Legendary Tooele High School swimming coach Mel Roberts has a lot to show for his 48 seasons in charge of the Buffaloes, but the ones he holds most dear didn’t come with trophies.
Instead, it’s the way the Tooele swimming program helped shape countless lives over the years that represent the retiring coach’s proudest achievement.
“There’s always a couple [kids] who came in that weren’t sure of themselves,” Roberts said. “They weren’t doing well in school. They were hanging around with undesirable types of kids. Then they got in the swimming program and we had pretty high standards as far as swearing and drinking and drugs and stuff like that — there just wasn’t any. They got involved with that and then eventually, around their junior year or senior year, they started really getting involved in the program and their grades came up and they developed into leaders. That’s really cool to see that.”
Roberts, 72, announced his retirement from the Tooele High swim program earlier this year, and was honored during the Region 10 and state championship meets for a career that included 20 state championships and 70 All-Americans.
Roberts became the Buffaloes’ head coach in 1969. He swam for another legendary coach in Leigh Pratt at THS from 1959-62, and also competed for coach Don Reddish at the University of Utah. But after Pratt retired in 1964, the Tooele program began to slip a bit from its regular spot atop Utah high school swimming, which motivated Roberts to come home and help restore the Buffs to their former glory. He changed his major and ultimately became a teacher, giving him the opportunity to become a coach.
He took lessons he learned from Pratt and Reddish to build THS into one of the state’s most respected programs — not only in the pool, but outside of it as well.
“Like a lot of coaches, when you first start out, you want to win,” he said. “After a while, you started to see it wasn’t the winning that the kids remembered — it was the association they had with each other and things that you taught them that they could use later in life: discipline, responsibility, dedication, setting goals and those types of things.”
The landscape of high school swimming has changed drastically since Roberts’ first season, when he had roughly 25 kids in an all-boys program. There were only 16 or 17 teams in Utah competing in one classification. Since then, Title IX brought female competitors into the mix, and there are schools of all sizes across the state competing in four classifications.
Some of those changes also made Roberts’ job more difficult. As the sport has grown, more teams have sprouted up, including those at Grantsville and Stansbury high schools. However, with only one indoor competition pool in Tooele County, pool time is at a premium, making it tough for those teams to truly develop the depth they need to compete at the state level.
“There’s some very good swimmers that swim for Stansbury and Grantsville in addition to Tooele — they go to Salt Lake to get trained over in Magna or West Valley,” Roberts said. “They’re willing to do that and it’s paid off for them, but it’s not something that’s available to everybody.”
Roberts considered retirement a few times over the years, but the ability to help shape young lives kept him coming back for nearly five decades.
“There were several times that I thought, ‘you know, I’ve been at this for quite a while, maybe I ought to hang it up,’” Roberts said. “And then someone would say, ‘where are those kids going to learn what you’ve taught? You’ve taught us so much — where are they going to learn that if you’re not here?’ That became kind of a motivation to do it.”
And while he enjoyed winning — he did a lot of that, posting a meet record of 1,209-217-2 — he most enjoyed seeing kids who weren’t necessarily championship-caliber reach their goals.
“They progress and their self-image grows and they start feeling better about themselves and that they can accomplish things if they’re willing to work for them,” Roberts said. “I get a big kick out of seeing a kid who just qualified for state after he worked four years to get there. You’re glad to see him get some sort of success. Self-esteem is really important.
“They’ll come out of the pool with their best time and I’ll tell them, ‘you just set a world record! In your world, that’s the record!’”
Roberts said he and his teams couldn’t have accomplished what they did without plenty of support, especially from his longtime assistant coach, Sam Cox.
The Tooele County School District and the community were particularly supportive on several occasions when the Buffaloes were forced out of their home pool.
The first time came in 1976-77, when a remodeling project that was supposed to last only through November dragged on, sending THS to the Tooele Army Depot and then the pool in Stansbury Park, which had a bubble over the top of it to keep it warm in the winter.
In 1994-95, the Buffs went to Stansbury Park again when the boiler burst at the old Tooele pool and asbestos abatement efforts had to be undertaken, though there was no bubble over the pool that time.
Then, when the old Tooele pool was condemned at the turn of the millenium, the Buffs spent two seasons outside at the Deseret Peak Complex, with the school district covering a heating bill of roughly $10,000 per month to keep the pool warm enough, Roberts recalled.
Roberts also lauded the contributions of the Tooele community over the years.
“If we needed something, we had companies that would donate it,” he said. “We have so many people who come and help with meets that make them special. They run so smooth. Some of them are not even swimmers or had kids who were swimmers — they just like the environment and it’s something fun that they do. The community support has been great.”
Roberts, who will remain in his position as the director of the Leigh Pratt Aquatic Center, said he is looking forward to retirement, though he will miss working with the student-athletes.
“It’s not anything the kids did — it’s just 48 years is a long time,” he said of his decision to step down. “I wanted to be able to do some other things. It really tied me up year-round. I want to do some traveling and things like that.
“I’m definitely going to miss the association with the kids. Coming up with 10,000 workouts — I don’t have to do that, and I don’t have to do all the paperwork that’s now part of everything because of lawsuits and stuff.”
Roberts will be honored with an open house from 1-4 p.m. May 6 in the Tooele High School commons area. Any friends, swimmers, students, colleagues, family members and well-wishers are invited to attend.