Longtime Coach's Legendary Expertise Keeps Manistee Surging

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

November 19, 2021

Name any high school or community pool in Michigan, and odds are Corey Van Fleet has been there.

Perhaps it is true of any pool in the United States.

He might have even helped build it.

And, a little more odds. If the pool hosted an MHSAA Finals meet, one of Van Fleet’s teams likely participated. Although he won’t have any qualifiers making the trip to the Division 3 girls meet Friday, he’s been to championship weekend lots of times with Birmingham Seaholm and Manistee. His 1962-65 Seaholm boys teams won four straight Class A Finals, and his Manistee boys team is coming off a Finals trip last winter and its best season ever.

Van Fleet, now 85 years young, is in his 68th of coaching swimmers. He’s spent the last 13 with the boys and girls teams of Manistee High School. He started the program after helping build the pool.  

The school utilizes the Paine Aquatics Center named after Bill Paine, who presented a proposal to the City of Manistee, the Manistee Area Public Schools and Van Fleet. Paine’s proposal called for the pool, which opened in July 2009, to be attached to the high school facilities.

“So I’m sitting in my office one day and this tall, lanky guy (Paine) walks in and closes the door and says my wife and I want to donate an aquatics complex in Manistee, and Sandy Saylor says you know something about swimming,” Van Fleet recalls. “‘Will you help me build it?’

“We talked about it for a while and I said yeah, I’d help him,” Van Fleet continued. “So we ended up with a nice eight-lane swimming pool in Manistee.”

Van Fleet, who also had coached at Florida State, coached and served as athletic director at Oakland University and then served as AD at Long Beach State (Calif.) during an illustrious career at the college level, took the next step naturally.

Manistee girls swimming & diving“The superintendent of schools at the time (Robert Olsen) said you build the darn thing, you might as well get some programs started,” Van Fleet recalled. “That was 13 years ago, and I’m still at it.”

At it, Van Fleet continues. He plans to stay with it until he just can’t do it anymore.

“I am still fairly healthy,” he said. “If I can find six people that can carry me out of church, I can think about quitting.”

During his tenure at Manistee, Van Fleet’s teams have dominated the Coastal Conference and produced multiple academic all-state swimmers. The boys team captured the 2020 academic all-state title with a 3.82 team grade point average.

“I am most proud, I think, about our academic progress,” Van Fleet said. “We take great pride in passing some classes.”

Van Fleet is also filled with pride when he reflects on all the swimmers he’s seen go on to become lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers and coaches.

“I am pleased with the number of kids who have gone on to do some pretty big things in the world off our swimming programs,” he said. “I’d like to think they might have learned lessons about goal planning and sticking to it and hard work and all that stuff.

“That’s what lights me up.”

Van Fleet’s initial high school coaching job was at Madison Heights in 1959. He’s coached at camps all over Michigan, including his first at Burt Lake in 1954. Today he owns and operates a summer swimming camp in Irons, 30 miles southeast of Manistee. He also built it.

Jeff Brunner, a veteran MHSAA official in multiple sports including swimming, and father of former members of the Traverse City high school swimming co-op, is among many singing praises of Van Fleet’s impact on the sport.

“Corey has a wealth of information that he has accumulated in his coaching career,” Brunner said. “If I was a high school swimmer, I’d want to learn all I could from him – swimming for him would be such a unique opportunity.”

Andrew Huber, principal of Manistee’s middle and high schools, agrees with Brunner.

“We're humbled to have had Corey as part of our school and community,” he said. “His wealth of experience, knowledge, and relationship building has helped create a foundation of well-being for students and adults alike.  

“His enthusiasm for swimming is infectious, and his energy is amazing for anyone regardless of age,” he continued. “It's been truly impressive to observe him connect and inspire students for the many years he's been in Manistee, and realize his impact is generational.”

The Manistee boys swim team starts practice next week. The Chippewas, along with their girls squad, have battled through COVID. The pandemic is one of many changes through which Van Fleet has guided his athletes.

“We’ve seen changes in training methods,” he said. “We’ve seen changes in diet.

“We’ve seen changes in philosophies in terms of what’s important and what’s not important,” he went on. “Kids have changed, and parents have changed.”

Training methods have been modified the most, along with new multi-lane pools popping up in Michigan, Van Fleet noted.

“Swimming is more technical now,” he said. “The science of swimming has become paramount. 

“It is not just going in and kick a few legs and swim a few hundreds and go home — we’ve gone the gamut,” he continued. “It is very specific now every time you want a kid to do something, and now our swimming pools are showplaces – they are magnificent.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Corey Van Fleet (far right) visits with his Manistee girls team the wall honoring him at Oakland University. (Middle) Van Fleet is in his 68th year coaching swimming. (Photos courtesy of the Manistee girls swimming & diving program.)

