‘I’ve Never Been a Bucket List Guy’ An Interview with Coach Greg Swords
Greg Swords returned to his alma mater, Magnolia High School, and began 39 years of teaching and coaching throughout the Ohio Valley. His life is replete with stories, accomplishments, lessons learned and lessons taught.
What is a typical summer day like for retired Greg Swords?
A typical Summer day involves fixing breakfast for Becky and me, plus any current visitors. We have 7 kids and 13 grandchildren. Then grabbing my list from the previous evening, and checking things off of the slate. A good day is when I have little to do. Sometimes that actually happens. I have two-thirds of an acre down here, so there is plenty to keep me busy. Also, 3 or 4 days a week I hit a local fitness center for the “old man’s” workout: 30 minutes on the bike with a 5 minute cool down; and, 35 to 40 minutes of weight bearing machines and dumbbells. We spend time on Topsail Island, which is only a few minutes away, and the catalyst for the change of address. It’s a somewhat sterile environment that is a bedroom community for Wilmington. There are also lots of restaurants near to us. As a seafood lover, that enters into the equation frequently.
The basketball court at Bruce Park was always full of players. Were there any games that stand out?
One evening after I got home from my summer job while a WLSC student, I went to the Park to get some recreational exercise. A number of kids from my younger sister, Kathy’s class, who I knew to be very good players were there. Greg Panger, Mike Myers, Clay Cecil, Mark Batton, etc. (Jeff Hohn wasn’t there), the nucleus of a fine freshman team. They came and asked me for a pick up game, but they wanted to choose the teams. That was fine with me, so we got started. The 5 man 9th grade team vs. the rest of us. During the game it became obvious to me that one kid (an 8th grader) could out run, out jump and out athlete everyone there. When the game ended, and we had decisively thumped that talented group of freshmen, I asked why they had given him to me. They said that he wouldn’t be their teammate until they were all on the Varsity, so they chose to play with their teammates. I inquired as to who he was. They said, “He’s an 8th grader, Mike Dawson”. Enough said.
Growing up did you have a favorite sport?
My favorite sport was always Basketball. I had 2 older brothers, who played parochial bball in Charleston for St. Francis out of St. Albans, WV. Later both played for Charleston Catholic High School. So, as an 8 year old I tried out for the SF 5th and 6th grade team. The coach’s son was a close friend of mine and also a 3rd grader. Low and behold we both made the team. We had a good team, but I never got into a game. Same thing basically happened the next year, but I had another 4th grader make the team, also. My best friend. We got in now and then. As 5th graders all 3 of us started on the 6th grade team. I was hooked. It was a great advantage moving to New Martinsville having played 5 years of organized hoops.
After my 6th grade season my Dad took me and some of my friends to see Marshall play in Huntington. They played a MAC team (Akron? Kent State?). Marshall lost a close game. MU had a point guard that really impressed me. On the way home I told my Dad that I wanted to be able the play like that MU guard. My Dad being the psychologist that he was said, “Well, you’re really going to have to work at it.” A few years later in New Martinsville I saw him play against my brother Mike in the P and R Summer League. It was Lou Mott…wow!
You were a teammate of Luke Iams who was a great athlete and character. Any favorite stories?
Luke was a year ahead of me in school. He was a 5’8″ 195 lb tail back, who rushed for over 1100 yards in 1966 (my junior year). He made the basketball team and ran track. I also was his teammate on the Marne Post 28 Legion Baseball team one year. Luke got his start as a weight lifter at my parents house. My brother Tom was his mentor. We used the back yard patio when the weather was good, and the basement when it wasn’t. I got more exercise carrying the equipment up and down the stairs than lifting. Luke was way more serious about it than me, and it showed. Our birthdays were close, so we celebrated together many years. We did a number of things together with our circle of friends as young adults. Luke was a boisterous, loud aggressive individual, who was generous and successful. A true force of nature. Handing the ball off to him for all of those yards he gained is one of my claims to fame.
There was a Jerry West encounter?
