Radnor’s Robinson sees No. 300 as shared achievement

RADNOR — For the 299th time in his storied coaching career, Tom Robinson led the Radnor boys swimming team to a dual meet victory Saturday.

The post-meet activity featured no speeches, no celebrations. Instead, Robinson retreated to the far end of the pool, reset the pace clock and scrawled a practice set on the whiteboard that would occupy his boys for the next hour.

Like any of the previous 298 wins, Saturday’s 95-82 triumph over Ridley wasn’t about Robinson. The 300th, likely to come as soon as Tuesday against Penncrest, won’t be either. And therein lays the principle underlying Robinson’s immense success.

Robinson is the first to admit that an accolade like 300 wins is a peculiar milestone in a sport where the dual-meet season is merely an intermediate goal. Many of Robinson’s fondest recollections of 31 seasons on the job pertain to championship meets, to the 10 District One titles and the 2002 PIAA Class AA title he’s amassed.

More than statistics or trophies, though, the teams that earned them and the individuals comprising those squads are what are most dear to Robinson. Even Saturday, his attention is more drawn to kids like Tim Caulfield and Rich Patten in the pool — seniors who’ve taken massive strides in their careers — than the banners adorning the wall.

“I like seeing the kids go from being a scared, immature freshman to be a mature leader in their senior year,’ Robinson said. “That’s really a neat thing to see all the time.’

Ever so briefly suspending his discomfort at discussing his achievements, Robinson can admit that the sheer volume of victories is reflective of the program he’s sustained.

“I think it’s an accomplishment that comes from a lot of hard work, both from having talented athletes and putting in the time for myself,’ Robinson said. “You had to have a lot of talent to be able to do that over 30 years and a lot of hard-working kids. It also rewards you for the hard work you put in yourself.’

Robinson’s efforts have followed an unusual trajectory. A track and field athlete at Interboro, Robinson cut his teeth coaching on the track at his alma mater and Chichester. Swimming became a tangential interest, Robinson filling summers coaching clubs like Folcroft, Drexel and Prospect Park. By adapting his track methods and intermittently adding nuggets of swimming expertise, Robinson ushered in a golden age at Prospect Park, which he piloted to 13 straight undefeated summer seasons.

His opportunity at Radnor arose in 1984, the intersection of legendary coach Henry Hiemenz, in whose honor the Radnor pool is named, stepping away from the boys program and George Corner, with whom Robinson had coached at Interboro, becoming Radnor’s athletic director.

Robinson stepped into the role, and the rest is history.

In the ensuing three decades, Radnor has won six Central League titles (and the undefeated Raiders sit on the precipice of a seventh) and has transformed into one of Pennsylvania’s elite programs. By his meticulous record-keeping, Robinson can state that 26 percent of his swimmers have qualified for state meets. Of the 240-some swimmers under his tutelage, over half have earned All-Delco or All-Central recognition.

About the only thing Robinson doesn’t excel in is touting his own accomplishments. Luckily, his colleagues are eager to fill the void.

“I know when I was swimming, he was like the godfather of Delaware County coaching, and he still is,’ Ridley coach Kevin Pierce said. “To be able to be a peer now instead of just a guy looking up watching his kids kick our butts all the time, it’s kind of cool to learn from him.’

Pierce, a 2002 graduate of Ridley, is one of many Central League coaches to have viewed Robinson’s stature from in the pool and on the deck. Also among that group is Upper Darby’s Casey O’Hara, Penncrest’s Andy Ikeler and Haverford’s Matt Stewart, who is close friends with Robinson’s son, Mike, and has coached with both Robinsons at Radnor Aquatic Club.

“What’s neat about it is that we’ve become friends, and I don’t feel any superiority to them,’ Robinson said. “It’s just a friendship. … That’s been neat because I might be 30 years older than them and still you can develop a friendship.’

The arrangement is mutually beneficial, with Robinson always willing to share his knowledge.

“He’s been a great person to have around, as someone on the younger side,’ said O’Hara, a 2001 graduate of Upper Darby. “He’s someone to bounce ideas off of or just to go to for a good history lesson.’

In the estimation of longtime Ridley coach Kurt Slenn, those bonds have triggered an “evolution’ in Delco swimming. Slenn, who stepped down after 20 seasons with the Green Raiders last spring, can trace a connection to when Robinson lifeguarded at Prospect Park. Their shared commitment and analytical approaches to the sport made Robinson a mentor to Slenn.

Not only has Robinson long served as a voice for the Central League at the district level, assuming an esteemed position among his coaching brethren, he’s also brought the community closer. Slenn was struck, for instance, when in 2004, Robinson took time out of his coaching schedule at states to root on two Ridley divers, state champ Josh Bonner and bronze medalist Justin Bonner. Such is the congenial atmosphere Robinson fostered among his fellow coaches.

“Tom had a way of setting aside any personal issues and recognizing things that were best for the sport,’ Slenn said. “His focus point — first, most and always — was the kids that he coached and that we all coached. And that’s what separates him from some other coaches.’

The treatment of his peers is an extension of how Robinson handles his swimmers. There have been stars through the years, certainly. But the hallmarks of the Radnor dynasties are teams well-drilled in the fundamentals that have gelled into wholes far greater than the sum of their parts.

“All coaches are delivered varying levels of talent every year,’ Slenn said. “He consistently has taken whatever level of talent he has and created an excellent team out of that mix. …

“He has succeeded in terms of number of wins because he’s just flat-out a better coach than the rest of us. And every swimmer that has had a chance to swim for Tom is downright lucky.’

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