Dec. 22, 2014
Dennis Stark, the University of Notre Dame’s first swimming and diving coach, a 27-year veteran of that position and a longtime Special Olympics advocate in the community, died today in South Bend. He was 91.
Stark founded the men’s program, served as the Irish men’s swimming and diving coach beginning in 1958 and spent almost three decades in that role until he stepped down in 1985. His teams produced a 27-year record of 167-137 (.549) in dual meets. At the time he joined the Notre Dame staff, the University sponsored only 10 men’s varsity sports.
He also coached the Irish women’s team in the first four seasons of its existence from 1981-85 and compiled a 31-14 record (.689) in dual meets. His final Notre Dame women’s squad finished 11-1 and won the 1985 North Star Conference title for the second straight season–and he twice was named league coach of the year (1984 and 1985). His first Irish women’s team finished 21st at the 1982 Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) Division III Championships.
Stark’s Irish men’s squad competed primarily as an independent program. The last of his Notre Dame teams in 1983-84 and 1984-85 finished second in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. His 1974-75 squad ended up 11-1.
“Dennis is the father of Notre Dame swimming,” said current Irish women’s swimming and diving coach Tim Welsh, who replaced Stark in 1985 as coach of both the men’s and women’s squads. “He started both programs, and he was so in love with the program–he’s known everyone who has ever swam with both teams. He was a wonderful person, both for the University and for the city of South Bend, and he had such a wonderful impact on everyone with whom he crossed paths. He will be sorely missed by many. We wish him Godspeed–and may he rest in peace.”
“I have met so many of the alumni from Coach Stark’s teams, and every one of them loved and adored him,” said current Irish men’s coach Matt Tallman. “In this profession, to have that much of a positive impact on that many lives is a very telling tribute to the job he did and how he did it the right way. Dennis welcomed me to Notre Dame immediately and has always been great to my family and me. We will all miss him very much.”
Stark continued to teach in the Notre Dame physical education program for many years after his retirement as Irish head coach and also served as longtime director of the Rolfs Aquatic Center. He was head of the physical education department from 1975-81.
Long known as the Notre Dame Relays, the early-season Dennis Stark Relays were renamed in his honor beginning with the 2003-04 season. Several former swimmers have established endowments in Stark’s name to fund Notre Dame swimming scholarships.
Stark and his family were strong supporters of the Special Olympics and played an integral role in the 1987 International Summer Special Olympics held on the Notre Dame campus (serving as manager of swimming and diving). The Notre Dame Monogram Club in 2010 presented him with its Moose Krause Distinguished Service Award.
When Logan Center (a school for the developmentally disabled) was located just south of the Notre Dame campus, Stark created a program that invited its students to swim in the Rockne Memorial pool–with many of Stark’s swimmers and other Notre Dame students volunteering their time at Logan. Stark’s youngest son, Kenny, was born with Down syndrome.
Stark spent more than four decades officiating high school football and basketball events and in 1988 was presented the Russ Oliver Award by the St. Joseph Valley Officials Association. He also has been honored by Special Olympics, the American Red Cross, the national YMCA and the College Swimming Coaches Association.
He began his athletics career at age 26 when he was named assistant physical education director at the South Bend YMCA. He spent 22 summers as instructor, coach and pool manager at Morris Park Country Club in South Bend. Stark also served as an official at the 1972 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.
Stark is a 1947 University of Notre Dame graduate. A Detroit native, he is a World War II veteran.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
NOTE: A moment of silence will be observed tonight prior to the Notre Dame men’s basketball game against Northern Illinois in memory and recognition of Dennis Stark’s many contributions to athletics at the University.