I’ve run across many characters in my 71 years as one might imagine, but one occurance has always stood out in my mind. However, ir’s with a better known person. As a nine year old in St. Albans I was visiting a friend near my grade school with a couple of other buddies. We went to a neighbor’s old cinder driveway that had a 2×4 backboard and a hoop with a chain net on it. We started playing horse, and the kid, who lived in the house came out to play. His name was Kim West, a friend, also. During the game a car pulled up and 2 tall lean young adults got out. One of them I didn’t recognize, the the other was a legend. It was Kim’s uncle Jerry. Yes, that Jerry West. He and his WVU teammate shot the ball with us for about 30 minutes. The kicker WVU had just lost the NCAA Championship game by one point a few weeks previous. My head was in the clouds.
Addendum: As a high school football player during my sophomore and junior years, I had the misfortune to play against one of the greatest players in the history of the OVAC, Tim Anderson of Follansbee HS. Bad times for the Blue Eagles. Tim went on to star for the OSU Buckeyes and San Francisco 49ers. But this isn’t about him. It’s about a relatively unheralded offensive tackle for the Blue Wave of Brooke County, John Yevuta. John started on the largest offensive line in the history of the Valley at that time. Later John played in the OVAC All Star game, and we met up at Carlyle Hall as residents at WVU. In a dorm-organized tackle football game I got a modicum of revenge on him, but some how it never measured up. When all of this blows by, I will be able to say that I knew John way back when.
Any mentors along the way?
Mentors…humm! I took very little from my coaches with the exception of the head football coach my last two years at MHS, Charlie Basil. He was very organized and a great scout. My baseball coach, Grant Barnett taught me to be a student of whatever game I was playing. And Wayne Fetty was a colleague, who guided me in my early years as a teacher. I had a number of excellent mathematics teachers at WLSC; Jeraldine Dailey and Nick Kuhne to name two. Of course my Father, James Dennis Swords, a Notre Dame athlete and Chemical Engineer, to whom it was pretty difficult to live up to his legacy. My older brothers, Mike a National Merit Scholar (also ND) and Tom, a starting offensive lineman and Engineer out of Va. Tech. My Mother Evelyne Mary was a great example of kindness and perseverance as was my older sister, Pat. My entire life I have tried to learn from the good and reject the bad. It’s to recognize and accept both for what they are. The Good Lord has always blessed me in my adult life by surrounding me with good, successful people.
At Magnolia, you were an excellent athlete. What sports did you play?
I participated in Football, Basketball, Baseball and Track and Field at Magnolia all 4 of my years. My junior year in Track was greatly inhibited due to a major conflict between the Baseball and Track coaches. I was the only one who did both at that point and neither liked it. I got caught in the middle frequently. The administration decided that Baseball was to be my priority, if I was going to play both, so I only ran at a few Track Meets. Fortunately I was filling into open events and a relay that was missing a piece. So I lettered and got to the Regional and State Meets. I ran hurdles and high jumped. I lettered 4 years in baseball. That was probably my best sport. I was a pitcher and outfielder. My Dad was an accomplished baseballer, so I naturally turned to that direction, and had some success. I lettered in football 3 years barely as a sophomore when I was a second team DB and a QB, who the coach hoped he wouldn’t have to put in the game. As a junior and senior I was mostly the starting quarterback for the Varsity along with playing corner, safety and some linebacker. I loved defense and didn’t care much for offense. I was probably the worst passing quarterback in MHS history, but I made the handoffs and the pitches , and I knew where everyone was supposed to be on each play. We were a quality AA running team, and I played my role. In Basketball I was a starting swing player for two years. Had to do battle with some power schools from WV and Ohio just like the Football team did. Made for some tough outings. I lettered those 2 years and averaged about 8 points a game for those 40+ games. I got 10 points a game as a senior on around 7 or 8 shots a game. I was more of a ball handler and defensive player. They say that athletes should find their passion and work on it. Being a “Jack of All Trades” is not the way. Well that was me. For a guy who was legally blind in his right eye I guess I did okay.
At WVU, you got to compete against some great athletes. Tell us about the time in Phys Ed Class when you out raced all but one.
