Jim Stillson: Over three decades of diving dominance Despite controversy, SMU swimming and diving remained resilient

For nearly half a century SMU swimming and diving has ruled the pool.

From the springboard to the 100 meter freestyle, the Mustangs have dominated conference play, competed with some of the best programs in the nation, and produced multiple Olympic athletes and coaches. But for the last year, SMU swimming and diving hasn’t had anywhere to store their trophies, for the last year, they have been homeless.

31 years ago, SMU diving head coach Jim Stillson made the decision to leave Columbia University and start a career on the Hilltop.

“I was recruited here with the drawings of new facilities,” Stillson said.

Yet despite his unwavering success, including multiple coach of the year awards by the NCAA and the Olympic Committee, Stillson and his divers still have to travel to North Dallas just to practice.

“At that time, they were serious,” Stillson said, “but things happened out of our control. With the football programs issues in the 1980’s, the athletic department took a huge hit and we got put on the back burner. From there we went to the freezer, and then to the trash can.”

Although the diving program suffered the consequences of the actions within the football program, SMU diving continued to flourish, producing three Olympic divers during the 1990’s.

For a small private school known for the infamous football scandal, SMU consistently competed on a national level in the pool.

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Stillson observes his divers during a competition. Photo courtesy of: SMU Athletics

Born in Aberdeen, Maryland, Stillson attended Ohio State University where he was an all-american diver.

“I went to college to dive and to be a diving coach. For me, it wasn’t really an academic choice, it was simply, purely a sports decision,” Stillson said.

After graduating from Ohio State, Stillson transitioned from diving to coaching, and accepted a coaching position with Columbia University.

Stillson didn’t plan on staying at Columbia very long, but one thing led to another, and before he knew it nine years had gone by.

“It was an eye opening experience,” Stillson said, “there was a big difference between a small private school and a big state school. I realized a lot of the kids I graduated with were now manging pizza huts. It was tough to get jobs.”

Stillson complimented the small private school on its focus on academics that provided students with more opportunities when they graduated, but with such a focus on the classroom, Stillson found it hard to build a national caliber program.

“We would get an occasional NCAA finalist, but the balance to me wasn’t good for someone who wanted to be an athlete,” he said.

It was during this time that renowned SMU diving coach Brian Robbins would retire, (see story here – Part 1, Part 2), and just two short years later, SMU would call Coach Stillson.

For Stillson, SMU seemed to be the perfect middle ground between a high level program and an academically focused institution.

“It was a small school, great relationships and it was academically oriented. SMU was called the Harvard of the south. It allowed a balance between excellent athletics and excellent academics,” Stillson said.

It is perplexing how after so many years of success the swimming and diving programs have been rewarded with so little, in fact, with the sudden and unexpected destruction of Perkins Natatorium, both programs found themselves especially bitter toward the university.

“It was horrible,” Stillson said.

He paused, glancing over to where the Natatorium used to stand, “There were two parts, it was horrible to see that old traditional and unique facility come down because of the tremendous emotional attachment to it, and horrible because there were ill feelings among the kids on the team, the staff, and the alumni.”

Because the university decided so quickly to tear down the natatorium, the swimming and diving programs were never able to properly say goodbye. A pool that had once held hundreds of fans and been home to Olympians was suddenly gone.

“There was a great deal of animosity about not being able to have an event at the pool to celebrate an end of the era, most traditional facilities have that. They’d auction off items from inside, things like that. This was such a iconic building and program that to miss that opportunity to develop that good will to the community…it was a missed opportunity. It was greater than just the swimming community,” Stillson said.

However, despite the ill-will toward how it was handled, there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a state of the art facility.

“If Perkins doesn’t get torn down then we are left in this void of what is next and the new pool would be no closer than it was 31 years ago. The need to tear down Perkins has made the pool a reality, it’s a tremendous positive,” Stillson said.

It is anticipated that SMU will announce its plans for a new facility in November of this year. It will be a 14-month project that will be located on SMU’s East Campus.

Meanwhile, Stillson continues to do what he has done for the past 31 years. He continues to ignore the scandals, drama, and hype, and focuses on what he loves most – coaching.

“I don’t see myself quitting until its no longer fun to come to work,” Stillson said.

In 31 years on the Hilltop, Stillson has coached 88 All-Americans, with 32 combined men’s and women’s conference championships, as well as four Olympians.

1 year ago
Written by Jesse Carr
Jesse is journalism major at Southern Methodist University and co-founder of The Stable. A die hard Texan, Jesse loves Lonestar beer, tattoos, God, anything sports related, and contributes coverage of all SMU athletics.