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Transitioning From Club Coaching To College Coaching

Written By: Matt Leach

As I sit down and reflect on my journey to Washington State University, I think about the people that helped my family get here but also the different ways coaches get into College Coaching. First and foremost, there is no linear line from job to job or switching over from club to college. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, has had different journeys to get into college coaching even the top college coaches out there.

My journey started before I went to college. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest with a father as a Head Age Group Coach, helped form my love for the sport and my love for being on deck. My experience attending Indiana University and being associated with its rich history, amazing coaches and teammates has made me the person that I am today. After receiving my undergraduate at Indiana University, in December of 2004, I was extremely lucky to have met up with a new staff. Being offered the job was just the beginning, being a part of rebuilding a program while coaching and getting my master’s degree was just such a blessing.

The process of joining an all-new staff at LSU is worth explaining in greater depth. My Coaches at IU helped tremendously with getting my foot in the door (THANK YOU Ray Looze and Brian Barnes! I am sure I had more help (Dorsey Tierney) than I can remember!). While a 5th year at IU, I was in contact with LSU and the new staff (Adam Schmitt and Morgan Bailey) and was invited down for the weekend (in Sept/Oct) to meet with the team/staff and see campus. I remember to this day, driving 12 hours straight from Bloomington, Indiana down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana Friday night into Saturday morning. I don’t remember the interview process while I was there but the drive back Sunday afternoon into Monday morning was NOT fun! Once the staff understood my dedication to get into college coaching and help LSU grow and improve, they invited me up to Indianapolis for the World Championships to meet up for another interview. While at lunch with the staff, I do remember them offering me the GA Position. The entire process took about 4-5 weeks - it required a lot of patience but in the end I was ecstatic!

I was there for four years as a graduate assistant, volunteer assistant/assistant coach and head age group coach for the local club team. The entire time learning and growing as a young coach, I applied for many different assistant coaching positions within the SEC, BIG TEN, PAC-12 and everywhere in between and had many, “no thank you’s” and “thank you for applying but we will be going in a different direction” via email and phone calls.

After consistently applying for over two years, I landed at the University of Wyoming, taking a pay cut but a title change to assistant coach in Laramie, Wyoming at the University (UW). After working with the sprinters and seeing success in the first two years at UW, I was elevated to the Associate Head Coach while in the process of applying to Power 5 programs or the assistant coach vacancies and also mid-major schools for the head coach vacancy.

Again it was more, , “no thank you” and “thank you for applying but we will be going in a different direction” via email and phone calls. My boss at UW, TJ, told me to “keep working and good things will happen.” While I was at UW, I met a sophomore volunteer student coach, Russell Whitaker, who is an important part of my journey.

After six years at Wyoming I finally heard “yes” and it wasn’t a power 5 or a big name school, it was at a school without a program at all, in a city I had never heard of…Indiana State. It was a move to a great place that I truly love and enjoyed. My time associated with this town, university and community really strengthened the values that I try to instill in everyone I coach, Family 1st, Academics 2nd and Competing at the highest level 3rd. It was a great place to start a program, be back closer to where I went to college and connect with the club coaches in the state/area to build and grow a new opportunity for women to get their education and compete at a Division 1 level. After a year of recruiting and finding brave and dedicated people and swimmers to start a program from scratch, ISU took off routinely competing for hardware at MVC Championships. It continues to compete at a high level to this day (which I am very proud of)! Keep it up Coach Josh and Coach Nikki! Commitment and dedication will always workout to your favor and the next part of my journey is something that dreams are made of. I received a call from Washington State University to apply for their Head Coach vacancy and my wife and I could not believe it. Coaching in the PAC-12 has always been a dream come true, as a kid growing up and seeing PAC-12 swimming often along with seeing my fellow club teammates go to every PAC-12 school, I was extremely happy to be going home.

So how did “head-hunting” happen? That student volunteer coach at the University of Wyoming that I met while I was at UW, Russell Whitaker? He was the Director of Operations at Washington State and put my name in the candidate pool without me knowing. I was hired due to knowing him, but also because of the coaching network out there and other big time coaches that know administrators within different athletic departments but also at WSU.

Looking back on this journey, there are so many ups and downs, but so many more great memories than bad ones. Seeing athletes grow as people, get their education and reach high levels in the water is what it is all about. Seeing people qualify for NCAAs while at LSU, seeing athletes win Mountain West Conference Championships while at UW, see a team go from not existing to competing in the Missouri Valley Championships and helping WSU win its first ever PAC-12 individual title has been a dream come true. My journey isn’t over and we have made big steps at Washington State University and we have more growth in our family and I am so proud of each and every one that I am blessed to work with, coach and spend time with! Thank you!