You must be reading John Antonik’s Facebook posts. The FACTS are these. As a freshman in those days at WVU, if you were not a Phys Ed major they made you take a test of physical skills during an evening at the Field House; later Stansberry Hall. We all piled into the arena and waited to be called in the order in which we had signed up. Me being me, I was very late to the sign up, so I was one of the last to compete in a Shuttle Run. One of the first guys up was HS All American basketball player and WVU scholarship player, Curtis Price. Curtis was a great guy and hailed from Charleston HS… very well known. The run went like this. You would start at the baseline of the basketball court, on a whistle you sprinted to the foul line, picked up a wooden block, sprinted back to the baseline, set down the block, picked up a different block, sprinted back to the foul line, laid down the second block, and sprinted back to the base line. You needed quickness, hand to eye coordination and a lot of effort to do well. I had run so many line drills in my bball career that I was confident in doing well. Curtis got up and did his run. The timer said, “8.4 seconds”. Everyone oohed and awed, including me. Curtis was a business major. Seemingly hundreds of frosh gave it a try, and only a few came close to Curtis’ times. Most were way slower. Then I got called up. The whistle blew. I ran the course with no bobbles or problems. When I finished the timer said, “8.2 seconds”. What? They looked at the watch again in disbelief, and determined sure enough I had beaten a Parade All American. Well my buddies were all over me beating on me and heaping praise. I was still a bit shocked when the prized WVU basketball recruit stepped to the line. Will Robinson. A great guy and a better athlete than anyone you know. The whistle sounded. Will took a couple of steps back and forth and back and forth. He hit the finish line and the timer said, “6.2 seconds” I kid you not, it was that fast, and looked faster. A bit of a reality check for old Greg. But a good story.
Did you have a favorite subject to teach?
Well I was mostly a Mathematics teacher, but I taught 10 years of Computer Programming at Magnolia and 7 years of Multimedia (Photoshop, Office, Publisher, etc.) at River HS. Of the math classes I liked Algebra 2 and Geometry. My favorite curriculum was the Programming classes. Many of my students excelled in technology when they went on to college. I am very proud of them.
What are some similarities between coaching and teaching?
I believe that any situation where you have a person attempting to manage a group of people require the manager to be prepared, well trained, willing to help everyone, understand the personalities of the individuals, show patience and treat everyone equally. I am sure that I dropped the ball numerous times, but the older I got the better I got. Especially with that patience thing.
I loved teaching most of the time. Sports were a little more challenging. The individual sports like Cross Country and Track are more like the individual nature of the classroom. Team sports like basketball and football require a different set of coaching skills. Team work and team bonding are necessary for success. One player can ruin those things in a team, while one bad apple in an individual sport like Cross Country and Track generally will tell on themselves through poor performance. It does always show itself in the team setting. I liked the individual sports better as I aged. The teams that poured their hearts into victory were great, but when there was a team problem it was difficult. I’m not sure if that answers the question, but it is an honest response.
As a coach, you were no stranger to success. Please share some of your coaching experiences and high points along the way.
My teams did enjoy more than their share of success mainly in Track and Field, but also in Basketball. My first coaching job other than volunteering at Sistersville for Tom Swisher and Billy Stewart was the freshman basketball team at MHS. To this day it remains one of my favorite teams. John Kacor, Jeff Ward, Marshall Dyer, Bob Miller, John Stoneking, David Jeffers, Brian Arman, John Rush, Allan Partridge, Phillip Long and Steve Ross. Chuck Loy was the manager. They all contributed and they all were a great joy to me as their coach. They had rarely won a game in their grade school and middle school years, so they weren’t really confident. I began by cutting the, in theory, best 2 players among some others from the team. A few quit, and we settled in with 11 kids. By the end of the year they were a very good group, and extremely entertaining. Ask John Kacor about that. We ended up 10 and 6, and won our tournament. We lost a couple of early games that we avenged later; twice each to Marietta and an undefeated Frontier. All very close losses. I was very proud of those guys. I then was hired as the assistant Track coach at MHS. There Wayne Fetty was my boss. We never won a State Championship, but we won 4 out of 5 Regionals, a State Runner-up and an OVAC. In 1979-80 I decided to take the Girls Basketball team over as Head Coach. We won the sectional for the first time ever and fell to eventual State Runner up Weirton Madonna in the Regional. After 3 more Regional finals close losses we broke through and made it to the States. We won one big then lost close in the Championships in a game that turned late on a block/charge call. The next year we were back in the Championship game against the same Clarksburg WI team and lost by 3 in the final 2 minutes. WI was AAA the next year. After another Regional Championship loss in the 7th year we came down to reality, and the transient nature of our community moved a number of high quality athletes to other areas of the country. Most of those kids stayed in contact, and were very successful at their respective