Clark Campbell: A Decade of Coaching at KU
Sept. 23, 2011
LAWRENCE, Kan. — By the time Bill Self took the podium in the Allen Fieldhouse media room on April 21, 2003, there was another man in the KU athletic department who, less than a year earlier, had been in those very same shoes.
On August 1, 2002, Clark Campbell accepted the position as head coach of the swimming and diving team at Kansas. Unlike Self, Campbell was taking over a program that had seen just three coaches before him, rather than the seven who were at the helm of the storied men’s basketball program. Campbell swam under longtime head coach Gary Kempf as a student athlete at KU from 1984-85, then left school to become a triathlete, only to return for his junior and senior seasons from 1991-93.
“Getting to Kansas was one of my primary goals as a professional,” the Coffeyville, Kan., native said. “I went to school here, swam here and started coaching here.”
It did not take long for Campbell to find out what his future would hold for him after a first foray into coaching under his swimming mentor.
“My first coaching opportunity was here with Gary Kempf,” Campbell remembered. “I knew that year that my career was going to eventually be that of a collegiate swim coach. I did go off and do my own thing, but in the back of my mind I knew I had the goal of coming back home.”
Campbell’s long-winding road back home Lawrence took him on stops from Mount Oread to the rolling hills of Appalachia, through the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, before bringing him back to the Midwest where he would make one last stop on his trip back to Lawrence.
“I coached here (KU) for Gary in ’92 and ’93 and then I went off to West Virginia Wesleyan College, where I was the head swim coach from 1993-’95,” Campbell said.
While in the mountain state, Campbell obtained his graduate degree from West Virginia University in Morgantown and then took an assistant coaching job at Minnesota from 1995-98. Before returning to his alma mater in 2002, Campbell was the head coach at Evansville (Ind.) from 1998-2002, where he was named the Missouri Valley Conference Swimming Coach of the Year in 2000.
When he finally did get back to Lawrence, Campbell knew the program and job he was taking the reins of, required a lot of hard work, but most of all, patience.
“The program was in a lot of upheaval when I first got here,” Campbell remembered. “A couple years before I came, the men’s program had been dropped and it was just a real tough time within the program. Gary (Kempf) had resigned and the women’s team was last in the Big 12, so it was a tough situation.”
Wasting little time, the Jayhawk athlete turned coach got to work and tried to rebuild the program he once swam for.
“It was a lot tougher than I thought it would be,” Campbell said of his first few years on the job. “We came in here and really embraced the history of the women’s program. We did some things that we could not necessarily do in a co-ed environment. It took some time and required some people getting on board, but that initial buying into it is really what helped us get off the ground.”
One of those on-board early with the new-look program was former KU swimmer and current assistant coach Jen Fox. Fox swam at Kansas from 1996-2000 and was hired by Campbell following his first year on the job.
“Working with Clark over the last eight seasons has enabled me to grow a lot as a coach,” Fox said. “Through working with other coaches in club and college from camps, I have come to realize that Clark is one of the best coaches in the country. He is always thinking outside the box and just coming up with new ideas when it comes to training and techniques.”
Another aspect of Campbell’s coaching abilities that some say set him apart is his love for the sport he coaches.
“He is very passionate about what he does,” said junior swimmer Rebecca Swank. “He cares about us as people in the pool and he is able to push us in different aspects of life.”
That ability to push and motivate his athletes comes from, what his swimmers call the `trusting relationship’ he builds with them throughout their careers.
“He knows how to push us, but at the same time he will never ask anything of us he knows we can’t accomplish,” Swank said. “For example at practice, even though we may not believe we’re able to do a set (of a specific workout routine), I always know that Clark would not have given it to me unless he knew I would able to get through it.”
That same trust and consistency is important for Campbell, who points to the relationships he has with his assistant coaches, as to why the program has stayed so consistent over the last decade.
“I have been fortunate that I have made two great hires with Jen and (diving coach) Eric (Elliott),” Campbell said. “We have all been around for a long time, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we work well together as a coaching staff. That continuity has just been so important in us building our program.”
And as Swank points out, that continuity sometimes helps during the recruiting process.
“I would say that a big part of my decision to come here was due to Clark and Jen,” Swank said. “How they recruit and their coaching philosophies were important. They want everyone to reach their potential in the pool and they work with us individually to help each one of us achieve our goals.”
For Campbell, the irony is not lost on him that 20 years earlier he was the one in the pool working with his coach trying to get better. Fast forward two decades and it is him that the student-athletes are looking to for direction and guidance.
“It sometimes is a little surreal,” Campbell said. “On the days that are tough though, I remind myself of that and then force myself to think about all that is good.”
For the 10th-year coach, there is much that is good in his life. He is coaching at his alma mater and doing it quite successfully. Entering the 2011-12 season, Campbell has a 72-31 record and a .692 winning percentage. He also has seen numerous swimmers go to the NCAA Championships, including 10 in the last five years. But if you ask him, he gets just as much enjoyment out of what his swimmers do outside of the pool than in it.
“The first class that I had coaching here is now 10 years removed,” Campbell said. “Seeing how they have grown into women and are productive members of society is really gratifying. That is what it is really all about. Helping young folks make that transition from kid to adult and then seeing the success stories five, 10 years down the road is one of the best parts of my job.”
It is that mindset that Campbell’s swimmers most appreciate about their head coach.
“He really cares about me as a person,” said senior captain Sarah Hettenbach. “Clark has written me a ton of reference letters for jobs and scholarships and he is always very helpful with what I am trying to accomplish in the pool, but also cares a lot about my future career as well.”
That passionate, caring attitude has sustained Clark Campbell and the Kansas swimming and diving program for the last 10 years. It may be hard to believe but Campbell still has 14 more years to go to before outlasting his mentor in terms of years coached within the KU program, but with his dedication to the sport and his athletes, the next dozen plus seasons should go by pretty quick, and not only produce successful swimmers and divers, but quality women as well.
Follow Coach Campbell on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/kansassd