Unsung UNLV coach deserves tip of hat

It must have been the hat.

One of the most successful coaches in UNLV history strolled across campus recently, this his 30th season directing athletes at the school, to deposit $600 of fundraising money for a San Diego training trip.

His teams had sold raffle tickets.

Of course they did.

He didn’t have a card key to enter the building, because the way he sees it, when you have been around a place three decades and done fine without one, what’s the point?

“The lady at the door looks up and says, ‘Who are you?’ ” Jim Reitz said. “I said, ‘I’m the swimming coach.’ She said, ‘Oh, sorry. It must have been the hat.’ “

You could make an argument more UNLV fans today know who Bobby Hauck is than Jim Reitz, know more about a new football coach who has yet to instruct one drill with the Rebels than a man who has produced countless conference champions and All-Americans and Olympians.

Most college programs have them, stories about coaches who go about their business year after year, championship after championship, coach of the year award after coach of the year award, who silently exist in the shadow of bigger and more celebrated programs.

Jim Reitz is that story at UNLV.

He has been for some time.

“I’m always under budget, and we never break the rules, so I maybe have more autonomy than any coach here,” he said. “I could be bitter like a lot of swimming coaches, because we don’t get a very big piece of the pie, or I could just do my thing. I have chosen just to do my thing.”

Funny. This from a man who never intended to coach at all.

He took a job as a lifeguard at age 16, and, a month later, the manager of the Seattle-area pool was fired. One of the lower-tiered club teams needed a coach. They offered the position to Reitz, who accepted, had the kids swim back and forth a few times, and a career was born.

He made $114 a month.

His little band of castoffs became so good, parents of the club’s top swimmers began moving their children over to Reitz’s side of the deck. Eventually, he began his own club and regularly put a beatdown on all others in and around Washington state.

But he had seen enough overbearing club parents and the troubles they can cause, so when driving to Las Vegas in the spring of 1976 to interview for a job with the Sandpipers Swim Club, he instead had plans of teaching high school.

Then he walked into the natatorium that would become his home to this day. He never had seen anything like it. He took the Sandpipers job.

The UNLV coaching position opened in 1980. Reitz accepted it with no budget, no schedule and a team of women who walked into the athletic director’s office weekly to try to get him fired because he had the audacity to schedule consistent practice times and actually instruct during them.

The women lost that battle. The men’s team was added a year later.

“He is as methodical and low-profile and as good a person as we have,” said Brad Rothermel, the former AD who extended Reitz’s contract following that first season. “He has done a phenomenal job with less than adequate support. But he just keeps grinding.”

You need to know the 59-year-old Reitz hasn’t taken attendance for his teams in decades. He tells athletes if they need a coach who is going to yell at them, they should search for another program, that there came a time years ago when a colleague told him his teams needed to have better ownership of what was theirs; that those who can make 6 a.m. workouts four mornings a week and train year-round do, and those who can’t eventually fall off without any need for a push from the coach.

You need to know his first male All-American was Tim Dobias, and, at the 1983 nationals in Indianapolis, Tobias stood on the awards stand wearing old, gray Russell stencil sweats surrounded by swimmers in seemingly perfect outfits adorned with school logos. From that moment, it became UNLV’s swimming mantra under Reitz to never worry about what it didn’t have.

You need to know that if a kid can’t get through his recruiting trip without needing a beer, he or she isn’t welcome.

“Jim always stressed to us that it was our team, and he was just there to guide us,” said Joe Bartoch, a former UNLV swimmer and 2008 Olympian. “It wasn’t only about swimming. He wanted us to grow as men and women. He wanted to help us find our way in life.”

Some numbers: UNLV has an annual operating budget of $83,000 for the men’s team and $97,000 for the women’s team. The nation’s top swim programs are around $500,000 for each.

But here are the Rebels, having won five straight Mountain West Conference men’s titles, with that squad ranked 23rd nationally today. His women’s team is a young 0-6 this year but with the history of a 178-86 dual-meet record under him on its side.

Reitz will help unveil a renovated Buchanan Natatorium on Jan. 8, complete with a new pool and pool deck and diving boards and bulkhead and drainage and plumbing system. He jokes the overhaul came only after university officials feared a catastrophic flood might wash out the science building or some other structure of higher education.

He didn’t swim at the University of Washington. He didn’t take that job as a lifeguard at 16 with any grand plans of building a collegiate program.

“In some ways, 30 years is a blink of the eye,” Reitz said. “When I got here, nobody knew where the pool was on campus or ever visited me, so I had a few years of a learning curve.

“I’ve been coaching a total of 43 years, and the ability to still be surprised is the best thing. Some kid you never thought was going to do it pops a great swim. … There are kids like that on every team.

“It has been an amazing adventure.”

But after all these years, wouldn’t he prefer to have a card key so he could deposit the raffle money without needing assistance to enter a building?

“Are you kidding?” Reitz said. “No way. I’ve got a key to my office. That’s good enough.”

It must have been the hat.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on “The Sports Scribes” on KDWN-AM (720) and www.kdwn.com.

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