schools. We ended up 150 and 86 in ten years with 2 State Runners-up and 5 Regional Runners-up along with the 2 Regional Championships. We also won the Big School OVAC Championship in 1983-84, when we were easily the smallest school in the class. We were 24 and 3. Track was a bit more successful. My first year we won the State Championship easily after having struggled to beat Wheeling Central all year. We had a maturing young team and a great veteran middle distance runner, Shari Lemasters, who dominated the State Meet. For their troubles the Girls won Magnolia’s second State Championship and me the WV Coach of the Year award. My 2nd one as the Coaches Association had felt sorry for me when we lost the second basketball Championship and awarded me the Basketball COY award. I tried as an athlete and never was a contributor to a State title, but a bunch of little girls from the Parlor City and Assistant Coach Pam Duncan lead me to one. From 1985 we were Runners-up a couple of times and in the top ten at the State meet numerous times, but couldn’t get back to the top. During that time we did win 5 OVACs and numerous Regional titles; plus the only two ever held Sectional Track Championships. Then in 1995 a miracle happened. After not having won a meet outside of our league, we qualified everything we needed and went to Charleston and did everything we possibly could and won the State Championship behind the efforts of a bunch of freshmen and sophomores by one point. Then you guessed it the WV Coaches Association voted me COY again. My assistant John Holliday deserved a large chunk of that plaque as did all of those athletes. The next two year we dominated everywhere we went, and won the OVACs and State Championships. The next two year injuries and bad luck kept us out of the winners circle, but we dominated the Invitational everywhere we went. We won a lot from 2000 to 2006 also but one Regional, one OVAC and one State Runner up came from efforts of some of the better teams of which I had ever been a part. Great kids that had to contend with AAA schools disguised as small schools. In the final analysis, we had won 4 State Titles, 6 OVACs and 10 or 11 Regionals. I also coached Boys and Girls Cross Country for 6 years. We did pretty well. Especially in the Girls division. 3 Regional titles and a 3rd place finish in the State. The Boys won one Regional and fell short of another when we caught the flu and some injuries right at Regional time. So I guess the tally is 15 or 16 Regional Championships with numerous 2nds, 7 OVAC titles with around eight 2nds, and 6 State Runners-up and 4 State Championships. The Magnolia kids sure carried me a long way over the years. Thanks to all, who helped me enjoy the ride.
John Wooden was known to begin each season with an opening day speech about the worth of a penny. Did you have an opening day speech?
Nothing very profound, but I’m sure they could see it on my face. In Track, I used to welcome them and then say that it had been proven over the years that a bunch of little teenage girls from a little town on the banks of the Ohio River could win a State Championship, if they were willing to work hard and compete like Champions. The current 6 Girls Championships speak to that being simply the truth.
You coached with and against some talented people. What are some tips you learned from them?
In basketball, I studied Bobby Knight and watched every game I could in a learner’s mode. I read everything that I could. In Track and Field, I was thrown into the fire to coach all of the field events and hurdles by Coach Fetty. So I spent time in the library studying the skill events extensively both video and written literature. It helped that I had been a hurdler and a high jumper. I listened to everything that veteran coaches from opposing teams had to say. I also had excellent colleagues in Wayne Fetty, Craig Schneid and John Holliday.
Putting kids into positions they can succeed is a hallmark of a good coach. At the season’s beginning, what would you do to plug athletes into their best spots?
I have always believed that to be successful in Track and Field, you must figure out what you have to train your athletes to be successful versus their competition. At Magnolia, we were a school full of athletes with a combination of muscle fiber. We were pretty good at what we trained for but rarely great. So, my analysis of our needs lead me to one conclusion: Train everyone of the runners to be the best 400 meter runner they could be. In doing this, some could move to middle distance races, some could move to sprints and a rare talent could be a champion sprinter or distance runner. Plus, some could be developed into hurdlers. Every relay is taken care of, also. We were always good in the 4×400 and the 4×800 relays, and normally had competitive 4×100 and 4×200 kids. We seemed to do well in the hurdles as a team. When individual stars came out of this, it was a great year. I simply let everybody try what they wanted to try, made some strong suggestions, and then let the talent flow out of them. It seemed to work. Often a kid came out that their talent could be seen in soccer, volleyball, basketball, etc. So, I just pointed them at the logical events. Not an exact science, but educated observations. My assistant coaches and the Boys coaches had some influence, also. I tried to let them pick their events, but sooner or later they needed to go where they could score points. Craig Schneid once said to me, “It doesn’t matter where you score. Ten points is ten points.” That makes a lot of sense. So, being a math teacher I wanted to stay logical. In Ohio we may have trained for longer races, but in WV it was the 400 for us. And we were good at it. There were years where we had a dozen kids that could run under 1:05 in the 400. Unlikely anyone else in the state could make that claim.
