Russ Yarworth retires after 41 years leading UMass men’s swimming & diving

  • Recently retired UMass men’s swimming and diving coach Russ Yarworth won 16 Atlantic 10 Championships during his 41-year career. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass men's swimming and diving coach Russ Yarworth at his home in Belchertown, Friday, June 5, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass men’s swimming and diving coach Russ Yarworth at his home in Belchertown with dogs Bella, left, and Jep, Friday. Yarworth retired after 41 years coaching at UMass. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For The Gazette
Published: 6/5/2020 6:53:18 PM
Modified: 6/5/2020 6:53:07 PM

After an illustrious career full of personal and team accolades, UMass men’s swimming and diving head coach Russ Yarworth has retired.

Yarworth’s 41st season concluded with the Atlantic 10 Championships in February. Yarworth also led the water polo team during its existence from 1987-2001.

During his career, the program won 16 conference championships, including a period from 2000-2012 when the Minutemen took the conference crown 11 out of 12 years. The water polo team earned seven NCAA tournament berths during his tenure, finishing as high as third.

A 1978 biochemistry graduate from UMass, Yarworth swam and played water polo all four years of his undergraduate experience. The sports became a motivating factor for Yarworth, pushing him to success in his academic career as well.

“I’m not really sure I would have completed college without swimming and water polo,” Yarworth said. “It set the roots for me in understanding that extracurriculars such as athletics, band, or art are a really important part of education.”

Though Yarworth had medical school on his mind and a job offer from Massachusetts General Hospital after college, he had a distinct itch to get back in the pool instead of a lab. He took a job offer in 1978 as the aquatics director and swim coach at the Bristol, Rhode Island, YMCA.

A year later, Yarworth decided to head back to Amherst and try to find a graduate program at his alma mater. As fate would have it, the head coach of the men’s swimming and diving program left in the same fall, and the athletic director offered Yarworth the vacancy in the interim at, in Yarworth’s words, “the ripe age of 22.”

“(My graduate school) decision and being in Amherst at the right time led to where I am 41 years later,” Yarworth said.

It wasn’t an easy start, as Yarworth juggled graduate classes, coaching a youth team and running the UMass program all for a part-time salary of “around $2,500.” Over time, though, he began to understand what makes a head coach.

“Honestly, as a young coach coaching peers — kids that I had swam with — I probably made some mistakes,” Yarworth said. “But I learned on the job — I learned that you have to be a role model. I learned that you have to be prepared, because if you’re not prepared, the kids will pick up on it right away.”

Eventually, Yarworth secured a full-time position at the university as head coach and began sowing the first seeds of his dynasty at UMass. The swimming and diving team took home the New England Championship in 1986, their first of eight consecutive titles.

As swimming and diving increased renown on campus, demand for another aquatic sport rose: water polo. Yarworth reinstituted the sport initially as a cross-training exercise for his swimmers. In 1987, he was able to lobby for its existence as a varsity sport, funded entirely by the program itself.

The team began experiencing success, and demand for water polo expanded past just the swim team.

“We started getting kids coming to UMass who wanted to just play water polo,” Yarworth said. “Before I knew it, we had two separate programs with very few crossover. And the kids that did cross over were excellent.”

The water polo team was disbanded in 2001 due to budgetary concerns, ending a heyday where Yarworth led a successful swimming and diving program, a successful water polo program and served as aquatics director at UMass.

As for how he did it all at once?

“I don’t know,” Yarworth laughed. “I can’t imagine doing it again … my wife was a swimming and water polo widow for a while.”

The latter half of Yarworth’s career included a wealth of swimming success, as he led the Minutemen to numerous Atlantic 10 Championships while his individual swimmers racked up their own accolades.

As he now looks to the next chapter of his life, Yarworth is content knowing his program is in good hands. Sean Clark, who worked under Yarworth as an assistant coach and swam for the Minutemen in the 1990s, will take over next season.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled — I love the guy, he’s like a little brother to me,” Yarworth said of his successor. “Sean is a brilliant coach. He’s a great counselor, he’s got empathy, and he knows how to instill benevolent discipline.”

As for his own plans post-retirement, Yarworth is looking forward to his first summer in 35 years without a swimming camp. Though he’s excited to take advantage of the free time he has ahead, it’s unlikely that you’ll find him far away from the water. He may be finished at the collegiate level, but Yarworth indicated a possible future where he coaches in some capacity.

Now a retired coach, Yarworth looks back on his career with love, understanding that the most important part of his job were the people he interacted with every day.

“What I truly enjoyed most were the relationships I got to make every day with administrators, coaches, teachers, faculty, and of course, the students,” Yarworth said. He paused, and then laughed heartily.

“The championships were pretty nice, though — I can’t lie.”

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