East Grand Rapids' Briggs to Receive Deserved Spotlight for Half-Century of Swim

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

May 17, 2024

EAST GRAND RAPIDS – When the idea was presented to celebrate his coaching milestone, Milton “Butch” Briggs balked at it.

West MichiganThe longtime East Grand Rapids swimming & diving coach doesn’t like to be the center of attention, although his teams certainly have been over the last 50 years as he’s established a pair of perennial state powerhouses. 

“He vehemently said, ‘No, we’re not doing this,’” Pioneers assistant girls coach Gwen Barnes said. “But it’s going to be super cool and so deserving. We need to mark this occasion as a community and swimming community. He has influenced so many people and been an active member of the community for a long time.”

On Saturday, the East Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Alumni Association will commemorate Briggs and his 50 years of coaching at the school.

Briggs took over the East Grand Rapids boys swimming & diving program for the 1972-73 season, and the girls program beginning in the fall of 1974. He has coached 102 seasons total, winning 26 MHSAA Finals championships with the girls and 12 with the boys.

Briggs has always wanted the focus to be on his teams rather than himself.

“He is not one who likes the spotlight,” retired Pioneers athletic director Tim Johnston said. “He is a very private man, but it is awesome that this group of alumni, swimmers and parents want to celebrate him.

“He is one of the best coaches I have ever had the opportunity to work with, but to be completely honest, he is a better person and more than just a coach. That is the truth.”

Past EGR swimmer Kris Ward was a member of the first girls state championship team in 1978.

“He had a huge impact on me,” Ward said. “Just from understanding hard work and dedication and being part of a team. Then following it through. He worked with a variety of people on the team and helped us to come together. It was all about life lessons, and he's teaching the kids that while still being successful.”

Briggs also coached Ward’s daughters Alex, Ashley and Abby.

“He was always about connecting with the kids,” Ward said. “My kids were all able to swim for him, and so I had that experience with him in a different way and seeing how he was with all of my girls on the team.

“He starts with connecting with one person and carries that through to make the success better.” 

Briggs, second from far left, celebrates the 2014 Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship with his girls team. Barnes, an assistant coach for the girls team the past three years, also swam under Briggs from 1984-87.

Her teams won four straight Finals championships and never lost a dual meet.

“There were high expectations for us, and despite them being unspoken, we felt it,” Barnes said. “We wanted and felt this desire to do our best on that team each year, and he instilled this culture of commitment and hard work. Every swimmer had different abilities, but he was able to tap into getting us to do our best.”

Barnes has gained a different perspective of Briggs as his assistant.

While she noted that he still displays the same traits as far as his demeanor, sense of humor, kindness and patience, his devotion to the program and his student-athletes also has never wavered.

“Coaching with him as an assistant, you see how much work and time he puts in that goes unnoticed sometimes,” Barnes said. “To maintain that level of commitment for 50 years is pretty remarkable, and he still has this presence when on the pool deck that challenges everybody to do their best. He set the same standard for everyone, and everyone on the team feels important, which I think is cool.

“He weaves in a lot of stories and lessons from over the years and maintains traditions that I think make current teams feel like they are a part of and building onto the history.”

Briggs, who played football and ran track & field in high school, was inducted into the Grand Rapids Hall of Fame in 2009. The EGR natatorium was named after him in 2014.

Briggs, who taught at Ottawa Hills High School, has received national attention, too. In June 2020, he was named National Girls Swim Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association. Briggs had received the same honor in 2011.

He wrote this of his coaching philosophy as part of the nomination for the NFHS girls swimming award:

“My coaching philosophy has been, and continues to be, a work in progress. I have formed relationships with hundreds of amazing young people. They have taught me life lessons in real time and real situations. As a neophyte coach, the experience revolved around winning. We worked together as a team, supported each other in and out of the pool, and won often. Thankfully, I became aware of the value within each athlete. Today, I attempt to interact with each athlete at every team activity and follow their progress in non-swimming endeavors. In short, when I removed my ego from the team's expectations and outcomes, the entire atmosphere was much more enjoyable and productive. And we are still capable of being successful. The Lord has put me in the right place at the right time.”

Ward said she expects about 200 people to attend Saturday’s celebration.

“He has impacted so many people in the swimming community, and there is something special in what he has created,” Ward said. “All of the kids on the current teams and their families will be there, as well as a lot of different generations. I also know that there will be people coming from far away.”

As far as Briggs’ future, Barnes doesn’t see him stepping down any time soon.

“I don’t really ever see him stopping,” she said. “His passion is EGR swim, and I think he will continue to be a part of the program as he can and wants to be.”

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) Longtime East Grand Rapids swimming coach Butch Briggs, right, will be celebrated this weekend for his half-century of coaching the Pioneers. (Middle) Briggs, second from far left, celebrates the 2014 Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship with his girls team. (Top photo by Kris Ward; middle photo by High School Sports Scene.)