As the head swimming coach at the University of Miami, Bill Diaz coached everyone from Olympic swimmers Jesse Vassallo, David Wilkie and the late Matt Gribble, to countless nationally ranked and amateur swimmers.
He loved them all. Remembered their names, their parents’ names, and their best events, too.
And the man couldn’t swim a lap.
“Mom used to say, ‘Stay away from the Hudson River’ because he couldn’t swim,” said son John Diaz.
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Diaz, who died Thursday at his Palmetto Bay home at age 89, was the face and voice of swimming in South Florida.
Diaz, who coached at UM from 1970 to 1985, decided in the early 1970s that UM needed a comparable diving program, so he brought in former Olympic diver Tom Gompf to coach. Under Gompf, Greg Louganis trained on the UM dive tower and become one of the sport’s legends.
Diaz’s champs and colleagues also remember his aversion to being in the pool despite an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, its stroke mechanics and his ability to mentor athletes from the relatively dry pool deck.
“When we went on dual meets, and won, we were always careful to throw him in the shallow end and not the deep end,” said Ken Groce, whom Diaz signed to a UM swimming scholarship in 1970 and who would later coach the women’s swim team as Diaz’s assistant.
“What made him a good coach was he knew how to motivate swimmers to get the most potential out of them, whether high school, college kids, national caliber or Olympic.”
Age group members of the Hurricanes, after a 1974 swim meet in Kingston, Jamaica, remember tossing Diaz into the drink after the meet. He emerged with a big smile. Partly, because his feet could touch bottom. More likely, because his swimmers did well.
“He was the most positive coach. What a motivator,” said former national under-18 age group champion Tori Hames-Picciochi. “Something about his personality brought out the best in your training and your performance. You always wanted to give your best for him.”
Maybe it was his familiar, infectious cheer booming across the pool deck: “Go, baby, go!”
Swim parent Claire Laurence, who helped maintain the Hurricanes Swim Team’s record books for Diaz in the ’70s, remembers a patient coach and boss. “He didn’t yell at the swimmers. He was fair,” she said.
Diaz, a 1995 UM Hall of Fame inductee, was hard to resist. And he had a hard time resisting the sport. In 1953, three years after moving to Miami with his wife, Martha, he took a job as a physical education teacher at Miami Jackson Senior High School. The school’s athletic director persuaded Diaz to coach the swim team, too. Four years later, the school won the state championship and then won it for the next four consecutive years, a school record.
When Miami Springs Senior High opened in 1963, Diaz, by then a five-time Dade County High School Coach of the Year, added four more state titles as its coach.
Bill Butler, a former UM vice president for student affairs, along with then UM Director of Athletics Charlie Tate, noticed the legend building around the amiable, effective Go, Baby, Go! coach.
In 1970, Butler and Tate asked Diaz to revive the drowning UM swim program. He served for 15 years, formed the Hurricanes age-group powerhouse team in 1971 for children 5 to 18 years old, developed 27 All-American swimmers and divers, and helped coach Wilkie to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and Gribble and Vassallo to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Diaz also become UM’s first women’s swimming coach and, in 1973, along with Butler, persuaded the school’s Board of Trustees to create intercollegiate athletic scholarships for women, seven years before federal Title IX law would make that a requirement.
“The UM was the first university to award intercollegiate scholarships to women as a result of that,” Butler said. “Coach Diaz was one who loved his students and developed them into great swimmers and good citizens and loyal UM alumni. He was a person that never gave up and was constantly motivating people to do better and to realize their full potential.”
Among them, Hurricanes swimmer Steve Waters: “Coach Diaz got me to do things in the pool that I did not think I was capable of doing. Outside of the pool he made me a better human being,” he said on Facebook.
“Bill established our swimming and diving program as a model for others to follow, and turned the University of Miami into an epicenter for national and international swimming,” said the school’s athletic director, Blake James.
Diaz was born Aug. 1, 1925, in New York City, and grew up in Spanish Harlem. He served in the Air Force during World War II and flew more than 20 combat missions over Japan as a gunner in a B-29. He graduated from New York University with an education degree and, while in New York, met the woman who would become his wife of 66 years.
Bill and Martha Diaz celebrated their wedding anniversary Sept. 4 alongside sons Bill Jr., John and Rick, all of whom survive him, along with five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Diaz didn’t save mementos of his many wins over the years. “The memories are right here, right here in my head,” he said in a 1995 Miami Herald profile. “How could I forget these people? They gave me such thrills.”
“My dad was best man at my wedding. I could have picked anyone to be a mentor, but I picked my dad. He was just an unbelievable guy,” said John Diaz.
A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Caballero Rivero Woodlawn funeral home, 3344 SW Eighth St., Miami. The family requests that friends make donations in honor of Coach Bill Diaz to the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame, in care of Executive Director John Routh.
Miami Herald staff writer Howard Cohen swam for Diaz on the Hurricanes Swim Team from 1971 to 1981 and remembers a great mentor and example to follow. Swim parent Claire Laurence is Cohen’s mother. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.