Working as a lifeguard during his teenage years, Kurt Hass started teaching swim lessons at the public pool in Franklin. At first, it was just a good way to earn some extra money through high school and college — but it didn’t take long for Hass to view it as a gateway to a potential career.
Hass went into coaching, and he turned out to have a gift for it. Already a member of the Indiana High School Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame for his work as the high school coach at Franklin, Hass is set to be honored again next month as the recipient of the Hobie Billingsley Award, named for the longtime Indiana University diving coach who passed away last summer at the age of 95.
Fittingly, it was Billingsley who had perhaps the greatest influence on Hass’ coaching career.
Once Hass realized he wanted to become a coach — and that coaching high school swimming also meant being the diving coach — he started trying to erase any gaps in his qualifications. That meant learning how to coach diving; as luck would have it, he was a student at IU during some of the prime years of Billingsley’s career, one that included a run as the U.S. Olympic diving coach from 1968 through 1976.
“I had direct contact,” Hass said. “I was able to sit around and watch practice, listen to him, talk to him. … Could even call him and get a little information.
After learning under Billingsley, Hass made his name largely as a diving coach over his 35 years on high school pool decks, the first two at Blackford and the next 33 back here in his hometown. Grizzly Cub divers owned the top of the podium in the early 1980s — Dee Boice won the state title in 1980 and 1981, with Dana Wiegand taking first the two years after that. Wiegand’s winning score of 473.30 in 1983 stood as the state meet record for 20 years before being eclipsed. Hass later produced two more state champions at Franklin in Kelly Gallagher (1986) and Katie Cooper (1998).
Though he didn’t have any diving knowledge when he first ventured down to Bloomington, Hass knew he had to acquire some at some point.
“I’m one of those people that, if I sign something that says I’m the head swimming and diving coach, that’s what I’m going to be,” he said. “When I became quite focused on exactly what I wanted to do … I made a concerted effort to watch elite diving, listen to Hobie and all those types of things. I made it a point to be around really knowledgeable diving people.”
That knowledge, though, needed to be filtered somewhat in order to be understood by the more inexperienced high school divers that Hass wound up coaching. Billingsley was a master at his craft, but his messaging was a bit too complex for newcomers to the sport to grasp.
Once Hass grasped it, he figured out how to make it more digestible.
“When I was watching and listening to him, initially it sounded like mumbo-jumbo to me,” Hass explained. “I knew that the kids that I was probably going to be coaching weren’t going to understand that, and I needed to translate it into English.”
Hass also made it a point to give his divers the physical resources they needed to succeed. When Franklin didn’t have a 3-meter board at the old high school pool, he drove groups of six or seven divers up to Forest Park in Noblesville to practice there every day during the summer months. When the outdoor pools shut down, he took his team to Ben Davis once or twice a week to do 3-meter training there.
“We did some crazy stuff looking back at it,” Hass said.
Though he’s receiving the Hobie Billingsley Award for his accomplishments as a diving coach, Hass has also been present on the Indiana high school swimming scene for half a century. He led the Grizzly Cub girls to their first two sectional titles in 1988 and 1989, and he helped kick-start the swimming and diving programs at both Franklin Community Middle School and Franklin College.
To this day, Hass remains very active in the swim community; among other things, he regularly officiates high school meets during the winter, which he says helps fund his golfing habits through the rest of the year.
“My brother (Paul) said if what I’m doing is retired, he’ll never retire,” Hass said with a laugh.
Hass has impacted hundreds, if not thousands, of swimmers and divers across the state over the years, exceeding any expectations he could have had for himself as a young lifeguard teaching lessons at the corner of State and South Streets in Franklin.
Then again, maybe not — Hass seemed to figure out his calling in life pretty early.
“For some reason, I was able to get kids to learn things in the pool that, according to a lot of parents, other instructors weren’t able to do,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Okay, this is something that I’m enjoying, and maybe there’s a career here.’”