There are plenty of numbers to summarize Tom Robinson’s career at the helm of Radnor’s boys swimming and diving team.
There’s the 38 seasons, the 10 District I titles, the seven Central League crowns. There are the eight individual All-Americans he’s coached and 20 relays earning that recognition.
But the number that stood out to him, upon the legendary coach announcing his retirement this week, was simpler: 57. As in the number of years he has coached high school athletes around Delco.
“That’s the kind of thing that’s memorable,” Robinson said by phone. “Fifty-seven years of coaching high school athletes has been really awesome.”
Robinson has been an institution for the last 38 years at Radnor, a tenure that has included dozens of state qualifiers and the 2002 PIAA Class AA title. But it traces to long before he was hired at Radnor to succeed Henry Hiemenz, for whom the natatorium Robinson long called his office is named.
Robinson started coaching in 1965-66, as an assistant to the St. James cross country team. He coached football at his alma mater, Interboro, and track at Interboro, St. James and Chichester, in addition to club swimming coaching at Drexel, Folcroft and Prospect Park.
The intertwining threads of who Robinson has coached, coached with or coached against creates a vast web, and he’s long been a mentor and genial inspiration to younger coaches through the Central League and District 1. It’s the connections to hundreds of athletes that he’ll miss the most, particularly in as labor-intensive a sport as swimming.
“It’s all the young swimmers that I’ve coached,” Robinson said. “Hopefully, you’ve been able to give each of them something positive to take away. As a coach, when you come in contact with kids, you hope that what you’re doing affects them in a positive way for their life. Just having so many great kids come to practice every day and joke around and still work hard.”
As for why now, Robinson felt the time was right. It allows him to spend more time with family, including his son Michael, a swim coach in Texas. He has grandchildren about to enter high school that he’d like to spend more time with.
He plans to stay close to the sport, continuing on the District 1 swimming steering committee and involved with the Pa. High School Swim Coaches Association, as well as hoping to continue as a manager of the Central League championships held annually at Radnor.
In choosing to step down, though, he heeded the advice of a member of his coaching fraternity: former Ridley coach Kurt Slenn, who retired in 2014 after some 20 years in charge. Slenn told Robinson that, “it was better to retire a year early than a year late.”
“I felt the same way,” Robinson said. “All 38 years were great years, and to go out a year early is a lot better than having someone say, ‘why won’t this guy retire?’”