It’s hard keeping a secret, but newly-retired Whitefish Bay swim coach Jim Davis kept the news of said retirement largely to himself right through his final WIAA D2 boys state meet on Feb. 15.
Close members of his family and Blue Dukes Athletic Director Jeff Worzella knew, but that was about it.
“I just didn’t want the state meet or the (team) banquet to be about me,” he said. “I just wanted to be sure it was the right time.”
And in the end, Davis did get to retire on his own time and on his own terms, maintaining Bay’s normal standards of excellence in a rather robust way.
But he had to work hard to keep things quiet until he could tell both his boys and girls teams about the difficult decision he had made.
“I told Jeff (Worzella) and we had a family meeting beforehand,” he said, “but I think my family got the hint when my parents showed up Friday night (at state Feb. 15),” said Davis. “My older brother and sister were there too along with my wife (Kathy) and my two sons and daughters-in-law.”
“Afterwards, we just talked and hugged.”
A week or so later on Feb. 23, he finally drew up the nerve to call in both the boys and girls squads to what was called a “Thank you cake meeting” where he gave them all the news.
It was both “very sad and joyful,” he said, but he noted the kids were terrific about things.
“They were both sad and excited for me,” he said in a text that included a smiling group shot of both teams. “It was hard but so exciting to meet with such a great group of kids. …It truly has been an honor to have coached at Whitefish Bay for 30 years.”
Prior to all the tears and the hugs, there was still a little business to attend too. In this his 30th and final season with the boys (he finished his 20th season with the girls last fall) and without his team knowing the back story, Davis led this young boys’ squad to one last successful conclusion.
They finished second only to rival Homestead in the North Shore Conference meet and then in a great piece of closure, his final meet at Bay wound up with his remarkable 15th WIAA D2 boys sectional title on Feb. 9.
Then it got even better at the UW-Natatorium in Madison for the state D2 meet. The Blue Dukes were having a sound meet, holding onto tapers and competing hard, but going into the final race, the 400-yard freestyle relay, they still hadn’t earned a top six medal.
“I was hoping it would happen,” Davis said. “We were a little disappointed with the 200 free relay (just missing with a seventh) and the 200 medley relay was ninth. Then we got to the end and I was thinking ‘Oh God, we’ve got to get on the podium!'”
And that’s when the 400 free team of sophomores Peter McMahon and Andrew Hall and juniors Ben Browning and Carl Youel got the job done, holding onto their tapers and earning a solid sixth in 3:20.24.
With that, Davis, who had led the Blue Dukes to WIAA D2 state boys titles in 1997 and 1998 behind the great distance freestyler Peter Clark, as well as six state runner-up spots, got to go out on the high note that he wanted.
That final effort also led Bay to a 10th place finish in the 30-plus team D2 field. It was a fitting closure for Davis’ tenure with the boys’ program, which has seen an uptick in numbers in recent years (38 this season).
“It was a very good time for me to go out with a nearly perfect group,” said Davis. “We brought some bright young kids in and we had qualified (for state) in almost every event. It was just a very good way to go out.
“To win that last sectional title was phenomenal. I thought Elkhorn (the eventual runner-up) would dominate it but we had one of our best sectional meets ever.”
A “heart on his sleeve” kind of coach, Davis’ teams usually went out with a bang. His inclusive, team-first style yielded success for athletes on all levels and state meets were usually about top six individual medals and top 10 team finishes.
He had with great success carried on the tradition of previous Blue Duke swim coaches and Bay Hall of Famers Morgan Byers and Tom Dewing.
That’s because he was able to call the school home. He will also retire as a special education teacher this coming spring, something he’s also done for about 30 years. A graduate of UW-La Crosse, Davis had previous stops at Oshkosh North and University School before a curious turn of events landed him in the classroom and in the pool at Bay around 1989.
State swimming coach legend Bob Jenkyns (who went on to have a huge career at Arrowhead) had been the boys coach at Bay for two years after Dewing stepped away in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, Davis had been hired as swim coach at Homestead and had also landed a teaching job at Bay.
“I talked to Bob (Jenkyns) and said ‘Let’s switch (coaching) jobs,'” said Davis. “Bob agreed and went over to Homestead and then I came over here (to Bay) which is what I wanted to do in the first place.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Davis also took over the girls in 1998 leading the Blue Dukes to WIAA state D2 runner-up finishes in 2006 and 2007 as well as six sectional titles. Oddly enough, though Bay always competed well on the WIAA state and sectional stage, it could never quite land a conference title for either boys or girls under Davis.,
It always seemed the depth of programs like Homestead or Cedarburg would catch up to the Blue Dukes, but there was always a sense of team about Bay. In his tenure with the boys, the Blue Dukes won seven WIAA state relay championships including five in the 400 free. His girls teams also won a state title each in all three relay disciplines (200 medley and 200 and 400 frees)
“I would have liked that (conference titles), we were always competitive, but this was always about the kids,” Davis said. “I loved watching them grow. Watch them become great athletes, great citizens. All that kind of stuff.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a really bad team personality-wise. Sure I’ve dealt with my share of hard-heads, but about 99.7 percent of the time I just had good, hard-working kids. It’s a tribute to their families and to the school. It’s something I’ll always cherish.”
But he won’t be quite done coaching just yet. For a time earlier in his career, this grandfather of three was an assistant football coach over Bay and he has a hankering to head back in that direction. Son Jake Davis has been the head coach over at Germantown for about eight years now and Jim has worked out a deal where he’ll come back to football as an assistant on Jake’s staff.
He finds the whole thing ground-breaking and amusing.
“You always hear about guys coaching their sons, but I’m not going to do that, I’m going to coach with my son,” said Davis with a laugh.
He leaves the swim program in good shape too, as the numbers for the girls’ program this past fall were “phenomenal” according to him.
“I’m very happy leaving it this way,” Davis said. “I feel confident that it will keep moving forward. It has a lot of support from the community and the commitment of the kids has been just great.”
Davis’ commitment to Bay has never been questioned, just ask retired Bay Athletic Director John Gustavson.
“Jim is a genuine coach who wears his emotions outwardly,” Gustavson said. “His students and athletes believed in him as a reflection of how much they knew he believed in everyone of them.
“The swim teams at Whitefish Bay were very inclusive bringing everyone together from stellar swimmers to students just finding a place to belong.
“Jim has had a huge positive impact on the Bay community.”
And that is no secret.