Type to search

Legendary Swim Coach Makes Waves at Villanova

Share

At the end of a Villanova University practice or meeting, head swimming coach Rick Simpson often looks for a final message with which he can leave his charges. It can be inspirational or technical in nature—but it has to resonate. In those moments, he’s happy to have Frank Keefe at his disposal.

Keefe is great at delivering the goods, but you better be ready to stick around for a while. “I’ll say, ‘Frank, is there anything you want to add?’” Simpson says. “Frank will say, ‘Really?’ Twenty-five minutes later, he’s wrapping up his part.”

Keefe isn’t just some long-winded old-timer. The man is practically an encyclopedia of swimming, thanks to his six decades in and around the pool. He has coached Olympic gold-medal winners and NCAA champions. He was a key figure in the history of the mighty Suburban Seahawks Club, which has produced scores of top swimmers during its 61 years of existence. 

Keefe coached Yale University’s team for 32 years and, in September 2013, joined Villanova as a volunteer assistant. It’s a wonder his blood isn’t partly chlorinated and that water doesn’t drain from his ears when he sleeps at night. 

“It would be like if Bobby Knight or Joe Paterno—if he were still alive—went back and helped out,” Simpson says. “Frank is a living legend.”

Simpson appreciates Keefe’s contributions, even if they may take a little while to complete. Who wouldn’t want a Villanova Hall of Famer at their side to help squire this generation of swimmers through the water? The best part is that Keefe isn’t trying to stage a coup: He’s there to offer his counsel and impart his wisdom. He helps with practices and putting together lineups. 

And when things “get too hot,” as Simpson puts it, Keefe has the ability to make a quick exit. “He’ll grab his coat, walk out the door, and say, ‘You deal with it,’” Simpson says, laughing.

The 77-year-old Keefe grew up in East Haven, Conn., and swam at East Haven High School and Mercersburg Academy in South Central Pennsylvania. He was set to attend Michigan State—at least in his mind—until his father told him other-wise. “He took a turnoff at the Valley Forge interchange on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and told me I was going to Villanova,” Keefe says. “My father was not the type of man you could argue with.” 

Keefe swam the backstroke and the individual medley for coach Ed Geis at Nova, but he’s no longer impressed with the times he posted. “I couldn’t make the Villanova women’s team now,” he says. 

Keefe graduated from Villanova in 1960 with a degree in marketing, although he wishes he’d pursued psychology. “It would’ve helped with coaching,” he says. 

He directed the swim team at Philadelphia Country Club and sold insurance, mostly to his friends. Keefe met Russ Harlan, who was coaching Monsignor Bonner High School’s swim team, and Harlan asked him if he wanted to direct Bonner’s age-group program, based out of a basement pool at 48th and Pine streets in Philadelphia. 

A year later, Harlan left to take the job at Upper Merion High School, where he became hugely successful. Keefe then landed the Bonner position—but there was a catch. “The principal, Father [Kenneth] Kennedy, asked me if I could teach English, too,” Keefe says. “I got the top kids in the sophomore class, and I used to stay up all night trying to stay one step in front of them.”

In 1965, Keefe moved to Saint Joseph’s Prep, which had no pool of its own but “some pretty good kids,” according to Keefe. A year later, he took over at Suburban—while staying at St. Joe’s—and ushered in what the swim club’s official website describes as “a golden age.” 

The team’s ranks grew to nearly 300 over the next 10 years. In 1968, Suburban swimmer Carl Robie won gold in the 200-meter butterfly at the Mexico City Olympics. “All of a sudden, I was an instant expert—even if I didn’t know a damn thing,” Keefe says. 

IN THE SWIM: Coaching powerhouse Frank Keefe at Villanova University’s Pavilion Swim Center.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY TESSA MARIE IMAGES

CATBIRD SEAT: Even as a volunteer, Frank Keefe enjoys iconic status in collegiate swimming circles

Swimmers from all over came to compete at Suburban. Tim McKee won medals in the ’72 Munich games and in Montréal in ’76. Julie Woodcock swam on the first U.S. World Championship meet team. Brenda Borgh qualified for the 1976 Olympics. “The kids training there thought they belonged at the Olympic trials and national championships,” says Keefe.

While Keefe was leading Saint Joe’s and Suburban, he developed relationships with many of the other coaches in the area, including Temple’s Joe Verdeur, who won gold at the 1948 games in the 200 breaststroke and was called by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice “the greatest swimmer of the first half-century.” La Salle University’s Joe Kirk and Swarthmore College’s Jimmy McAdoo were part of the group, too. 

The men would convene at the Five Points Bar in Philadelphia and discuss all swimming matters, great and small. At first, Keefe was something of a mascot, since he was younger than the other coaches. But he quickly gained their favor and learned a lot from them. “I was at Villanova, and those guys would come and pick me up, and I would sit at the bar and drink a Coke while they would keep Budweiser in business,” recalls Keefe. “I would listen to them and learn. They were the guys who formulated my way of thinking. They gave me a basis.”

After 10 years of coaching at Suburban and spending his own money traveling to events all over the world, Keefe received a warning from his accountant that financial catastrophe was near if he didn’t cut it out. In 1978, he took the job at Yale, never truly intending to stay there long. He was so sure the campus was merely a way station that he continued to live with his wife, Kathleen, and four children in Drexel Hill. He drove to New Haven on Monday morning and came home after practice on Saturday. Thirty-two years later, he finally ended his “temporary” relationship with the school and returned home full time. In addition to coaching Ivy League champions while in New Haven, Keefe was an assistant coach on the 1984 Olympic team and the headman of the 1988 unit.

At Yale, he developed a reputation for handling his swimmers with a tough mind and an encouraging hand. His practices were legendary in their difficulty, although current Yale coach Tim Wise— who assisted Keefe for 12 years—says perception outstripped reality. “They have memories of impossible workouts, but he would only do it once a month or once a year,” Wise says. “[The swimmers] are still traumatized.” 

Mostly, Keefe provided a firm direction for the program. He was able to relate to the athletes and help them reach their potentials. “He is very scientific, so his knowledge and understanding of the biomechanics and physiology of the sport were always great,” says Wise. “At the same time, he was very good at motivating people with his sharp tongue. The underlying thing that the kids appreciated about Frank was that he was honest with them. They knew where they stood. While he was tearing you down, he was also building you up. It was unique.”

Keefe retired from Yale in 2010 and headed back to Drexel Hill to care for Kathleen, who passed away in mid-2014. She and Keefe were married for 54 years. He contacted Simpson in 2013 about helping the Villanova Wildcats, and he was welcomed aboard as a volunteer last season. One of the first things Keefe did was “call all my former assistants and apologize for the way I treated them,” he says, laughing.

Keefe enjoys learning about his former swimmers’ lives and careers. He was happy that one of them had started dental school and was able to schedule him in early 2015 for some much-needed bridge work. Mostly, though, he cherishes the opportunity to keep young swimmers churning through the water. “I hope I was able to help them see that swimming is fun—and that they learned some discipline and lessons of life,” he says.