Mel Swanson

Mel Swanson

Mel Swanson

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article appeared in The Post-Journal on December 25, 2009.

Mel Nears Milestone
Sherman Coach Needs One Win To Reach 500

The Post-Journal
By Scott Kindberg
December 25, 2009

SHERMAN - It was a who's-who of Buffalo Bills that night more than 20 years ago.

Andre Reed, Shane Conlan and Darryl Talley were there. A guy by the name of Jim Kelly was, too. Toss in tight end Pete Metzelaars and a couple offensive linemen and it was clear that the Sherman Central School gymnasium was the place to be. The Bills were in the village to play a basketball exhibition against the school faculty.

The game was supposed to be fun.

But then Nolan Swanson, who figures he was about 10 or 11 at the time, saw something that he still can't quite believe.

His father, Mel, an elementary school teacher at Sherman, "dunked on the Buffalo Bills."

"You could never be prouder of your dad than seeing him dunk against the Bills," Nolan recalled the other day.

That's where the oldest of Mel and Mary's four children may be wrong, though.

My guess is the dunk that "poster-ized" Reed, the all-pro wide receiver, will have to take a backseat to what Mel is about to accomplish. In fact, with one more win by the Sherman girls basketball team, Mel, who has coached the Lady Wildcats since the start of the 1978-79 season, will reach the 500 milestone for his career. No coach in Western New York history has won more games.

"I never set out as an individual goal any certain number," said Mel, now 55. "It's certainly a sign of coaching for a long period of time. Not a lot of coaches stay in it this long."

Mel, a 1972 graduate of Panama Central School and a 1977 graduate of Fredonia State, has been an elementary school teacher at Sherman for 32 years.

His area of expertise is mathematics.

"His (students') test scores are always way up there," Nolan said.

But even the best "numbers" person would have difficulty comprehending the success that Mel has had while calling the shots from the Wildcats' bench the last three-plus decades.

Since the start of the 1978-79 season, he has:

  • Posted a 499-178 girls varsity record, including nine 20-plus win seasons and two trips to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Final Four.
  • Compiled a 286-116 record as Sherman's junior high girls coach since the 1989-90 season.
  • Posted a 26-10 mark in three years of coaching the junior varsity girls from 1979-1982.
  • Recorded a 32-12 mark in two seasons as the varsity boys coach from 1995-1997.
  • Registered an 87-39 slate when he directed the junior varsity boy team from 1981-1988.
  • Posted a 24-24 record in three seasons as the junior high boys coach from 1990-1994.

Crunch all those numbers and Mel's combined record is 954-379.

"I just can't believe it. It's gone so fast," said Mary, who met her husband while they were students at Jamestown Community College and together they will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary in April. "It nice that his hard work, his thoroughness and his pragmatics will finally have paid off. He's been at it a long time. He just deserves it. He's a dedicated person to whatever he puts his heart and mind to."

Mel's first few seasons at Sherman weren't exactly a success. His record those first three campaigns was 10-32, including an 0-14 mark to start, but he had some appreciable improvement in 1981-82 (12-9), followed by 20-win seasons in 1982-83 and 1983-84.

"I saw those successes and he worked so hard at it," said JCC women's basketball coach Keith Martin. "He did so many extra things to make his program good."

Martin knows first hand.

"When I was growing up, I worked for him, baby-sat his kids and I was around his family," he said. "I saw how important his family was to him. ... The successes are more in his family than on the floor, really."

For Nolan (34), Patrick (32), Lesley (30) and Ryan (23), their athletic accomplishments - from track and field, to basketball to golf - found their roots in the hours and hours spent at the Sherman gym.

"When the kids were little, they grew up in it," Mel said. "They eventually got to be the players, they grew out if it and now they get to be the fans."

And while there are no more Swansons coming up through the program, Mel is still using the same methods from 15 or 20 years ago.

