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Jim Wood & The Magic of Thinking Big

Feb 21, 2013  - Chuck Warner

Lessons From Legends:

It’s amazing what can happen when people think big. This tale may seem "tall", but it’s a real story of someone living without limits.

Up until 2004, a swim coach had never become President of USA Swimming. On occasion a coach had run for the office, but never been elected to it. 

When Coach Jim Wood announced that he was running for President of USA Swimming some observers whispered that he was the right person for the job but not the right candidate. The highly principled coach ran a campaign based on his plan to find the right people for committees, delegate responsibilities and prioritize time at Board meetings for the discussion of big issues. One in particular would be how to improve the sport of swimming in America. He dismissed the notion of “combat politics” that entailed pointing out the opposition candidate’s faults. You might say Jim Wood liked to “think big”. 

Coach Wood won the election, perhaps because thinking big was nothing new to him. Jim went to a tiny high school named Union Catholic, in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Each class consisted of only 120 students. He was a leader then, as he has been for a long time in USA Swimming. 

Jim and a few friends ran for office at their high school and were elected to the “Executive Committee” which represented all the classes and helped organize school functions. Jim and his buddies won the election. Rob Mathers became President, Gary Buffington Vice-President and Jim served as the Treasurer. They began to plan a major fund raising event for the school. If they could raise enough money they might be able to raise the funds for audio visual and electronic equipment. 

They decided that in the fall of 1967 that they would hold the first fund raising concert in the history of the school in their 2200 seat auditorium. To sell out the venue they would need a well-known band, the bigger the name the better - they had to think big. They spoke with a friend, Bob Gilligan who was a leader of a local band called the Decoys. Bob introduced them to an agent named Blanche Zeller who was involved in booking bigger named bands. 

With Blanche’s help, Jim and the Executive Committee chose a band called "The Who". The band had formed just two years earlier in 1965, but had already produced the album My Generation, the single of which served as the title track, along with other hits The Kids are Alright, I’m a Boy, and Happy Jack

If the total Union Catholic student body attended, they wouldn’t fill a quarter of the auditorium so the boys went to work on promoting the event to the nearby high schools.  About the same time “The Who” made their guitar-smashing debut on National TV, and their hit I Can See For Miles skyrocketed up the national charts. The tickets sold for $2.50 each and went quickly. Several days before the concert Jim, Rob and Gary had sold ever seat in the auditorium.

For the full story of this remarkable note in music history, you might want to buy the book released this month: When Stars Were In Reach, by Michael Rosenbloom. But suffice to say, the crowd got a great show from now Rock 'n Roll Hall of Famers such as Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend. The boy’s big idea generated about $5,500 of gross revenue, The Who got their asking price of $1800 and the school got it’s electronics equipment.

The following year, Jim and the Executive Committee booked another band. The name was “Cream”, featuring Eric Clapton, one of the greatest guitar players of all time. They raised the price to $3.00 per ticket. 

In 1968, US fire laws were in their infancy. On the night of the concert, after the boys took the tickets from those with pre-paid tickets, they went out side the auditorium and resold 1000 more tickets for standing-room only spectators. The gross sale went up to nearly $10,000 and the boys were able to fund equipment and a van for the athletic department. 

This week a team representing USA Swimming is reviewing sites that have bid to host the 2016 USA Olympic Swimming Trials. In addition to the Century Link Center Omaha with 15,000 seats, they are looking at venues that can be created in football stadiums with more than 20,000 seats. Jim Wood, now president of United States Aquatic Sports (USAS), is a part of that team, and still thinking big. 

Follow our guest writer Chuck Warner, author of ...And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence, on twitter @chuckwarner1.