Dennis Stark, regarded as the father of Notre Dame swimming, was a longtime Special Olympics advocate in the South Bend community.

Stark's Life Lessons Still Resonate Today

Oct. 7, 2015

Long before the Special Olympics were a reality, or athletic teams engaged in inclusion, the University of Notre Dame swimmers were in the pool, partnering with children from the Logan Center.

Long after the splashing, initial apprehension, and then laughter faded away, the life lessons that Fighting Irish swimming coach Dennis Stark guided his student-athletes to learn still burn brightly.

Stark, who passed away on Dec. 22, 2014, started the Notre Dame men’s swimming program in 1958. He was also the first coach of the women’s swim program, which began in 1981.

“He was a gentle man,” says Michael Danch, Notre Dame associate athletics director. “He was beloved by everybody. His former swimmers were so dedicated to him and learned so much from him and his wife and the entire Stark family. To this day, those people will reflect back on the times that they had with Dennis and mention how big of an impact he had on them.”

Stark, a native of Detroit, coached at Notre Dame until 1985, but didn’t retire from the university until 10 years ago. He and his wife, Angelina, were the parents of five children – David, Craig, Tim, Jan and Kenny. Three of the Stark children graduated from Notre Dame.

As a forerunner in inclusion, Stark raised the awareness of the Special Olympics at Notre Dame, and beyond the campus. His efforts created an impact that has stayed with the lives of his student-athletes.

Don Casey, a captain for the Irish swim team in the early 1980’s, says that Stark carved out a lasting legacy at Notre Dame.

“Coach was a huge believer in that you were going to graduate from Notre Dame being a better person versus being a better athlete or a better swimmer,” said Casey, who has had three daughters swim at Notre Dame. “Whether it was taking us to the Logan Center, or instilling in us the sense that we’re all here to do more than just swim, he helped us understand that you’re not defined by your swimming, you’re not defined by your job, you’re defined by how much you care for others. He led the way, personally, in virtually everything he did.”

Stark embodied the Notre Dame spirit, and service was deep in the fabric of his soul.

“Coach Stark devoted his life to Special Olympics,” said Nancy O’Brien-Kane, who swam at Notre Dame from 1985-88. “His son, Kenny Stark, was an active participant in Special Olympics.

“Coach Stark coordinated the hosted the aquatics part of the 1987 International Special Olympics at Notre Dame. It was a huge event for Notre Dame to host the International Special Olympics. It was probably my most memorable experience at Notre Dame.

“His son Kenny went underwater for the first time, which was a remarkable accomplishment. It was a very exciting time. Coach Stark was always a guy who was super organized. He was definitely a man of character. He ran the event very smoothly. It was one the first major events at the Rolfs Aquatic Center.”

Danch says that Stark worked around the clock to make sure the International Special Olympics Games at Notre Dame were a success.

“When we hosted the International Special Olympics Games in 1987, Dennis was the aquatics director for the meet,” Danch says. “He was very involved in getting the swimming portion done. He worked tirelessly, and he was happy to do that.”

Stark was Notre Dame’s Director of Aquatics when Notre Dame hosted the International Special Olympics. The former United States Marine and World War II veteran was also an official at the 1972 United States Olympic Swim Trials.

Stark was a high school football and basketball official for more than four decades, and was the assistant physical education director at the South Bend YMCA at the age of 26. He was an instructor, coach and pool manager at Morris Park Country Club in South Bend.

Devoted to Notre Dame, Stark attended the Dennis Stark Relays last October.

According to Casey, Stark kept athletics in perspective.

“For Coach Stark, it was incredibly important that students develop a sense of compassion,” Casey says. “If you are competing at a collegiate athletic level, chances are, your life has revolved around that sport.

“To achieve that kind of success, you’ve been single-mindedly focused. Coach was a very good coach. He absolutely wanted you to swim fast. That’s why we were there, that’s why we had a team. But he also knew that there were very few of us who were going to go on to a professional swimming level, and that is was very important to instill in us a sense of community, a sense of greater purpose in all of his students. He considered his team not swimmers; he considered them students. He thought of himself as an educator.”

Casey said that Notre Dame has been blessed with two swimming coaches who personified what a Notre Dame man stands for – Stark and Tim Welsh.

“It was about God, Country, Notre Dame, in that order,” Casey says of Stark and Welsh. “They would instill that in how they approached everything that they did. Whether coach Stark was on the pool deck, or you were on a 12-hour bus ride coming back from St. Bonaventure’s, he would always make sure that you understood there was a greater purpose to what you were doing.”

O’Brien-Kane agreed that Stark, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1947, was the embodiment of Notre Dame’s lofty standards.

“I think coach Stark epitomized everything great about Notre Dame,” O’Brien-Kane says. “He was a man of high moral standards. He was a great leader, and he was compassionate. He was faithful. He believed in really coaching from the heart. His swimmers appreciated him for that. Thirty years after I graduated from college, I still think of him as a very good role model for myself, and everyone else he came across.”

Bill Cronin echoed the sentiment that Stark was a principled man who cared deeply for his student-athletes.

“Coach Stark never had a tirade, he never belittled anybody,” said Cronin, who graduated in 1961. “When I think of coach Stark’s legacy, ‘God, Country, Notre Dame’ comes to mind. He loved God, he loved his country, he loved Notre Dame, and he loved his family. He stood for so much. We were successful in swimming because we wanted to win for Notre Dame, and we wanted to win for him.

