By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, January 17, 2017Ray Looze has Indiana beyond on the rise -- his men’s team took the top ranking last fall, and the women’s team, led by Olympian gold medalist Lilly King, is also an NCAA force. The Hoosier coach, who swam at USC and then trained at the University of Texas while earning his master’s degree, says succeeding a legend and building a new tradition at Indiana University was never easy -- which has made it mean all that much more, as he explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Okay, 2017 -- how do you follow up 2016?
Ray: Gosh, you know, it’s been such a wonderful time period. I don’t know if you top that -- you don’t top anything, you just enjoy watching these Indiana swimmers develop. We’ve got a great group right now. With that, we can comprehensively develop each one and move forward.
2. It’s more complex than an easy answer I am sure, but what’s a key to returning Indiana to greatness?
Ray: People. The right people. The kind who want to get better, to do better. I have to credit our student-athletes because we have a really great group. I have some great colleagues to work with. At this point in my coaching career, trying to put together the best group of coaches possible has been my goal the past few years. We’ve made big strides.
3. You started the climb and took on that role in a way that the team seems to enjoy it -- or is that right?
Ray: That’s pretty much the way we have to do it at Indiana. We embrace the underdog role. There are a lot of old-timers that remember the good old days at Indiana -- and those times and those people are so important to our program -- but I think we are doing it differently. They used to recruit anyone they wanted to. We don’t get all those people anymore. We have to recruit people and make them better.
4. And that was your approach since day 1, bringing in the likes of your Olympic trio like Cody Miller, Lilly King and Blake Pieroni?
Ray: In 2002, when we took over we had to focus on athlete development and finding the diamond in the rough. In their own way, each of the ones you mentioned exemplify that.
5. Lilly in particular was a blue chip though, right?
Ray: As good as Lilly King was out of high school, it wasn’t as competitive to get her as you might think. It wasn’t like all the top programs were knocking on her door. She was recruited by Tennessee and Texas and others, but others did not see how vast her potential was and what she could be.
6. The outpouring of support for you and the team, how much more enjoyable did that make Rio and all that went with it?
Ray: You know one thing that was interesting, that all the swimmers from 1992 onward really got to participate in this. I recently got on Facebook. It was really cool, they all felt a part of it. That was really nice for me to see, someone who was a Pacific Tiger who was really excited about what Cody or Lilly or Blake was doing.
7. So you gave in and went digital?
Ray: I got on Facebook (laughs) for recruiting purposes. You have to be on social media these days. The nice benefit, and I was telling my wife, is I get to follow news on other people and keep up with them. It’s kind of a poor man’s photo album on a personal level, and I take great pride in seeing what these incredible people I’ve been fortunate to know and work with are doing in their lives.
8. When did you realize the greatness of Indiana?
Ray: I didn’t really know for a long time, if you can believe that, as a swimmer growing up. I remember my first memory was my senior year at USC. The NCAAs were at Indianapolis, and they were recognizing Doc Counsilman at his last meet. He was in a wheelchair and I remember it vividly. The great Peter Daland, who was my coach at the time came up to me, and I asked him, who is that, and he said, “That was my greatest rival.” And that introduced me to Indiana lore. Remember I came along in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. My wife is from the state of Indiana, so she encouraged me to apply and pursue the job here. I didn’t really have a full understanding of all the tradition, so I had to learn the history.
9. So it was a crash course?
Ray: The heyday here had been in the early ‘70s and I was 5 years old. It’s the hardest thing to have to grasp when you first get into it; I tell you, there are people who cling to that, but that just makes the challenge and reward greater. It’s nice to see things moving in a positive direction.
10. Indiana was ready to return to the top, collectively, weren’t they?
Ray: The great thing about the people here is they have been so excited. Our university president, athletic director, the board of trustees, and even our state representatives are so excited to see what has happened. We were honestly just happy to have one Olympian, let alone three. The hardest thing out there in swimming is to make the U.S. team. It’s very humbling.
11. And you made it as a coach, also humbling?
Ray: It is. That was the first time for a lot of us rookie coaches on the Rio staff. To (USA Swimming National Team Director) Frank Busch’s credit, all the coaches earned it and he brought us along with great opportunities to develop and prove ourselves. Coaching at WUGs and short-course Worlds, without that experience, I and others would not have been as prepared. Frank did not have to give us those chances. I have never seen someone so committed to understanding the value of developing coaches. He really digs deep into the coaching ranks and understands the process so well.
12. What was it like being on the staff?
Ray: That was so cool. Just the whole first day with the team, the first day of training camp -- such an incredible feelings. One thing that was neat was that I would go for walks. So Bob Bowman was like, “Walking? I’m not sure about this,” and I was like, “Come on, it’s not that bad.” So Bob and I walked together almost every single day until the end of the Olympics, four or five miles each and every time. (Assistant director) Stefanie Kerska would go, too. Jack Bauerle would go sometimes, and we had this core group of people who would go, and some would go occasionally, and those were great times. That was the neatest group and I got to know some incredible people.
13. Veteran swimmers and new ones, and veteran coaches and new ones -- how well did that work in terms of building chemistry, helping each other and getting on the same page?
Ray: We really meshed well as a group. You had both the experience coaches and swimmers, and the new ones, mirroring each other. It really meshed well. But I think it energized the veterans, and they in turn put a ton of time into anyone who was doing it for the first time. There was always someone who stood up to address the group, and cover every base you were thinking of. We were really motivated. We had heard predictions of how this wouldn’t be a great team. And then you see how it turned out. There was this great leadership from the coaching staff and swimmers. You see Tony Ervin talking to a kid at his first Games. And Bob and Jack were excited to have new coaches on staff and treated everyone so well.