Are there some seasons that stand out more than others? For instance, when everything came together and expectations were succeeded.
There were a few. Notably 1985’s Championship Meet. We were perfect. Led by Sherry Lemasters, Michelle DeBolt, and Renee Smittle.1995’s Championship Meet. Lead by Aurora Spang, Katie Swords, Andrea Robinson, and Emily Strother. We scored every point we could score within reason. But two teams standout in my mind. First is 1991 lead by sprint Champion Ashley Smittle, Dani Hayes, Marsha Fisher, Lisa Thomas, Shawna Jackson and Luann Mott. Ravenswood was heavily favored, but with 3 events to go we were down 6 points with some of our better events coming: the 800; we had two kids, who had scored there the previous year; the 200; where we had the 100 Champion in the middle of the track; and, the 4×400; where we were rated number one going into the meet. We placed 4th and 7th in the 800, 3rd in the 200, and 4th in the 4×400. Our kids poured their guts into those events, but they were worn out. Ravenswood won the 4×400 and won a close meet. Everything we did was a PR leading up to those races.
The other teams were 3 years that blend together in my mind. 2003, 2004 and 2005. Led by Hilary Heinzman, Allison Rothlisberger, Micah Bell, Amanda Howell, and Kelsey Spang. There were numerous other contributors. Those kids in the 1990s would have won 3 State Championships, but it was just too difficult to beat both Winfield and on occasion Weirton; two schools that were way bigger then us. We got Weir high frequently, Winfield was the best team in WV any class. It was a shame for those great kids from MHS. To tell the truth I thought we would be good nearly everyone of my 22 years as a head track coach.
You had some success as an athlete.
Here are a few, if interested: 6th grade all league in Charleston Catholic Parochial League; St. Albans State Championship Little League All Star team; OVAC Champion small school high jumper and Shuttle Hurdle Relay; 3 time Track Regional Champions team and Shuttles; State Track Team Runner-up; State Champion Shuttle Hurdle Relay; WVU Intramural school wide Basketball Champions. 3 time Dapper Dan Track Coach Of Year and OV COY; OVAC All Star Head Coach 1984; WV All Sports Finalist 1985 (token Girls Coach); and, Magnolia HS Life Achievement Hall of Fame. I was also honorable mention All State in Football, Basketball and Baseball along with the All State Shuttle Relay. There were even a few academic awards in there, also (none from my undergrad years at WVU; of course).
Anything on your bucket list.
I’ve never been a bucket list guy, but we are planning on doing some traveling with at least one big trip over seas, and a few domestic trips. Becky has recently had both knees replaced, and is healing well. So, when that crisis is in the past, we can start planning. We have seen a fair number of places in the USA, but there are plenty of other places we have missed. I’m just fortunate to be able to do things by her side. I have survived Cancer twice, I am right at my high school weight, I live at the beach, and feel pretty good. Our kids are all doing well. I guess that I don’t need any list to check off, except for my daily “things to do list”.
What advice would you give to a young Greg?
My advice to my younger self would go as follows: 1) Get your Math degree sooner, and study as an 18 to 20 year old like I did as a 21 to 25 year old. 2) Calm down. Life is good. 3) Go find Becky Williams way sooner. And, 4) Invest in Apple.
I would like to thank everyone that went through my doors during my 39 years teaching at John Marshall, Paden City, Sisterville, Middlebourne, Magnolia and River High Schools for helping me have such a great and rewarding career as an educator. When asked, if I would do it again, I say that I sure would with a few minor changes. Some jobs are way more rewarding than ones that provide a large pay check. I lucked into a few good ones. Thank you Wetzel, Monroe, Tyler and Marshall Counties and all of those great kids of yours.
Greg Swords returned to his alma mater, Magnolia High School, and began 38 years of teaching and coaching throughout the Ohio Valley. His life is replete with stories, accomplishments, lessons learned and lessons taught.