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Gators diving coach Donnie Craine, who died in a boating accident Thursday, celebrates 2010 national title.

Friday April 25, 2014Craine Remembered for Passion and Fun-Loving Approach to Coaching and Life

Gators diving coach Donnie Craine, who died in a boating accident Thursday, celebrates 2010 national title.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

Former UF men's swim coach Skip Foster remembers friend and late UF diving coach Donnie Craine.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – To the best of her memory, the first time Donnie Craine pulled the stunt was during an open house at the O’Connell Center in late 1980 or early 1981.

The O’Dome was brand new and featured the UF swimming program’s indoor home pool. Michele Kurtzman Greenfield was a sophomore swimmer when Craine, the Gators’ diving coach, asked to borrow her bike for a minute.

Donnie Craine

Known as Michele Kurtzman during her college career, she had paid $25 for the bike at a flea market back home in Baltimore and brought it to school with her. She wasn’t too worried about losing it.

“I wanted a bike that nobody would steal,” said Kurtzman, a member of UF’s 1982 women’s national title team and two-time national champion in the 400 medley relay. “I didn’t know why he wanted to borrow it.”

More than 30 years later Kurtzman Greenfield recalls clearly what happened next.

Craine grabbed the bike, climbed to the top of the 10-meter diving platform, and pedaled off the edge to the delight of the crowd below. You could say he made a splash.

“It was funny,’’ Kurtzman said. “He just had a really good sense of humor. He seemed to always to be a happy guy, but he was serious about his diving and coaching.”

Craine died Thursday in a boating accident in Bokeelia, Fla., which is off the Florida coast near Fort Myers. According to reports, the 61-year-old Craine was ejected from his boat after a head-on crash with another boat as they turned in the same direction coming around a curve.

Craine’s death devastated the UF athletic department and diving community. He is survived by his wife of 36 years, Mindy, and three adult children: Keith, Christopher and Stephanie.

He recently completed his 30th season at UF and 37th overall as a diving coach. A standout diver at Michigan in college, Craine served as UF’s diving coach over two stints, first from 1976-81. He returned in 1989 and made UF his final stop.

When Erva Gilliam, UF’s director of swimming operations, arrived for work Friday morning, she walked past the O’Connell Center pool on the way to the program’s administrative offices.

The building was quiet when she noticed three of Craine’s divers by the pool where he often spent his mornings, still trying to make sense of everything.

“That’s when I lost it,’’ Gilliam said. “It was the combination of sheer silence and the graphic image of those three divers quietly sitting on the bench where Donnie always coached them from that was so incredibly moving.”

*****

Skip Foster has known Craine for five decades. Foster first became familiar with him when Craine was one of the country’s top divers at Michigan under legendary Wolverines coach Dick Kimball.

They later worked together at UF, first as assistants on Randy Reese’s staff and later when Foster was the UF men’s head coach in the early 1990s.

Craine liked to keep the mood light, which often helped Florida’s divers perform at their best.

“Donnie didn’t always have the greatest talent,’’ Foster, an assistant to UF athletics director Jeremy Foley, said Friday. “The really big diving programs like Miami and Texas, they have separate diving wells. It was hard for him to attract the very top divers.

“I think he kind of took the approach that whatever walks through the door, I’m going to do the best job I can. I think he did try to make it fun for them. The kids who stuck with him for four years got better every year. He had a lot of kids that won SEC Championships that would come in here as walk-ons or on very little money. He did a great job with that.”

One of those overlooked divers coming out of high school was Monica Dodson.

Monica Dodson

The 2011 SEC 3-meter and platform diving champion, Dodson grew up in Indiana and suffered a back injury her junior year. Most schools backed off when she was unable to perform for most of her senior season.

Not Craine. He saw a talent he could mold.

“He had remembered me from previous meets,’’ Dodson (photo, left) said. “He believed in me when some of the other coaches didn’t. It meant a lot to me that he kind of took a leap of faith in me.”

Dodson didn’t disappoint. She helped the Gators win the 2010 NCAA Championship and was named 2011 SEC Women’s Diver of the Year.

But Craine was more than just a coach. He became good friends with Dodson’s dad and the two would go on fishing trips together.

In fact, Dodson said she sent a text to Craine on Thursday afternoon to check in and see how he was doing.

“He didn’t respond and now I know why,’’ said Dodson, fighting back tears. “First and foremost, he was my coach, but he was also a friend and father figure for me. He kind of took me under his wing. He has really impacted my life in terms of outside the pool. And then I was able to achieve a lot of my goals, and goals that I didn’t even know I had yet, just being able to work with him.”

*****

While Craine is most known for his time at UF, he also had vast international coaching experience.

Craine was SEC Diving Coach of the Year five times and coached the U.S. diving team in the 1991 Pan-American Games in Havana and the 1993 World University Games in Buffalo, N.Y. He served as a judge at the 2009 FINA World Championships.

Former UF diver and eight-time NCAA champion Megan Neyer fondly recalled Friday her last visit with Craine. Neyer, a sports psychologist in Atlanta, attended the SEC Championships at the University of Georgia in February.

The UF men captured their second consecutive conference title, and in Craine-style, he did a huge belly flop off the 10-meter platform to celebrate.

Neyer was at UF from 1981-86, a period when Craine coached at a YMCA in Wisconsin, and later at Arkansas and LSU. Still, the two became close friends with a mutual love of the sport.

“The diving community is extremely small all over the world,’’ Neyer said. “In the last 24 hours, I’ve heard from people in Australia, England, New Zealand, and more. I talked to some of his divers [Thursday]. I feel extremely sad for them. He made a big impact on a lot of people’s lives. He will be very missed.”

Donnie Craine

Neyer and Dodson both said Craine was excited about the future. He recently applied for his captain’s license and envisioned a career in retirement as a fish-boat captain.

He loved the water and when not at the pool, Craine could often be found on his fishing boat. Craine was at the office earlier this week and left mid-week for an annual fishing trip to Southwest Florida.

“He loved boating. He had already prepared for the next chapter,’’ Neyer said. “It’s heartbreaking to me that he and his family are not going to see that final chapter.”

“That’s just how he lived his life,’’ Dodson added. “He was always full of energy. It really faded over into our passion for the sport.”

Foster shared a good story Friday about Craine’s passion for UF and diving. The Gators were at Auburn for the 1993 SEC Championships. Neither team particularly cared much for the other.

The Gators pulled off an upset in the 200 free and were celebrating by the edge of the pool when an Auburn swimmer ran by and pushed UF’s Stephen Clarke into the pool.

“He not only had warm-ups on, he had on a parka and this kid pushed him right into the pool and tried to hide in the Auburn section,’’ Foster said. “My first reaction was to try and grab Stephen because I thought he might drown with so many things on.

“The next thing I know this blur went flying down the pool deck right in front of me. It’s Donnie going after the kid. I go running after Donnie and I grab him from behind by the waist. And he is a strong sucker. I’m holding on for dear life.”

Both teams settled down, the Auburn swimmer was disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct, and the Gators won the title.

Craine and Foster often relived that story in the years since. Chuckles always ensued.

“We went to a swim meet and a fight broke out,’’ Foster said. “It kind of showed Donnie’s passion, his love for not only his divers, but for the school and for the whole program. He wasn’t going to let anybody get away with something like that. It’s just really a tragedy. It’s been real sad these last 24 hours.”

Kurtzman Greenfield echoed what those around UF’s campus and the diving community have been saying since news spread of Craine's death.

“I’m very sad that he’s gone,’’ she said.

*****

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