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After 31 Seasons, Johns Hopkins' George Kennedy Takes His Last Lap

April 15, 2016
In March 2014, the magazine Fortune ran a story titled "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders." The list included Pope Francis, German chancellor Angela Merkel, the Dalai Lama, Bono, Bill Clinton, Derek Jeter and Warren Buffett. 

The sports world was also well-represented, with five-time NBA champion head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, legendary Duke men's basketball mentor Mike Krzyzewski and standout South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley making the cut.

George Kennedy's name was also on the list.

"All I saw in my email, in bold caps, was the name Fortune," the veteran men's and women's swimming coach at Johns Hopkins said of his initial contact with the magazine. "I thought it was one of those scams, and I just wasn't replying to it for a while. Then they sent another email that said they wanted to interview me, because I was being considered for this list. I don't know, to this day, who recommended me. 

"It got me thinking that I did make an impact on somebody. It was a tremendous honor, and it was good for the sport of swimming, for Hopkins and for Baltimore."

While most people would recognize the first three prominent head coaches on the Fortune list, Kennedy's name wasn't familiar to many outside of the swimming world. But Kennedy had already put together an impressive resume. During his 31 years at the Johns Hopkins' helm, Kennedy coached 31 NCAA Division III champions and guided 20 Blue Jays teams to top-five finishes at the championship meet. He also recruited student-athletes who earned 10 College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-American recognitions and seven NCAA postgraduate scholarships. 

The Kennedy era will come to a close June 30, when the longtime coach will retire at the age of 60. The Towson, Md., resident, whose final men's team finished fourth while the women's squad placed fifth at the Division III national meet in Greensboro, N.C., in March, will leave behind a program that he built into a perennial national contender. 

"The timing to me is really important," Kennedy said. "As you get older, the amount of time that you put into coaching isn't really going to change that much. I became a little more tired by the time I got home. And with both of my daughters out of school now, I owed it to my wife [Helen] to come home with my ‘A' game as opposed to being so exhausted. We've always wanted to travel, and I want to do that now as opposed to later. 

"Plus, I'm leaving this team with almost everybody returning and a great recruiting class coming in. Between the men's and women's teams, we scored 451 points at the NCAAs, and 447 of those points are coming back. So [the program] is in a great place for the next coach." 

A 1977 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Kennedy swam for the Tar Heels and qualified for the 100-yard backstroke at the NCAA championships. After serving as a North Carolina assistant, the Moorestown, N.J., native received his first head coaching opportunity at Gettysburg College. From 1980-85, Kennedy guided the Bullets to a 77-31-2 record.

"In my first year, the team didn't do quite as well as I'd hoped," Kennedy said. "That gets a little fire in your belly, and we just got better as time went on. It was a great first place [to coach] for me."

Issue 220: Johns Hopkins Swimming Coach George Kennedy (cheering)
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics

Following his five-year stint at Gettysburg, Kennedy was named Johns Hopkins' head coach prior to the 1985-86 season. During his 31 seasons at Johns Hopkins, his men's teams achieved three second-place finishes (2001-02, 2002-03 and 2007-08) and placed outside the top 10 just three times at the NCAA championship meet. During the last six years, the women's teams posted six straight top-eight finishes, including a program-best third place during the 2013-14 campaign. 

"When I came here, I was thrilled when [former Johns Hopkins athletic director] Bob Scott told me that George was the swimming coach," said current Johns Hopkins athletic director Tom Calder, who first met Kennedy in 1978 when both men were working at North Carolina. "Swimming is a long, tough season, and it can wear on athletes. But George always kept the swimmers from getting burned out and got them ready so that they were peaking for the NCAAs. The new coach will realize that George is going to be a tough act to follow."

Kennedy's coaching philosophy helped him recruit many top-line swimmers to Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus. 

"Early in my coaching career, most coaches thought that it was more about the X's and O's," Kennedy said. "For all of the successful coaches now, it's more about the connection with your athletes. The kids are not going to buy in unless they feel that the coach really cares about them.

"The best recruiters have been the kids on our team. We've been able to get some swimmers from California, and we were never afraid to go after the kids that were also looking at the Ivy League schools or at the University of Virginia or the University of North Carolina. Once in a while, we got those kids."

Ana Bogdanovski is a prime example of the type of student-athlete Kennedy recruited to Johns Hopkins. At the 2015 NCAA championships, Bogdanovski won the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle championships. A 10-time national champion, Bogdanovski was named the NCAA Division III Swimmer of the Year for the 2014 season and a two-time first-team Academic All-American. The NCAA postgraduate scholarship recipient was also voted the CoSIDA Women's At-Large Academic All-American of the Year in 2014 and 2015. 

"Ana did everything she possibly could, in both areas [swimming and academics]," Kennedy said. "She was a studier who trained hard, and now she's going to swim for her country (Macedonia) in the Olympics."

Kennedy's retirement will not only be felt by his student-athletes. He will certainly be missed by his peers, who chose him the NCAA Division III Coach of the Year seven times. 

"The meaningful part is being with the people that you coach with," Kennedy said. "The awards are great, but what that really means is that the kids are swimming well."

But the part of the job that Kennedy will miss the most is his daily interaction with Johns Hopkins swimmers. 

"I'll miss the routine of coming in every day and working with some dynamic young people," Kennedy said. "And I'll miss being on the pool deck at the nationals." 

Issue 220: April 2016