A LEGACY TO HANG YOUR HAT On
Swimming & diving head coach Tom Milich’s impact
Before Tom Milich arrived at Cal Poly in 2006, there was not an Olympic-sized pool on campus.
Practices were not held only twice a day. Athletes did not swim between nine to 10 miles during training, and the program had not sent a swimmer to the NCAA Championships in more than four decades.
When assistant coach Phil Yoshida met Milich for the first time, he said he knew things were about to change.
“Hearing his plan, even at that point before we ran a single swim practice, he knew what he wanted to do,” Yoshida said. “He knew how he was going to go about doing it. He got me to buy in right away. When you believe in something, you’re willing to work for it.
Twenty individual conference titles, 28 program records, 157 conference all-academic honors, a state-of-the-art facility renovation and five NCAA Championships appearances are all part of Milich’s achievements during his 14-year career as Cal Poly Swimming and Diving head coach.
But the impact and legacy of Milich, who announced his retirement this year, stretches far beyond the starting blocks and diving boards of Cal Poly’s Anderson Aquatics Center.
Brooke Cahsin | Mustang News
DIVING INTO A COACHING CAREER
Milich’s interest in coaching water sports began as a staff member of the U.S.A. National Youth and Junior National teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, Milich was part of the U.S. Water Polo staff that saw swimmer Janet Evans finish as a triple gold-medalist — an achievement Milich described as the highlight of his career.
Evans was just one of 61 high school All-Americans coached by Milich prior to his move into collegiate coaching.
“I think that’s what kinda hooked me in. All the travel across everywhere throughout the world made swimming and water polo a little more fun,” Milich said with a smile. “It’s hard to beat the Seoul Olympics.”
After a brief stint as the head men’s water polo coach at Fresno State from 1989-1992, Milich continued his coaching success as the Aquatics Director for the Clovis Swim Club in Clovis, California.
In his 16 years with the club, Milich coached five swimmers who later represented the U.S. in international competitions, as well as seven swimmers who competed at the NCAA Championships.
Milich’s coaching experience at the national and international levels eventually landed him at what would be the final chapter of an extensive 46-year career — head coach of Cal Poly Swimming and Diving.
Brooke Cashin | Mustang News
MAKING A SPLASH
Milich arrived at Cal Poly in 2006 to coach both the men’s and women’s programs. Over the course of 14 years, the Mustangs’ success increased dramatically both in and out of the pool.
Cal Poly broke all 28 individual and team program records several times over, won 20 individual conference titles and sent five swimmers to the NCAA Championships under Milich’s leadership.
In Cal Poly’s final season in the Big West Conference, which included powerhouses like UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and UC Irvine, Milich coached both the men’s and women’s teams to third-place finishes at the conference championships — the highest-ever placement for the program before switching to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
Despite all the accolades and awards, Milich said he will miss the relationships he built with student athletes the most.
“This past year I think I went to 11 weddings, and they’re all like mini reunions,” Milich said. “[The students] are part of why I coach. I said a long time ago that I would keep coaching as long as it was fun, and they kept it fun.”
Senior swimmer Amelia Feick is one of several athletes who have won conference titles and broken program records during Milich’s tenure. Feick said she attributes her success to the coaching, the facility and the tight-knit team culture that Milich helped foster.
“Our team is a family,” Feick said. “You spend all this time with these people, it’s people you can lean on, people who become your friends, your roommates. It’s a great team culture and I feel lucky to be a part of it.”
An integral part of the Swimming and Diving team’s family-oriented culture is a heavy emphasis on academic success, something Milich went the extra mile for in his time as head coach. Unlike most coaches at Cal Poly, Milich holds practice twice a day in order to accommodate a diverse set of majors and heavy class schedules.
Cal Poly Athletic Director Don Oberhelman said he does not know if he has seen many coaches go out of their way for academic success like Milich has in his entire career.
“He’s not somebody that’s ever going to brag,” Oberhelman said. “But if he were, I think he would spend a lot of time talking about the number of engineers and architecture majors and other high achieving students that have come through his program that also excelled in the pool.”
While 100 percent graduation rates among his students athletes is no small feat, Milich’s goal-oriented approach goes beyond academics alone.
Brooke Cashin | Mustang News
“I HAVE A WAY”
In 2009, Milich spearheaded the development and renovation of the swimming and diving team’s current facility, the Anderson Aquatics Center. Although the pool itself was funded primarily through the university, the state’s budget fell short in funds for the rest of the facility.
As a result, Milich set out to continue its improvement by fundraising for new starting blocks, diving boards and a brand new $100,000 scoreboard — all of which have since been implemented at the center.
“I wish everybody could operate that way,” Oberhelman said. “[Milich] identifies a problem, figures out a solution, and then comes and tells me what he wants to do, how he’s going to do it and when he’s going to get it done by. I can’t tell you how much me, as an AD, appreciates that in a coach, in terms of their ability to say, ‘I have a way.’”
Yoshida, who has been on the coaching staff for 19 seasons, echoed Oberhelman’s sentiment.
“He pushes staff and athletes to rise to his expectations, and he’s got a way of doing it that pushes you to be better yourself,” Yoshida said. “It’s one thing to want to do things, but it’s another thing to lead people and get them to move in the direction that you want them to move.”
Among those willing to work towards Milich’s goals are students athletes like Feick, who said Milich brings a light-hearted sense of sarcasm that makes practicing 20 hours a week easier.
“He really loves the song Crazy Frog,” Feick said. “If you’ve ever walked by the pool when we have practice, he very frequently will play Crazy Frog full blast on the speakers. It’s really odd. I think he sees it as punishment. Whenever we start to enjoy it, he’ll turn it off and change it to something else.”
“Swimming has to be fun,” Milich said. “I’m pretty sarcastic … you’ve got to keep it fresh. Swimming is a sport where you’re just going back and forth up and down a black line. It’s pretty difficult to stay motivated unless you have some fun out here.”
As for what’s next, Milich said he plans to get a real estate license in hopes to work alongside his daughters, who are architecture and engineering majors.
“It’s something we can maybe do as a family,” Milich said.
While Milich’s impact on Cal Poly Swimming and Diving is immeasurable in many ways, one aspect of his time as a Mustang is undoubtable — Milich will leave the program in a much better place than where it was when he arrived. That, Yoshida said, is “a legacy you can hang your hat on.”
“The culture has changed,” Yoshida said. “Leading the athletes to understand [our goals] and leading them down that path of making the not so easy choice in order to excel athletically, he’s done it. There’s no argument there. He’s gotten these kids to rise above.”