Oct. 17, 2013
By Victor Diaz `15
When the final note of the National Anthem was struck last Friday, Rolfs Aquatic Center exploded as the 49th annual Dennis Stark Relays began. The fans of the six competing teams were deafening as they cheered on their peers with chants of “Let’s go Hoosiers!” and “Here come the Irish!”
Yet the combined voices of all the students, parents and fans in Rolfs couldn’t match the potency of the few simple words printed at the bottom of the scoreboard located on the far right wall of the aquatic center: “Dedicated to Coach Dennis Stark, `47, `49. In honor of 49 years of service to Our Lady’s University as coach, teacher and mentor.”
Dennis Stark, the man whose name now adorns the scoreboard in Rolfs Aquatic Center and is given to an annual meet, began building Notre Dame’s newly formed varsity program from the ground up in 1958, 11 years after his graduation from the same university.
Having never laid eyes on Notre Dame before deciding to attend the university, Dennis Stark was a stranger in a new land when he took his first step off the Greyhound bus that brought him from Michigan to South Bend in 1943.
“In those days I never had a picture of campus,” Stark remembers. “I never had a map of it. When I got to downtown South Bend I had to ask how to get to the campus. I couldn’t afford a cab, so I had to find a bus. I went out to campus and I asked, `Where do I go?'”
It didn’t take long for the Detroit native – who firmly believes that God’s will led him to choose Notre Dame over Marquette, Michigan and Michigan State – to make South Bend his home. Like many other ND students, by the time graduation rolled around, Stark wasn’t quite ready to leave. Instead he elected to stay at his alma mater as an instructor of physical education.
While teaching PE classes in swimming, soccer, volleyball, tennis and even a little bit of gymnastics, Stark was able to find time to be an unpaid assistant coach with the swimming and diving team at Notre Dame which was, at the time, only a club team. But when the team achieved varsity status, the previous head coach decided to step down.
“In ’57 I was helping him,” says Stark. “And then they said it was going to varsity. I said, `Gil, you’re going to be a varsity coach!’ And he said, `Oh no, I don’t want any part of that. Put your name in!’ So I put my name in.”
The rest is history. Dennis Stark became the first coach of the University of Notre Dame men’s swimming and diving team, and would also become the coach of the newly-created women’s program in 1981. However, building a program from scratch proved to be no easy task.
The university didn’t give Stark any scholarships to work with in the beginning, so he had to rely solely on walk-ons and did all of his recruiting by mail. Believing firmly that the watch was the final judge, once all the walk-ons assembled in Coach Stark’s pool in the Rock, everyone had an equal opportunity to make the team, including women.
“When the girls came, we only had one program, so they could try out too,” he says. “Well, for the first few years, I didn’t select any girls because the stopwatch was the determining factor. And then in the second or third year, one of the girls was a diver. She was good. I selected her. I had all guys and one girl, and she competed! She earned her monogram competing against guys.”
Sometimes, Coach Stark was hard pressed to fill out his team. One year, his only diver had to quit the team for academic reasons, so Stark was forced to put out a general notice in the school paper to fill out the vacant spot. “We never won any diving meets,” he recalls, “but we had somebody diving for us.”
During his long tenure, Stark not only coached, but also handled the day-to-day affairs of the team. He would schedule the meets himself, coordinate bus travel, book the hotel rooms and spend his nights rigorously typing up the results of the day’s meets to give to the press.
As Coach Stark describes it, he did “all of the leg work.” The only help that Stark ever received was from graduate students who had previously swam for him and wanted to volunteer their time as assistant coaches.
Coach Stark would only finally retire as coach of the swimming and diving program in 1985 in order to make time for his new position as Director of Aquatics at Notre Dame.
Stark’s life outside of Notre Dame’s swimming and diving program has been equally remarkable. Stark served as a United States Marine in World War II and achieved the rank of captain. He also achieved tenure at Notre Dame as an instructor of physical education and was able to teach a self-defense (something he had never taught before) class at the age of 81.
“The only self-defense I’d ever been taught was in the Marines,” Stark remembers. “The school wouldn’t like it if I taught self-defense that way, but I did the class.”
However, Dennis Stark’s most impressive accomplishment might be the fact that despite all of the time that he had committed to running the swimming and diving program almost single-handedly while being a full time instructor, he also found the time to be a family man. Today, Stark has a large family and is a proud father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
He and his late wife, Angelina, have five children, three of whom graduated from Notre Dame, and one of whom – his youngest son – was diagnosed with Downs Syndrome and passed away two years ago. In the midst of his various other commitments, Stark found the time to take a prominent role in his son’s life. He made sure that his son – despite his limitations – was able to participate in athletics by teaching him how to swim and becoming heavily involved in the Special Olympics.
Stark continued to work at Notre Dame as a physical education instructor until 2005, when he decided to retire completely.
“One morning I woke up and I had a thought,” Stark describes. “It said, `You big dummy. You’re 81, and you’re still teaching.’ And it stayed with me all day. I talked to several priests about it, and they said, `It’s your call.’ That was in `05, and so I decided I was going to retire.”
The voice in Stark’s head, according to him, was none other than his late wife who had passed on two years prior. “She was getting me ready for a stroke that I was about to have the following year,” Stark says.
Despite being over 90 years old, the same love for Notre Dame that led Coach Stark to stay at the university for all of those years is still evident. Today, Stark still lives in South Bend and can be seen at many of Notre Dame’s swimming and diving meets, despite suffering that stroke.
He also still keeps in contact with every swimmer whom he ever coached via a yearly email, or in some cases for the ones that don’t have email, a handwritten letter.
Although he may not be as well known as, say, Knute Rockne, Coach Dennis Stark has been just as important to Notre Dame athletics as his football counterpart. Few men have touched the lives and hearts of so many people, and it is little wonder that the university has decided to recognize Coach Stark’s incredible contribution to the program by naming the annual relay and the Rolfs scoreboard in his honor. They are small gestures in comparison to his contributions, but to Stark, they mean more than words can say.
“I was surprised,” he says. “It just brought tears when they unveiled the scoreboard. I had no idea. I knew they were getting a new scoreboard, but I didn’t know they were putting my name on the thing.”
While Stark’s career as a head coach was truly inspiring, perhaps the two words that should be highlighted on the scoreboard in Rolfs Aquatic Center are “teacher” and “mentor.” We can learn a lot from Dennis Stark, a man who is living proof that a strong work ethic, a sense of service, and faith in God can lead to a truly happy and successful life.