For former University of Southern Mississippi varsity swimmer Keith Kennedy, Mike Giles was more than just his head coach. He was also a father figure and mentor to him and his teammates.
“He wasn’t just about swimming and making sure you went to class,” said Kennedy, who was Giles’ first scholarship signee for the program when it was launched in 1980. “You could go and talk to him about anything, and he would listen.
“No matter what you were going through, he understood the situation, including the personal tragedies. That’s a huge security blanket for a college student, to have someone like that to lean on.”
Today (June 30), Giles takes his last lap as director of recreational sports and aquatics for the university, retiring after a 35-year career in which he wore many hats. He came to Southern Miss in August of 1976 as an assistant professor and aquatics director in its Department of Athletic Administration and Coaching under Coach M.C.Johnson.
A varsity swimmer at the University of Alabama, Giles had been the aquatics director/ instructor at John C. Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Ala. Prior to that he coached age group and high school swimming in Alabama from 1968 until 1976.
In addition to being head coach of the swim team, a faculty member and aquatics director, Giles also served as associate director of recreational sports from 1994 until 2003 when he became director of the program.
Giles said he’ll remember Southern Miss most for the opportunity it gave him to meet his goal of becoming head coach of a college swimming program. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that the swimming team had the highest grade point average of all athletic teams at Southern Miss each year from 1980 until 1987,” he said.
When the swimming program was discontinued in 1987, Giles was given charge of development of a new lifeguard program for the American Red Cross. The program totally changed the way lifeguarding was taught and the methods that lifeguards use to save lives, he said.
“The involvement of Southern Miss students (student lifeguards who worked at the M.C.Johnson Natatorium at that time) as demonstrators of the new techniques in Red Cross training films that the whole world used to teach lifeguards is my proudest moment in my career at Southern Miss. These films were used for five years (1994-1999), and though revised with other lifeguards demonstrating the techniques, they remain the same and are used today by Red Cross-trained lifeguards all over the world.”
His legacy will be his passion for the inclusion of recreational and varsity sports as part of the college experience for the physical, social and personal development of students. “From intramurals to fitness, to sports clubs to aquatic activities and outdoor experiences, recreational sports offers that relief from the daily college routine and lead to the development of friendships, which in later make for fond memories of college days.
“Athletic teams form an even closer bond. When you work toward a common goal of winning swim meets for your school and representing Southern Miss at conference championships, then special friendships are forged. Individual goals are achieved with hard work, but teamwork builds memories of school and relationships that last forever.”
Kennedy shares that sentiment, with fond memories of his own college experience at Southern Miss and those associated with being a member of the swim team. Well, most of them anyway.
“I don’t have fond memories of those 5 a.m. practices,” he laughed. “But I wish everyone could have the kind of experience I had at Southern Miss being part of a team, with people from all over the country coming together and transcending that to become like a family and having someone like Coach Giles be your leader.
“You don’t realize it at the time, how special that experience is and how special people like Coach Giles are in your life until you have some mileage behind you, and it’s then that you say “That was amazing.’”