Thursday September 12, 2013Swim complex addition to honor former UF coach Bill Harlan
Updated: 12:26pm, September 12
Updated: 12:26pm, September 12
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In 1990, Harry Wilder and his wife lost their only daughter in a car crash. The first person the grieving parents heard from was Bill Harlan, the former University of Florida swimming and diving coach who guided the Gators to prominence in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Nearly three decades had passed since Wilder swam for Harlan.
“He called me regularly after that, just to check on how we were doing,” Wilder said this week. “I don’t know that that was very unusual because I’m sure there are a lot of coaches who keep up with the people they had an influence on. But I know how much influence Bill had on so many of us. He touched so many lives at Florida; and long after those people moved on.”
That very impact of which Wilder spoke was the impetus of his mission to pay homage to Harlan, the six-time Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year and member of the UF Athletic Hall of Fame, with something of significance to the program he helped guide to prominence.
So next week, Coach Gregg Troy will be at Wilder’s side when UF officially dedicates the Bill Harlan Swim Team Meeting Facility in memory of the beloved coach who died in 2004 at the age of 83.
The 3,900-square foot project, built at a cost of $1.4 million, will link the outdoor pool with an atrium area into the main pool at the O’Connell Center and include meeting space, complete with an audio-visual system, and additional storage space.
“There was a definite need identified for the swimming and diving program,” said Chip Howard, executive associate athletics director for external affairs. “Up until the project completion, the meeting area had been on the lobby floor of the upstairs offices. Coach Troy and his student-athletes will appreciate having their own dedicated space.”
They’ll have Wilder, 73, and Richard Ahrens, 65, another Harlan protege, to thank. The two provided the bulk of the financial backing because they wanted their coaching and Gator Great to be remembered by the new guard of Florida swimmers.
"He was like a father figure to all of us,” said Ahrens, an All-American breaststroker in ’65 and ’66. “Being away from home for the first time was hard for me, but Bill became my guiding light.”
Harlan (pictured right) was a lifelong Gator who grew up in Gainesville, attending football games a young boy and eventually lettering as a member of the diving team after serving in World War II. After four years as an assistant, Harlan became head coach of the swimming and diving team in 1963 and over the next 14 years won eight SEC team titles and placed the Gators in eight NCAA meets.
Wilder, out of North Miami, was a freestyle specialist on those early ‘60s teams. He recalled Harlan as disciplinarian more than a technician.
“He worked our butts and didn’t put up with any slackers,” Wilder said. “He always thought we could be better than we thought we could be ourselves. And damn if he wasn’t right.”
Those were the days when all practices were held in the outdoor pool just east of Florida Field.
“When I got my scholarship [in ’63], Bill said we’d have an indoor pool by my junior year ... and I think the O’Dome opened in 1981," Ahrens said with a laugh. "But being outside all the time -- two practices a day -- that toughened us up.”
And they remembered their coach for it.
After college, Wilder became a journalist (first with The Miami Herald, then with a South Florida television station) before taking an investing tip from a restaurant chain looking to open franchises in Northwest Florida.
McDonald’s, as it turned out, did pretty well in Pensacola.
Wilder sold his seven franchises and retired seven years ago.
“Back in 1996, I endowed a scholarship in Bill’s name,” he said. “Now, I was in the position to do a little more.”
For UF swimmers, both present and future, this tribute to Harlan will mean so much more.