Matt Leach begins his fourth season leading the Washington State University Women’s Swimming program after being hired July 19, 2018. Last season, Leach guided the Cougars to a record-setting season in the pool and in the classroom. Leach saw his 2020-21 team post their highest team score in program history at the Pac-12 Conference Championships highlighted by Chloe Larson’s individual championship in the 50 freestyle, WSU’s first individual conference champion. The Cougars recorded a pair of school records, one Gibb Pool record, nine WSU Top-10 Times and three swimmers qualified for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trails. Larson also earned a trip to the NCAA Championships in the 50 Free and 100 Free, becoming the second Cougar to earn a trip to the NCAA’s in the last three seasons. In the classroom, Leach saw WSU earn a pair of CSCAA Scholar All-America Honors after posting a 3.61 team GPA in the fall of 2020 and a record-setting 3.72 team GPA in the spring semester, the highest team GPA in Washington State Athletics history. The Cougars, who have earned CSCAA academic honors in all six semesters under Leach, also saw eight individuals named to the Pac-12 Winter Academic Honor Roll.

In his second season leading the Cougars, Leach continued the impressive trend of posting record-setting times, trips to the postseason and success in the classroom. The 2019-20 team set three school-records, recorded 21 Top-10 times, post their second-highest point total at the Pac-12 Conference Championships in the last 13 seasons and saw 10 swimmers earn a trip to the postseason CSCAA National Invitational Championships. Leach also saw four Cougars post 2020 (2021) Olympic Qualifying Times in Lauren Burckel (USA), Mackenzie Duarte (USA), Taylor McCoy (USA) and Mia Zahab (Canada). In the classroom, eight student-athletes were named to the Pac-12 Conference Academic Winter Honor Roll while as a team, WSU earned CSCAA Scholar All-America Team Honors in the fall and capped the school year with a 3.54 Spring Team GPA, the highest semester GPA in the previous 10 years. Leach guided his young Cougar team to a number of accomplishments in his first season at WSU highlighted by producing the program’s first NCAA National Championship participant in sophomore Mackenzie Duarte since 2010. Leach also led the Cougars to the postseason, finishing eighth at the CSCAA National Invitational Championships including an individual title by Linnea Lindberg in the 50 breastroke. The Cougars reached many milestones under Leach in 2018-19, posted ten WSU Top-10 times at the Pac-12 Conference Championships, set two school records in the 100 free and 200 breast through the year, three different swimmers recorded double-digit wins and as a team were ranked second in the Pac-12 based on improvement from the year prior, according Academically, WSU earned CSCAA Scholar All-America Team honors (Team GPA of 3.00+) in the fall and spring, three swimmers earned CSCAA Scholar All-American honorable mention accolades and eight earned Pac-12 All-Academic honors including a pair of first-team selections. Leach joined WSU after spending the previous three years at Indiana State where he started the swimming and diving programs in 2015 and began competing in the 2016-17 season. In the program’s second season, Leach was named the 2017-18 Missouri Valley Coach of the Year after guiding the Sycamores to a 13-win campaign that featured a 10-dual match win streak and a record-setting team performance at the Missouri Valley Conference Championships where ISU set school records in every event, highlighted by the program’s first individual conference champion. Nine Sycamores earned All-MVC honors including a trio of first-team selections. Out of the pool, Leach saw his team earn CSCAA Scholar All-American honors for the third straight semester, including the highest team GPA in the Missouri Valley Conference. Six student-athletes earned MVC All-Academic honors this past season after five earned the same honor in 2016-17. Prior to Indiana State, Leach spent six seasons at the University of Wyoming (2009-15), including the final four seasons as associate head coach and worked extensively with sprint swimmers. Leach helped rewrite the Cowgirl record books, as every sprint event school record was broke during his time on staff. He has also coached sprint swimmers to NCAA and Olympic trials competitions including two-time All-America selection Kelsey Conci who earned trips to the NCAA Championships in the 100 backstroke and the 50 and 100 freestyle, placing 10th in the 100 backstroke at the 2011 NCAA Championships and ninth at the 2012 championships. Leach arrived at Wyoming from Louisiana State University where he began as a graduate assistant in 2004, and then as a volunteer assistant coach for two seasons (2007-09). At LSU, Leach helped guide several athletes to the NCAA Championships, and a top-25 ranking for both the men's and women's teams. Leach also served as the head age group coach at Tiger Aquatics from 2006-09 where he was named the 2007 Louisiana State Age Group Coach of the Year for his efforts in his first season. A native of Portland, Ore., Leach swam collegiately at Indiana University (2000-04), where he was a was a four-time All-American, helped the Hoosiers to a Big Ten Conference Championship in the 200 medley relay as a senior and still holds school records as a member of the 200 freestyle relay and 400 medley relay. Leach also performed on the national stage, as he took part in the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials. Leach graduated from Indiana in December 2004 with a bachelor's degree in environmental management. He received his master's degree, also in environmental planning and management, from LSU in May 2007. Leach and his wife, Katie welcomed their daughter Eloise in 2020.

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1 Comment

Nico Messer
Nico Messer
Feb 01, 2022

Thanks for sharing your journey and experience, Matt! Lots of “take away points” for aspiring and established coaches!

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