Few coaches, if any, have affected the Kankakee community during the past 40-plus years like legendary Kankakee High School boys and girls swim coach Jo Grogan.
Dating all the way back to the mid-1960s, Grogan has inspired thousands of children and young adults with lessons that go far beyond the swimming pool, making her this year’s Daily Journal Sports Citizen of the Year.
“I think the biggest lessons I try out of all the coaching I’ve done is to try and teach these young swimmers how to be responsible and how to grow up,” Grogan said. “In addition, I try to teach them to make the right decisions and become young, productive adults.”
In 1964, Grogan got her first job at Kankakee High School as a physical education teacher after graduating from Eastern Illinois University. She spent two years there until she was moved to Westview, where she was the cheerleading coach after Kankakee High School split into two separate schools in 1966 (East Ridge and Westview).
She continued to coach cheerleading until 1973, when Title IX came into effect and changed girls and women’s sports. Westview’s athletic director, J.R. Black, presented Grogan with a choice — to stick with cheerleading or move on to coaching sports — and she opted to begin what would turn out to be a 48-year-and-counting coaching career.
She officially became the girls swimming and girls golf coach in 1973. She coached both sports for two seasons until golf was moved from the spring to the fall — the same as swimming — forcing Grogan to make the difficult decision of which sport to coach.
“I enjoyed golf and enjoyed playing golf, but as far as the two sports were concerned, I enjoyed the intricacies of swimming more,” Grogan said. “In other words, to do a swim meet it was like a puzzle, and so it was a little more complex, and that’s what I liked about it.”
This decision by Grogan was the beginning of about half a century of coaching swimmers and divers in the area, with her effect spanning across the globe.
“One of my favorite memories was when one of my former swimmers, Zack Bieber, who went to the Air Force ... came over to visit me over Christmas vacation last year,” Grogan said. “He presented me a flag with a certificate stating that the flag had flown on a mission over in Afghanistan in my name.
“That made me so proud that he thought enough of me to do that.”
Examples such as that, showing how much Grogan has affected people’s lives, are commonplace. So, it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Kankakee athletic director Ronnie Wilcox renamed Kankakee’s swimming pool Grogan Natatorium last year in honor of Grogan’s contributions to the swimming program.
“Knowing what she’s done during the regular season, offseason and then what she does with little kids swim programs in the county, somebody who contributes that much of their time and effort of their lives and resources and the significant impact she had on building the program, renaming the pool after her was a no-brainer,” Wilcox said. “It’s the least I could do to acknowledge the pool she built. She has been a huge part to our program, and the swimming community in Kankakee County is where it is at today because of Coach Grogan.”
Because of her successes during the years as a coach, she was inducted into Kankakee’s Hall of Fame in 2013. She continued serving as head coach until last season, when current coach Scott Teeters took more of the full-time responsibilities and Grogan took more of a back seat.
“What makes her the Sports Citizen of the Year is that there are the thousands of people in the community [who] have taken and learned leadership by Grogan,” Teeters said. “And now, those are the people out there in the community who are doing it.
“People in Kankakee are getting things done day in and day out because of the lessons they have learned from Grogan.”
Part of the reason Grogan got so invested early on in her coaching career is because she knew what it was like not being able to participate in organized sports. She spent most of her childhood in Park Forest playing sports such as basketball and tennis at Rich Township High School in the Women’s Athletic Association, which was similar to an intramural league for girls before Title IX.
When Grogan was in her early stages of coaching, there weren’t nearly as many female coaches as they are today, which is something Grogan said she is happy to have seen increase during the years.
“It’s wonderful to see so many women coaches nowadays because when I first started coaching, a lot of the girls teams were coached by men,” Grogan said. “And then finally more and more women got into the sport, and, of course, as more time went on, more girls went to college to become teachers, and naturally they then would gravitate toward coaching a sport.”
Although Grogan now is considered a highly knowledgeable swim coach, she didn’t necessarily start off that way. She had little experience when she first became the girls coach in 1973. That didn’t last long, though, because Grogan made it her mission to soak up as much information from former Kankakee’s boys swim coach, Tom Jenson, as well as taking in as many swim clinics as she could visit.
Through many hours spent learning about the sport, Grogan’s stock quickly rose in the swim ranks. Grogan has seen multiple Top-12 state placers between both of her swimming programs at Kankakee. Her ability to stick out of the pack eventually led her to meet her current co-coach, Teeters, at a swim clinic at the local YMCA in 2012.
It was at this time she began to build a strong relationship with Teeters. They began working together with the Clifton/Kankakee Crocodiles, an outreach swim program teaching urban and city kids how to swim competitively, and then with Olivet Nazarene University swimmers.
“If I could say one thing about Jo Grogan that she has over just about any other coach I’ve ever worked with or ever known is that she comes to work for all the pure reasons,” Teeters said. “There’s not a person that coaches in the entire world, anywhere, and I’ve met coaches that have coached everywhere in my sport as well as other sports, that is in it for character development like Grogan is.”
Teeters previously spent many years as ONU’s swim coach and has many connections with NCAA Division I coaches all over the country. He said he believes Grogan easily could have advanced herself through the college ranks.
“As a female coach of guys 40 years ago, Grogan was way ahead of her time,” Teeters said. “But the thing is, Grogan is knowledgeable enough ... she could have advanced herself to college coaching and advanced herself further every six or seven years, but she didn’t do it and chose to make Kankakee a better place.”
Even at 78-years-old, Grogan has shown no signs of stopping anytime soon. Her love and passion for the kids continues to outweigh any struggles she has because of her age.
“When you do something you love, it’s not a job,” Grogan said. “And so I love working with young people and coaching, so as long as I can continue doing it, I will.”