14. What was it like stepping on the deck in Rio?
Ray: You know what was weird was that I went down there in April with a Brazilian swimmer of ours (at Indiana). And at the time I thought, “This is the last time I’ll see the pool.” And more than likely, it was going to be -- you can do the math on how many great coaches there are, all the swimmers who were competing for the spots. But then our swimmers made the team, and I was selected. So when I got back there, it was very familiar. Really, I felt very comfortable. When I walked in in April, I thought, “This is really cool.’ So by August, I had been there before, I knew the facility, and I knew the area.
15. Were the walks with Bob like Tuesdays with Morrie sort of, where you kind of picked his brain and learned from his insights?
Ray: It was everything. We didn’t talk a lot of swimming. But most of it was, “What do you like to cook” and that kind of thing, getting to know each other as people. And from that you understand who they are as a coach and why they do things a certain way. And it was a nice little break from the intensity of practice and preparation -- just a really nice, relaxing way to start off the day. We’d get up early, get coffee, and walk for an hour. So we were relaxed diving into the day. When Bob and I were alone at times, we talked a little shop too. But mostly it was getting to know Bob. We had been rivals in the Big 10 when he was at Michigan and hadn’t said one word to each other at all, so I didn’t know (laughs) what to expect. He later said the same thing about how we hadn’t known each other at all prior to that and that time together really was a great opportunity to get to know and understand each other.
16. All of your Indiana student-athletes medaled, got golds -- did you anticipate that going in?
Ray: That was unbelievable. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. There was really a lot of pressure on all of them. Lilly with where she was, Cody having an outside shot to make the team and then make the relay, Blake having his role there to make sure we medaled in that event. We put a lot of time into the relays in training camp; those were important to us, trying to figure out the right combinations, who to go with, and how to put it together. Our Indiana swimmers, and everyone on the Olympic team, stepped up in a big way to the challenge.
17. Cody Miller ended up delivering a bronze and then was one of the keys -- some would say the key -- on the relay -- how did he do that?
Ray: Well, it kind of started with his individual race, where he swam a really good prelim in Rio. He had asked, “Who am I going to be next to?” And I saw (Adam) Peaty. I told Cody. He knew the challenge. We didn’t say a lot. We had known already that Peaty would be phenomenal. But if you want to make the Olympic final, he knew he had to face him sooner or later. I told him, “Swim your own race because he’s going to do what he’s going to do.” Cody was glad for the opportunity. In camp, and the time leading up to Trials even, Cody and Kevin (Cordes) had really been going at it. Cody improved in the semifinal and looked really peaceful in the water but at the same time was getting more and more aggressive. It was just so cool to have him as our breaststroker on that relay (final). I would’ve never seen that a year or two or go, because Kevin was unbeatable -- he’s such a gifted guy. So for Cody to step up and earn that spot and step up in the final like he did made it really special. He’s a special young man. He really trusts us. We have a friendship -- it has certainly gone beyond just coach and swimmer, and it’s been that way for a long time. That’s another thing about what we’re doing at Indiana: Cody had overcome a lot in his past, and some might have looked at his situation if they did a little digging and wondered if that kid was going to make it. Then you get to know Cody, and you are amazed.
18. Lilly King delivered and kept things interesting with the rivalry, didn’t she -- did you see that coming?
Ray: Well, I knew (laughs) there was a chance. Privately, we talked about Yulia (Efimova) and the doping. Yulia was the last person Lilly had lost to -- at 2015 Winter Nationals in December, so she was really excited to race her again. And Lilly really does just have a lot of disdain for the doping -- the cutting of corners. The USA media people were like, “We know Lilly might want to…” and we told them that we knew that, that she’s 19 and very raw, very wet behind the ears, that we were going to avoid that. We told her, “We’re going to let other people fight that battle. Have a good time. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Do not put a target on your back. You already have that from your ranking. Don’t make it more so.” She said, “That’s a great idea” and she was really supportive. Then, it all went out (laughs) the window when she saw her on the monitor. I talked to (head women’s coach) David Marsh and he said, “We are going to support her,” that she had a right to her opinion. I supported her as well and once that genie was out of the bottle, there was no way to put it back in. She took all that pressure onto herself, and backed it up.
19. All three of them coming home with enough medals to clog TSA lines at the airport -- a lot of pride for you in that?
Ray: Yes, for Blake, Lilly and Cody, and what they demanded from themselves. They are all so different in terms of personality. But all three are really good at overcoming adversity -- it just doesn’t bother them. They are a product of their environment. And that continued at Indiana, where our kids are tough -- all their teammates take pride in them, and themselves, and bring their best effort which makes them, and those around them, better.
20. How do you process that -- being an Olympic coach, IU’s resurgence, all the medals, the records -- what a year, wasn’t it?
Ray: It’s unreal. I can’t really believe it. All you can do is be humble, grateful and use it to make you better. And hopefully other coaches can relate to it, because it’s not the good ol’ boy network that gets you on that team -- it shows there’s room (laughs) for some junkyard dogs. I am so lucky. I had a lucky 2016. But the thing about luck that I realized is that you get more of it when you work hard and smart -- you make your own opportunity to be seen as “lucky” and a lot more goes into it than the moments of success that everyone sees and remembers.