“Coach Stark and his wife had a son who was special needs, but they never looked at it as a cross to bear, the way some people might have looked at it. They were such loving people, and they so loved their son. They loved every minute of caring for him.”

Cronin said that Stark carried the family theme to his swim program.

“Coach Stark was a family man in so many ways,” Cronin says. “He nurtured a family with the team. He held and commanded your respect, but he wasn’t trying to be someone who was the commander-in-chief. He never ran his program like he was the boss. He talked to you. He taught you how to do this or that.

“We all talked about how we could put the team together, and who should swim what. He’d encourage that kind of involvement by the team, instead of him coming in and telling us what we were going to do. Ultimately, what we did was his decision, but there was a warmth in getting to that point.”

Stark compiled a record of 167-137 (.549) mostly fielding a totally non-scholarship team against large-school powers.

Stark allowed his team to have ownership, and used competitive practices rather than heavy-handed techniques to get his swimmers poised to win championships.

“Coach was not a taskmaster,” Casey says. “He was not a guy who was going to get into your psyche and really push buttons. He believed in large teams. A lot of teams get down to 18-to-20 people. He would keep 35.

“His belief was that creating internal competition was going to drive you more than him standing up and blowing whistles at 6 a.m.,” Casey says of Stark. “We would yardage goals, and he would set goals for the team. He knew the best way to do things was to say, ‘Hey, guys. Only three people can swim the 200 fly at championships. Who is it going to be?’ When you have a bunch of Type A lunatics who are going to compete with each other walking down the street, you don’t have to do a lot more. That’s how it was going to roll.”

Stark’s calm demeanor, and keeping the fiery passion of athletics in perspective, inspired many of his former student-athletes to become coaches.

“I’ve coached pretty much every sport there is, basketball, volleyball, soccer, triathlons, track, softball,” says O’Brien-Kane, who has coached both high school and AAU teams, and has led two water polo teams to state championships. “There are times when the kids can drive you crazy, or more likely, their parents can drive you crazy.

“When I think about quitting, I think of good people like coach Stark, who stuck it out for us,” O’Brien-Kane says. “I’m sure he would have rather been with his own family. He didn’t need to be coaching a swim team, but he did, and we appreciated him for that.”

O’Brien-Kane said that Stark was the reason that she went into coaching.

“Where he inspired me the most was to continue coaching,” O’Brien-Kane says. “I’ve coached 35 years because of coach Stark, because of his dedication and his family’s dedication. He and his family always welcomed us to his house.”

Cronin also coached when he wasn’t working for Canon and Olivetti office supply firms.

“Coach Stark was as dedicated of a guy as there has ever been,” Cronin says. “I coached kids later on, first my own, and then others, you certainly learned from him how to act and behave and to encourage and promote. You learned that you’re not trying to be the boss. You’re trying to give encouragement and direction and pointing them in a way that would be successful. That’s the way he was.”

Cronin said that Stark nurtured a family atmosphere among his swim teams at Notre Dame. While the Fighting Irish had the usual fierce competitive spirit that resounds around the campus, the swim team bonded and looked out for each other. Stark’s leadership helped the Fighting Irish grow as a team and a family, and support each other.

O’Brien-Kane also said that she learned to make her teams family-oriented.

“The life lessons learned from coach Stark were much important than the swimming techniques learned from coach Stark, and he knew that,” O’Brien-Kane says. “He knew none of us were going to go on to ever be professional career swimmers, but he made every moment count.

“Coach Stark was devoted to his faith and his family. His daughter cared for him right up until the end. He couldn’t have been closer to his wife. They had a great friendship. He always treated her like a queen, and she adored him, as well. It was a good lesson for my marriage, and my family, as well.”

Casey says that Stark had a playful spirit that always surfaced around the Fighting Irish swimming program. Casey and the other swimmers called Stark, “Coach-o,” and his wife was called ‘Mrs. Coach-O.” Stark had a fondness for sweets. His wife baked chocolate-chip cookies frequently for the team, and after every meet, there was a stop for ice cream.

“We had swum an exciting meet against Marshall, down in West Virginia,” Casey remembers. “We were all excited. I remember being particularly animated. We threw coach in the pool. We threw everybody in the pool. He looked at me and said, ‘Don, whether we win or lose, we’re still going to have ice cream.”

O’Brien-Kane keeps Stark’s ice cream tradition alive with her teams. Every game or meet is topped off with ice cream.

“We called coach Stark two scoops,” O’Brien-Kane says. “He always got so excited about ice cream. He had to cut back to one scoop in his later life, because is darn near killed him.”

O’Brien-Kane remained close to Stark throughout the rest of his life, as did Casey, and Cronin.

Cronin learned soccer from Stark, who taught physical education at Notre Dame. Cronin, in turn, taught his son soccer, and his son went on to play for current Fighting Irish coach Bobby Clark when he was at Dartmouth.

Stark also officiated football, and refereed Fighting Irish practices when Ara Parseghian was the head coach at Notre Dame.

One telling piece of information about Stark’s legacy and the respect he earned is that a number of former Notre Dame swimmers have endowed swimming scholarships in Stark’s name.

“Coach Stark was a prince of a guy who everybody loved,” O’Brien-Kane says. “You can tell people like and respect somebody when they continue to go out of their way to go back and see that person.”

— By Curt Rallo