by ANTHONY DePINHO, Contributor
Joe Murtha, an assistant coach for Manhattan College’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams has been elevated to head coach.
The appointment hardly came as a surprise to someone who learned how to swim almost before he could walk.
“I was probably about 6 months old when I started doing swimming lessons in a mommy-and-me type of class, and when I was 4 or 5 years old I was in my first competitive swim meet,” Murtha said.
Prior to taking over the head coaching job for the Jaspers, a big portion of Murtha’s life revolved around the pool. The son of a former Manhattan swimmer, Murtha swam four years in high school and continued his career swimming for Fordham University, where he graduated in 2008.
But even before earning his diploma, a desire to coach the sport he loves existed.
“When I was about fifteen years old or so, I had decided that I wanted to do some coaching,” Murtha said. “I started with developmental teams and working with children as young as two years old, teaching them the basics of swimming.”
From there, Murtha worked his way up the coaching ladder, getting involved coaching club swimming teams and eventually high school programs. His chance to break into the collegiate coaching scene came shortly after graduation, when a spot opened up for him in 2009 on the Manhattan staff under then head coach Walter Olsweski.
Murtha served for seven years as Olsweski’s assistant, until the longtime coach announced his retirement in February. Shortly after Olsewski’s retirement, Murtha was tabbed as the new head coach of both the men’s and women’s programs. This was an opportunity that the 31- year-old gladly embraced.
“I was very excited when he told me, because I obviously knew the opportunity was there for me to be promoted,” Murtha said. “I was shocked when I got the call, because I thought the process was going to be a lot more drawn out, but … it was a no brainer for me when I was asked if I wanted to take the position.”
Murtha spoke very highly of his former head coach and of the bond they formed working alongside one another.
“[Olsewski] and I are very close friends, and we have built a very strong relationship over the past seven years,” Murtha said. “He really mentored me as far as coaching on the collegiate level.”
Murtha also praised Olsewski’s approach to coaching the sport of swimming, as something he has been able to learn from and ingrain into his own style.
“[Coach Olsewski] really helped me grow in that sense, in caring more for the individual athletes,” Murtha said, “and pushing the kids more both in the pool and in the classroom, which is the number one priority.”
But while many were sad to see Olsewski depart, there is also a strong sense of support for Murtha that he is the right man to lead the program forward, especially from the athletes.
Morgan Fountain is a freshman sprint freestyle swimmer on the women’s team who sees many positives in Murtha and his relationship with the team.
“[Murtha] is really great to talk to about anything, and he has the best interests of everyone in mind,” Fountain said. “He looks out for the team kind of like we’re his siblings.”
Murtha received equal support from the men’s team, including junior sprinter Patrick Simonson.
Simonson noted that Murtha had the backing of the team when the athletic director was looking to fill the head coaching vacancy, citing his easygoing nature and flexibility in regard to academics and the swimmers’ personal well-being.
“Joe is really easy to talk to, like talking to an older brother,” Simonson said. “We like it that way and Joe loves it too.”
With the backing of his athletes and full control of operations as head coach, Murtha is optimistic about the future of the program.
“Going into next season I’m really excited to have a very strong core of swimmers returning, as well as a very good recruiting class coming in,” said Murtha, who will now oversee the recruiting process in addition to other administrative duties.
“We’re getting stronger and more competitive… and have made great strides the past few years,” he added, citing additional morning practices scheduled for next season along with a new weightlifting regimen. “We are looking to utilize all of those things to try to make the leap to the next level.”
But while Murtha promises new updates to his team’s training, he is hopeful that his swimmers’ performance in the classroom remains strong.
“I want to stress to them that academics are most important,” Murtha said. “I’m looking to continue with the academic excellence that the program has been noted for. … As a team they’ve hit a 3.0 just about every semester when Coach O was in charge, and I’m definitely looking to continue that.”