Spending 17 years employed by the same company would be considered decent longevity in any business. It is even more striking in the merry-go-round world of collegiate coaching.
But in the East Carolina swimming and diving program, years on the job are subjected to a different standard.
Former head coach Rick Kobe retired this spring after leading the team for 35 years. His former assistant Matt Jabs, the one with the 17 years at ECU, has outlasted most of the head coaches on campus while gradually learning from Kobe.
This fall Jabs has stepped into the top job, and through that transition he has tried on the leadership mantle by coaching more with an eye on the now than on the past.
“I think if I focused on legacy, or comparisons to Coach Kobe, Coach (Ray) Scharf, or even Coach (Ray) Martinez that I wouldn’t have my head in the right place.,” said Jabs, a former record-breaking Pirate freestyler who started out as a volunteer assistant in 2001. “All I can do is take on each day, each task with the mindset to get better.
“I didn’t get into coaching with the expectations, or goals to mirror anyone else’s accomplishments.”
Dr. Martinez launched the school’s swimming and diving program in 1954 and served as head coach until succeeded in 1967 by Scharf, who led the program until passing the reins to Kobe in 1982.
Jabs’ first fall season at the helm of ECU’s winningest sports program started with a slight hiccup but has found more familiar ground recently.
Both the men and women lost their season opening dual meet at the Naval Academy, but since then the women’s team has pulled off sweeps of a quad meet against William & Mary, Gardner-Webb and Campbell and dual meets with Old Dominion and UNC-Wilmington.
The men won the two dual meets and defeated two out of three opponents in the quad meet.
As they prepare for their steepest challenge of the early season – the Georgia Tech Invitational that starts on Nov. 16 – the athletes’ confidence is on the rise. They came out sluggish in that Navy meet, Jabs said, but with every day of training and competing they look more formidable.
“At any meet, I look for three things – racing, results, and energy,” he said. “If we have those three going our way, we will have a successful meet, regardless of score. Over the last few meets all three of those things have been present, and we have been tough to beat.”
The trip to Atlanta will feature more intense terrain – a large field of teams from the nation’s top conferences – but Jabs considers a competition like that crucial to team development. Rather than focusing on wins or ranking, the meet will allow his swimmers to test their mettle against some of the best and determine where the weaknesses still lie.
Even if Jabs has donned a new title, Kobe was giving him progressively more responsibility over the past few years, so not every part of the head coaching role has felt new. It has also helped to rely on an experienced staff and a core of hardworking, driven veteran swimmers like team captains Tori Angermeier, Alicia Roueche, Victor Dos Santos, and Drew Queen and early standouts Vendela Norrman, Magnus Andersen, Josh Parmenter and Tristan Taylor.
Plenty of the team’s most significant challenges lie ahead in 2018, when they will race against South Carolina twice, as well as competing in an away meet against an always-competitive University of Maryland-Baltimore County team, before diving in for the American Athletic Conference Championship in mid-February.
Between the two halves of the season is an ECU swimming tradition – a nine-day training trip to Jupiter, FL, valuable both for the productive hours in the pool and the quality of the team bonding. It’s a routine Jabs knows as well as almost anybody – and he is enjoying the triumphs of this first fall with a measure of gratitude that he gets to be part of sustaining so much excellence.
“ECU swimming and diving is much bigger than the coaches, or the athletes currently on the roster,” he said. “We are just caretakers for the time being. It’s our responsibility to keep the program moving forward, continue to compete at a high level, and create a healthy and fun environment for our athletes to achieve not only in the pool but in the classroom.”