Retiring Jim Reitz has boat to float after 35 years at UNLV

There’s an old boat in Jim Reitz’s garage.

It’s a Boston Whaler, center console. Measuring 16 feet from stem to stern, it barely fits in his garage. He has to park it sort of catawampus. He has spent a lot of time restoring that boat, but mostly in dribs and drabs when swimming season didn’t interfere.

He says it’s only 29 minutes from his garage to the marina at Lake Mead.

That boat still hasn’t been on the water.

Last week, Jim Reitz resigned as swimming coach at UNLV — after 35 years.

He’s talking about taking that boat out.

He still gets up at 5:30 a.m., only now there’s not much to do. It’ll probably take a couple more weeks to remove all the stuff from his office, because one accumulates a lot of office stuff over 35 years as coach.

Then what?

Reitz, who will be 65 in June, isn’t sure. He’s only sure it won’t have anything to do with swimming. No consulting with his replacement, no working with a club swimming team, no overseeing early morning workouts on the side.

“It’s going to be a clean break,” he said Wednesday.

That’s what he says, anyway.

After 35 years as a college swimming coach (about 50 altogether), the chlorine sort of gets in your bloodstream.

Maybe it gets in your respiratory system, too. Reitz has developed this cough, and the doctors don’t know what’s causing it. “They’ve ruled out all the lethal stuff,” he says.

So he had been thinking about retiring for at least a couple of years. Still, when the time and announcement came, you sort of blinked in disbelief.

There is death and there are taxes and there is Jim Reitz, coaching swimming at UNLV, and winning conference championships on minuscule budgets, and encouraging his kids to go to class and compile impressive GPAs so they can become productive members of society.

Jim Reitz’s teams won 14 conference titles, including 10 in the past 11 years on the men’s side. He was named conference coach of the year 16 times. His teams have finished in the top 30 in the NCAA championships 17 times.

None of that matters too much to him.

Well, maybe the top 30 finishes matter a little, because UNLV is the only nonpower conference school that perennially finishes in the deep end of the pool with the big boys and girls.

But 35 years as coach have given him more than that cough, and more than gray hair around the temples. They’ve given him perspective.

People make such a big deal about winning and losing, he says. Maybe that’s OK in football, because when Texas is good in football, the money trickles down to the swimming pool, too — which explains why the Longhorns have won 11 NCAA national swimming and diving championships.

When I asked about his legacy, about how he would like to be remembered, Reitz said it had been nearly a week since he resigned, and that he has received hundreds of phone calls and social media messages from his former swimmers and other well-wishers. And not one has mentioned championships, or wins and losses.

For Reitz, swimming never has been a sport. It’s an educational experience. He tells people he’s a life skills coach whose medium is water.

Sometimes the water seeps through the cracks. Especially at a place such as UNLV, which isn’t Texas when it comes to football and money trickling down to the swimming team.

Cracks and fissures in the UNLV pool always were a topic for conversation when I would drop by for an annual column about the swim team.

The pool finally was patched in 2009. In fact, the Rebels got a new pool that year that cost $5 million.

Reitz said it was nothing he did. Somebody from the physical plant impressed upon the movers and shakers that if the pool wasn’t patched soon, a tidal wave might swallow up the health science building.

But that was Gentleman Jim Reitz, always deflecting the credit for an accomplishment onto somebody else.

Every now and again I will run into one of his swimmers in a bar. It’s not what you think.

Mary Alice Torgerson — she’s Mary Alice Rasmuson now — swam for Reitz from 1990 through 1994. She and her husband, Paul, own three T-Bird Lounge and Restaurants in Las Vegas; sometimes I go to the one on Eastern where Mary Alice always seems to be in the back office poring over the books, trying to shave off a few tenths or whatever, as if owning a bar was like swimming the breaststroke.

Her coach’s retirement surprised her, too. “He always had one more group of kids, and he’d say, ‘I’m not done yet, I’ve got to see them through,’ ” she said.

Mary Alice Rasmuson said when you signed a letter of intent to swim at UNLV, you didn’t just become a member of a team. You become a part of Jim and Nina Reitz’s extended family. Then when you were through swimming and graduated with a GPA in the high 3-point-somethings, Jim and Nina would invite you over for barbecue.

“It wasn’t just our little group,” she said. “He took all of us in. He’s been making a difference for 35 years. That is what is so amazing.”

So now he has resigned, and that seems amazing, too.

There’s an old boat in Jim Reitz’s garage. It’s 29 minutes to the marina. He’s talking about taking that boat out, to see how it floats.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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