Hughes acknowledged all the academic feats his rowers accumulated throughout the years gave him just as much fulfillment as all the wins and hardware they racked up.
"I have 50-something kids on the team, and our average GPA was a 3.2 or better," Hughes said. "We would always work on the academics. I'm as proud of all the kids we've put on the All-Patriot Academic Team as I am for everyone we've had make the All-Patriot League Rowing Team."
Now, with coaching behind him, Hughes expects to go through an adjustment period, but he plans to take advantage of a less jam-packed schedule with his children.
"Rowing, it's been a great time for me," Hughes said. "I know that I am going to miss it, but I don't miss it yet. When the season starts, though, that's when I'm going to go, ‘Oh, boy.'
"But I keep thinking that I'm going to be spending weekends with my kids. I'm really going to appreciate that. I'm just really glad I didn't wait around for too long and for someone at Navy to tell me that it's time to go."