"He's involved with these kids at a very young age," said Patrick, a criminal defense attorney in Memphis, Tenn. "He gets them interested in the game. A lot of the girls are managers for him and he treats them like his own. They get excited about playing, and the contact that he has when they're young helps build a consistent program."

From the early years with players like Cindy White, Pam Waite and Brenda Spacht, to last season when Beth Gribble, Rachel Ottaway, Michelle Persons and Julie Frye capped a remarkable four-year run with a trip to the state title game, the one constant has been Mel.

"He just gets so much joy from being able to contribute to these girls lives," said Lesley, who played five years for her father and is now a wife and mother of two in suburban Atlanta.

When last season's NYSPHSAA Class D semifinal was over, Gribble was fielding questions from the media after the Lady Wildcats' victory over South Kortwright.

The senior had just recorded 22 points, seven rebounds, eight steals and three assists, but she preferred to talk about her coach instead.

"He's like a second father," she said in March. "Usually, girls have a lot of drama, but we always go (see him) and he always knows what to say. .. It's fun to play for him. ... He treats us like gold."

Added Martin, who now coaches Gribble, Ottaway and Lindsey Alday, another Sherman alum, at JCC: "The admiration the kids have for him is just incredible. You say his name, you look at his 'kids' and they smile. It's pretty neat."

Nolan, Patrick, Lesley and Ryan react the same way when they speak of their father.

"What I'm most proud of," said Nolan, who now lives in Westfield and owns and operates Pinehurst Golf Course with Ryan, "is he's never sniffed trouble. I have one of the best dads you could draw up."

So even though Nolan had an All-American track and cross country career at Wake Forest University and, later, toured the world as a professional distance runner, it's his father that usually draws most of the attention.

"If you walk with him at Chautauqua Mall, everybody recognizes him, they know him," Nolan said. "They don't know me. ... He's such a respected man in the community."

Mary admitted that her husband's place in the Sherman community is "kind of unusual."

"When we first came here, we weren't original 'Shermanites.' It took a long, long, long time before people recognized Mel as a 'Shermanite.'"

There's little doubt now.

The Lady Wildcats' next game is Tuesday against Southwestern in a holiday tournament at JCC. Already off to a surprisingly fast start, Sherman - sporting an entirely new starting lineup - will look to improve to 5-0 and reward Mel with his 500th win.

"We've had some success I didn't anticipate happening," Mel admitted. "Up to this point, we're playing some pretty exciting basketball, we're shooting the ball really well and I'm trying to keep my eye on that. I don't want (the pursuit of the 500th win) to distract them. They know and they're tying to keep it in perspective. ... Besides, (most of the wins) happened before they were even born."

"It's neat to see all his hard work pay off," Ryan said. "Hopefully, before he calls it quits, he'll be able to bring home (a state championship)."

But the hardware and headlines that go hand in hand with athletic success aren't the true measure of the man, Ryan said.

In fact, Ryan's fondest memory of his father came 18 months ago when the St. Bonaventure University senior was playing in his final Atlantic 10 golf championship tournament in Orlando.

"I was walking off the last hole of my last (collegiate) tournament," Ryan recalled, "and he gave me a big, old hug. ... It was a pretty emotional weekend, all in all."

Emotions have been running high for all the Swansons as Mel closes in on his milestone victory. Asked what his father stands for, Ryan, in a halting voice, didn't mince words: "Overall personal character, integrity and love for his family.

"He's been great to all of us. We just love him to death."

Noted Lesley: "He's definitely going to leave a legacy and leave a signature mark on the community around us. That's a huge thing to see how much he's contributed and done. I'm really proud of him."

- - -

Entering the 2014-15 season, Swanson's varsity girls basketball record was 570-206. When combined with the other levels of boys and girls basketball at Sherman, his career mark is a staggering 1,043-427. In October, the National Federation of State High School Associations named him the New York girls basketball Coach of the Year.

Mel Swanson was inducted into the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.

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