Memorial Day feature: Tompkin was Aggie pioneer
May 27, 2011
By John Hirn
FORT COLLINS, Colo. - In a land-locked state like Colorado, few would think that Colorado State University would have an 85-year tradition of great swimming teams.
The CSU swimming program has received a lot of press this month. First, legendary women's swimming coach John Mattos retired after 31 years at the helm, six conference championships, numerous All-Americans, an Olympic gold medalist and a 1994 NCAA national coach of the year award.
Then legendary CSU men's swimming coach Art Solow, who coached 27 years at CSU, passed away on May 19 in Fort Collins.
And on this Memorial Day, we remember CSU's first swimming coach, who spent 34 years at the reins of the Aggies and a total of 39 years in the athletic department.
Gervaise W. "Tommy" Tompkin, a native of Iowa and a 1923 Big Ten champion gymnastics athlete at the University of Iowa, arrived on the Colorado Agricultural College campus three decades before the institution changed its moniker to Colorado State University, in the fall of 1926. His preliminary goal was to establish the school's first intercollegiate teams in both gymnastics and swimming.
Tompkin held bachelor's and law degrees from Iowa, and a master's degree from the University of Oregon, but did not swim competitively at either of those schools. And his arrival as the new Aggies swimming and gymnastics coach coincided with the 1926-27 school year, when the new Men's Gym (now known as the Glenn Morris Field House) opened on the campus to offer more athletic opportunities for the CAC men.
The large gymnasium and new state-of-the-art swimming pool, located in the middle of the new building, allowed for the creation of sports that could not be played prior to the new building's opening. The Aggies also expanded their physical education program so that students could major in P.E. and receive their degrees to become high-school teachers and coaches. Tompkin was added as an associate professor in P.E. to help expand that program as well.
In the spring of 1927, students greeted both sports with excitement, as the programs got off the ground. One year later, Tompkin handed over the gymnastics coaching duties to chemistry professor Joe Tobiska, who would lead the Aggies gymnastics teams to eight conference championships from 1927 until his death in the fall semester of 1956.
Having delegated gymnastics to Tobiska, Tompkin took charge of his swimming teams. In 1930 the Aggies won their first conference championship in the sport. In fact, they would not lose another contest for six more years. From 1930-35, "Tommy's Tankers" won conference championships every season.
He continued to teach physical education in the athletic department and in 1943 became a full professor of P.E. while swimming took its sabbatical during World War II. Tompkin worked closely with John "Sap" Davis, who guided the P.E. program into the 1960s.
Tompkin's swimming teams took four more conference championships and tied for another between 1936 and 1959, and finished with 11 overall during his career as coach. He became nationally respected and later went on to serve on the U.S. Olympic swimming committee. Additionally, he edited the College and High School Swimming Guide and finished his 34-year career at CSU in 1959 with a 105-71-6 record.
Just before John F. Kennedy won a narrow election over Richard M. Nixon, Tompkin handed the coaching reins over to Solow, who then coached the Rams to a 129-30 record over 27 years, producing 16 All-Americans and 25 Western Athletic Conference champion athletes, and earning NCAA Coach of the Year honors in 1972.
Tompkin continued to teach P.E. after he stepped down from coaching, and later became instrumental in the planning of the new Auditorium-Gymnasium, known today as Moby Arena. So, Tompkin's career literally spanned from the opening of the pool at Glenn Morris Field House to the design of the swimming pool still in use today at Moby.
In October of 1964, Tompkin became the first assistant athletic director in CSU history when he was elevated to the new position while athletic director Bob Davis took a medical leave of absence. Tompkin not only acted in the AD role while Davis recovered, but he also established the new position as the university continued to grow and expand. With the new gymnasium under construction, the school needed guidance during a difficult period without Davis at the helm.
In January of 1965, Davis lost his battle with cancer and Tompkin took over as the interim athletic director while a replacement could be found. Tompkin had already planned to retire after the 1964-65 school year, so he was not a candidate for the position. In April of 1965, basketball coach Jim Williams was named as the new athletic director and Tompkin retired in June to his new home in Maui, Hawaii.
When Tompkin retired in 1965, he looked back on 39 years of service at Colorado State University. Only the legendary Harry Hughes worked longer as a CSU athletic department employee. Christine Susemihl, CSU's current senior associate athletic director/internal operations, in 2011-12 will match Tompkin's mark, with her 39th year at CSU.
Tompkin lived out the remainder of his life in Hawaii and died there on April 19, 1988, at age 86. He pioneered swimming at CSU and left a mark on the sport throughout the Rocky Mountain region.