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  New Gators diving coach Dale Schultz is ready for the latest chapter in his coaching career.

Wednesday August 13, 2014Schultz's Past Makes Him Feel at Home with Gators

New Gators diving coach Dale Schultz is ready for the latest chapter in his coaching career.

By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the unwrapping of life's sometimes-tangled mysteries, the word often used in moments like these is bittersweet.

Dale Schultz understands that word’s meaning more than ever after the past three months.

The University of Florida's new diving coach, Schultz misses his old counterpart and their days competing against one another and discussing the sport they both built their lives around.

Donnie Craine was more than just a colleague. He was a friend, an adviser, a man who in some ways helped shape Schultz’s career.

“No one expects what happened to happen,’’ Schultz said.

The 61-year-old Craine, UF’s diving coach since 1989, died in a boating accident off the Florida coast near Fort Myers on April 24. The NCAA and international diving community, a small and close-knit group, mourned the loss of one of the sport’s most engaging characters.

In 1989, the same year Craine returned to UF to begin a 25-year stay, Schultz took over the diving program at Arkansas, where Craine served as head coach early in his career.

A friendship and rivalry blossomed.

“Donnie and I went back to the early ‘80s when I started coaching college,’’ Schultz said. “I had gone to a clinic when I was around 22, 23 years old, and Donnie was actually there. He had always been a mentor.”

Like Craine had done at one point in his career, Schultz left the college ranks for the sport’s private sector after the 2013 season. Schultz joined 2008 U.S. Olympic diving coach John Wingfield’s staff at the Indiana Diving Academy, founded in 1968 by one of the sport’s pioneers, longtime Indiana coach Hobie Billingsley.

Schultz served as associate head coach of the academy’s Ripfest program, which features some of the country’s top young divers. Schultz’s daughter, 15-year-old Brooke, trains at the academy located in Noblesville, Ind.

During the transition period for Schultz, he talked to Craine about the future.

Craine was already envisioning life after coaching. He was working toward earning his captain’s license and planned to start a fishing charter-boat business once he retired from UF.

Schultz has reflected often about the way the last three months have unfolded since he was hired earlier this month.

“The ironic thing is that Donnie had talked to me a year ago about the possibility of becoming the coach at Florida when he retired,’’ Schultz said. “If I didn’t think that this would be something he would want, I probably wouldn’t have accepted it. But I knew that because we had talked about that.”

As Schultz spoke, a bittersweet tone engulfed his words.

*****

There’s also a sweet joy in Schultz’s voice as he talks about his new job. To understand where it comes from, you must travel to Akron, N.Y., in the early 1970s.

By the time Schultz enrolled at the Akron Central School, a K-12 institution located near Buffalo, Paul Schleich had built Akron Central’s swimming and diving program into a formidable outfit in the prep ranks of western New York.

Schleich was a gymnast at the University of Buffalo who later started teaching physical education at Akron. The school didn’t have a swim team when he got there, so he built one from scratch.

The school’s other athletic teams used the nickname Tigers. Since his team did its work in water, Schleich preferred Tigersharks. The nickname stuck.

“I made them a stuffed mascot. They always had this paper-mâché mascot that would get wet,’’ said Karabeth Schleich, Paul’s wife of 43 years. “I had to make it up because I didn’t know what a Tigersharks looked like. They would have it sit on the diving board until the meet started.”

Before Schultz was old enough to compete on the junior-varsity team, Schleich noticed that he would come around practice and work out with weights and in the pool by himself. He knew he had a future Tigershark in his midst.

The JV team didn’t have a diving team, so Schultz started as a swimmer. When he reached varsity, he found his niche.

“He had an inclination for the diving board,’’ Schleich said. “I turned him loose on the deep end and I saw that he was ready to get on that board. He really had the ground roots and the potential of breaking all the records, which he eventually did.”

When it was time for Schultz to leave for college, he earned a scholarship to the University of Maine. Schleich’s influence on Schultz reached far beyond the edges of the pool and their time together at Akron.

Schultz remained in close contact with his former coach throughout college and into his coaching career.

“He was probably the biggest influence on me,’’ Schultz said. “He had a strong presence with the swimmers and divers. He was very instrumental in being a mentor and a father figure. That’s the direction I wanted to have.”

Once his career at Maine concluded, Schultz finished college at Kansas State and began his coaching career at Manhattan (Kan.) High. His first college coaching job was at the University of Idaho in 1984, the same year Craine took over at Arkansas.

Five years later, Craine returned to Florida following a stint at LSU. That same year Schultz started his stretch with the Razorbacks.

Along the way, he tried to instill the same principles and use many of the leadership traits he learned from Schleich, whose name now adorns a plaque in his honor at the Akron pool.

When he retired from coaching Schleich moved to Florida and now lives in Port Charlotte. His hearing isn’t what it used to be, but Schleich heard what Schultz told him in a phone call after accepting the Gators job. He wants Paul and Karabeth to come to a meet this season.

He promises good seats.

“Teaching and coaching is often a paycheck of the heart,’’ said Karabeth, who helps Paul, now in his 80s, communicate with callers. “It’s what the students give back to you that really matters. Dale has given back to Coach for years and years. He has kept in touch with us all through his career and we are just so thrilled he is at the University of Florida.

“We haven’t been to a swim meet in a few years. We’re excited about that.”

*****

Schultz quickly got his feet wet on the new job. On his first official day a pair of recruits was in town. He then bolted for a meet in South Florida to check out potential recruits, running into several familiar faces from his time in the SEC.

When Gators coach Gregg Troy made an offer, Schultz was quick to accept.

“I know they are on the verge of an opportunity to win an NCAA title,’’ Schultz said. “I want to be a part of that. I’m 53 years old and an opportunity to coach at an institution like Florida isn’t going to come around too many more times.”

Schultz’s philosophy is to recruit good athletes first, divers second. That’s the way he has built winning teams.

“Dale has an interest in our entire program as he knows that diving is just one part of it,’’ Troy said when Schultz was hired. “That makes him unique.”

“You have to have some high-caliber kids coming out of the gate, but sometimes your better kids are athletes you find and develop,’’ Schultz said. “It takes them a couple of years and then they surprise everybody.”

As Schultz turns his focus to the future, the possibilities excite him.

The thought of the Schleichs at the O’Connell Center watching from poolside stirs warm memories. So do thoughts of building on what his late friend left behind.

Schultz knows Craine won’t be far away as he goes about his daily tasks.

“Everybody liked Donnie Craine,’’ Schultz said. “Following Donnie you’ve got big shoes to feel. I need to be myself, implement my program, and build on what Donnie did because there was a lot of success.”

Though a bittersweet journey here, Schultz already feels at home.

 

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