Bruce Johnson earned on Jan. 8 the 800th coaching win of his Frewsburg High School career. The victories have been adding up since he started the boys’ and girls’ swimming programs there in the fall of 1977.
Johnson should know. He personally did the arithmetic.
“The first time I decided to add up the number of wins I had was when our prominent wrestling coach, who was a good friend of mine, got his 200th career win,” he said. “I said, ‘I wonder how many I’ve got?’ It was near 400 at that point, and I’ve kind of kept track since then. We did something at 400 wins, 600 wins and finally 800 wins.
“I’m never going to make it to 1,000 wins. This probably will be the last milestone.”
No. 800 came in a double dual meet at SUNY Buffalo State, as the Bears defeated Williamsville East but lost to St. Joe’s. Some parents of team members brought a sign that noted the occasion.
Soon after that, Johnson was honored as part of the Senior Night celebration at the Bears’ home pool.
“A couple of senior swimmers took the mic and said some very nice things,” Johnson said. “They gave me a very nice jacket, and I got a nice round of applause.”
What, no statue, or $800 bonus?
“That would have been nice, but I settled for the real nice pullover jacket,” Johnson laughed.
The rewards of coaching in high school may not be as flamboyant as the ones at the college or professional level, but they are just as meaningful to those involved.
During his 39 years on the job, Johnson’s swimming program has given the school something of an identity beyond Frewsburg’s borders. In addition, he has taught many students many lessons about swimming and some rules about life along the way.
“I get more satisfaction from the kids who continue swimming after high school,” Johnson said. “We’ve had maybe 40 to 50 go on to junior college, Division III or even Division I. That to me is satisfying, and then they come back after finishing their college careers and see us during the winter when they are home. They thank me for what I did.
“There are a number of kids I’ve coached who have gone on to coach swimming, and that really makes me feel good.”
In the swim
Johnson’s love affair with swimming covers more than 50 years. At the age of 8, he joined the Jamestown YMCA’s competitive swim program. He was on the Jamestown High School swim team, then on the team at North Park University in the Chicago area.
Johnson had planned to stay in Chicago after graduation, but fate got in the way.
“I had a job and an apartment,” he said. “I was getting ready to get married, and she was preparing to move to Chicago. Then the school that was here in Frewsburg had a fire and burned. Thankfully, the business manager of the school here had kids who were competitive swimmers. When it came time to rebuild the wing of the building, he pushed very hard to put a pool in.
“My dad was a minister, and he was performing the ceremony for the marriage of the son of the superintendent. He found out a job was available here. He contacted me and said, ‘Why don’t you apply for this job?’ That’s how it all came about.”
That initial plan was to stay five years and then start to look for a position with a college. But plans can change.
“My joke is, I meant to stay five years, and I’ve been here 39,” he said. “I’m still waiting to get a call from a college to offer me a coaching position. But I still enjoy it, still love it.”
Many school districts have an athletic coach who becomes a local legend through longevity. It’s particularly true in small districts where high school athletics are literally the talk of the town. Johnson never really thought about becoming one of those coaches. Yet, here he is.
“You settle down, you start a family, you buy a house, you get your tenure as a teacher, and it becomes very easy to get locked in,” he said. “I think one of the problems in high school athletics is that we don’t have coaches that are willing to stay and make a commitment. … There are a lot of factors. The whole educational system makes it a lot harder for people to coach. But you don’t see the commitment you saw years ago.”
The coach’s formula for success has been simple. His swimmers put in plenty of time in the pool, piling up more than 5,000 meters per workout. There are no shortcuts.
“He’s an old-school coach,” said Josh Peterson of the boys’ team. “He’s a hard-nosed coach in that everything is about hard work. That’s the only way to get better. He doesn’t give us many days off.”
“He knows all of the techniques of basically every stroke,” teammate Shawn McDonald added. “Plus his work ethic is so strong. I guess he’s the perfect coach, you could say.”
Changes along the way
Milestones have a way of drawing out memories and reflections, and Johnson has seen changes come to the sport. One is the rise of the year-round swimmer.
“I’ve taken all the kids from Section VI to the girls’ state meet,” said Johnson, who is the section chairman in girls swimming. “The kids that are qualifying for the state competition are kids that are club swimmers as well as school swimmers. In a small school, that’s hard to do. There are some opportunities for that here, but not nearly as many as they have in the Buffalo area for kids to continue.
“I can’t expect all my kids to be year-round swimmers. I have six guys who play on our football team. I have two or three guys who play baseball. I lost one kid this year because he wanted to concentrate on baseball and not swimming.”
Then there’s the matter of the squeeze on participation numbers in such rural areas. Schools in the Southern Tier have had to join forces in order to field teams in recent years. Frewsburg’s swim team has members from Southwestern and Pine Valley.
“When Southwestern came in, they were our big rival,” McDonald said. “They had some good swimmers, so it was always a good meet. The first year after we merged was unique, but now Olean has become our big rival.”
Even with the other two schools, Frewsburg is still in Class C (the smallest classification) in swimming. That means, for instance, that Lancaster’s team draws from four times as many students as the Bears. There’s even competition among the Frewsburg coaches to lure the best athletes to their sport, because there aren’t enough to go around.
“Sometimes I really don’t like it,” Johnson said. “What can I offer these kids? I compete with basketball, wrestling and bowling. Can I offer the nicest sweatshirts or T-shirts, or the best banquet, or the best nonleague schedule? Can we go to the Frewsburger,” a local restaurant, “for pizza every Wednesday? We only have so many good athletes in the school. If I can get four or five athletes a year, that’s all I need.”
Still, Johnson’s teams have excelled. About 12 swimmers have qualified for the state championships over the years. The Bears have won 30 girls’ championships and 20 boys’ league titles. The boys finished the regular season 10-1-1 this year and begin the postseason this weekend.
“This is a small, little school. Nobody knows our name,” McDonald said. “We won the Class C title two years ago. We just come out of the woodwork against AA schools. That’s what makes this sport fun.”
At the age of 60, Johnson says he still has the same zest for the sport, even if he doesn’t pace up and down the pool floor or yell like he used to. He has a daughter in ninth grade, and plans to coach her through graduation. So Johnson will be spending plenty of time at the pool for the next few years, using the same 10-by-10-foot office space he’s had since 1977.
“I’ve spent two-thirds of my life here,” he said while looking out on the pool. “It feels like home.”
And maybe Johnson will receive one last priceless honor at Frewsburg. Some swimmers are urging the School Board to name the pool after their coach.
“I couldn’t walk in here without thinking of him,” Peterson said.