One is well into his collegiate coaching career, the other is just starting out, but both have recently entered the Hope College head coaching ranks. No matter their age difference, head women’s lacrosse coach Keagan Pontious and head swimming and diving coach Jake Taber ’04 have a passion for leading and mentoring student-athletes that is palpable. They join 14 other Hope head coaches — with 199 years of college coaching experience between them — who share the same zeal to transform lives through the Hope athletic experience.
JAKE TABER knows a lot can happen in one one-hundredth of a second. In less than the time it takes to snap your fingers. Less than the time it takes to blink an eye. Less than the time it takes for a hand to glide through four inches of pool water to touch out at the wall.
Within that amount of time, you’ll find much of Taber’s coaching philosophy.
Don’t go thinking that Taber’s many professional tenets have that much brevity; they absolutely do not. In fact, the new head swimming and diving coach could — and would — talk to you for hours on end about how he builds bodies and minds and spirits to swim fast. He just loves talking about the technical stuff. So, sit down and pull up a chair if you ever ask him the ways of his swim-coaching world. You’re going to be there awhile.
There was a time, though, when one one-hundredth of a second taught Taber about clearly-defined expectations and full-hearted empathy. It was a time as transformative as any on his way toward becoming a head coach.
Here, let him tell you how that worked:
“In 2003, I was a junior on Hope’s swim team. I kind of came into college thinking if the stars aligned and I continued to get better, maybe I could have a decent career here. I had enough self-awareness to know that I wasn’t one of the best guys on the team, but I also knew where my opportunities were. Internally, I had a goal to get to the NCAA national championships. I wasn’t good enough to do it individually but, right place, right time, I might be able to weasel my way onto a relay.
“So, my junior year came around and there were three spots on the 200-yard free relay that were all absolutely locked up and there were two guys fighting for the one remaining spot — me and Travis Barkel. JP [John Patnott, Hope’s head coach at the time] was pretty upfront and pretty fair about how relay spots were earned. Top time in the 50 prelims at the MIAA meet wins the spot. And as it turned out, Travis won the spot. He was one hundredth faster than me in the 50 prelims.
“I wanted to be on that relay so bad, and in the moment as a 21-year-old who was fiery and competitive, I was really bummed about it. Boy, I cried hard between prelims and finals. But I remember watching the relay that night and watching Travis swim and knowing JP got it right. Travis was great on that relay.”
Fast forward one year later. It is Taber’s senior year, and a similar situation exists, but this time with a different result. Taber earned a spot on the 200 free relay team that year and qualified for the national championships. The dream he was once denied became the dream he proudly achieved.
Having experienced those diametrically-opposed outcomes as a student-athlete, Taber now applies that two-sided understanding into almost every detail as a head coach. The quick-time lesson from 17 years ago is part of his day-to-day modus operandi now, one in which he communicates and role-models his passion for the sport and the people in it. Charismatic, positive and driven to his core, Taber is a quick learner too, because one-hundredth of a second was all the time he needed to figure out a lifetime’s worth of career priorities.
“In my mind, missing the national championships by a hundredth of a second my junior year, even though it was only for a relay spot, had a really big impact and influence on how I’ve coached and how I’ve approached some of those challenging situations on the pool deck and in my life,” he says. “It taught me to communicate — some would say over-communicate — and listen. It taught me how to be understanding when goals aren’t and are met. The bottom line is this: At the end of the day, my biggest responsibility is to challenge every single student-athlete to be better in their sport and in their life, too.”
Today, Taber is Hope’s sole head coach. Last year, he shared head coaching duties with Patnott, his long-time mentor and Hope’s 39-year head coach. Together, the two guided the women’s swim team to a 2019 MIAA championship, a title returned to Hope for the first time in 15 years. It was an experience that Taber relished on several levels.
“I joked to a lot of people that last year was kind of a mid-career internship for me,” he says, smiling at the recollection of co-coaching with Patnott. “I mean, how neat to be able to be on the pool deck with your mentor as peers, looking at the same things with the same goals. Last year, coaching again with JP, was just a blast.”
Taber started his coaching career as an assistant under Patnott from 2004 to 2007. He then went onto become the head swim coach at Olivet College (2007-12) and Albion College (2012-18), earning accolades at both and winning a 2017 men’s championship at Albion. Coming back to his alma mater was always his goal, he says, but when Patnott told him he was thinking about retirement two years ago, Taber and his wife, Kelly Kraft ’04, weren’t sure if the timing was right for them to go home to Hope. They had three small children and a good support system in Marshall, Michigan. Life was messy and busy but good. A move and job change would have only added to their frenetic life with littles.
“I love my alma mater and when you have an experience like I had here at Hope, you want [returning to coach] to work out,” he explains. “But when you’re at that phase of life like we were — and are, it needs to make sense for your family, not just because it’s your alma mater. But Kelly and I talked and the moment we realized it would work, we sprinted back here.”
Charismatic, positive and driven to his core, Taber is a quick learner too, because one-hundredth of a second was all the time he needed to figure out a lifetime’s worth of career priorities.
The Tabers now have four children — seven-year-old Tessa;
five-year-old Colby; Sloane who is almost three; and Augusta
Hope, soon to turn a year old. “Life is real right now,” Taber likes to say with the ineffable smile of a proud and tired father. He is unguarded about expressing his deep love for his family, calls Kelly his rock and glue, and is unashamed to share all of his real-life family realities with his student-athletes or visiting prospects, too. He is who he is, and you know it from the get-go because there it is, all fittingly worn on his sleeve — a husband and father, a man of faith, an assistant professor and a head swim coach who cares enormously about his swim team family, too.
So, it is with the personable Taber that you see an un-sanitized
version of a life lived at full tilt. It starts with a 5:30 a.m. morning practice, to a daycare drop-off, to class or practice prep, to afternoon recruiting calls, to a 6 p.m. end-of-afternoon practice, to 8 p.m. bedtime stories and snuggles. For a guy who one day dreamed of becoming the general manager of the Detroit Tigers (his car radio is tuned to MLB Network 365 days a year), Taber is extremely happy with where he is and what he is doing.
“I had one good swim meet in high school and I thought it would be a good idea to swim in college because of it, and that changed my life,” says Taber, who was a three-sport athlete, also playing soccer and baseball, at Battle Creek Lakeview High School. “Then once I got to Hope, it was the experience, it was the people, it was the camaraderie, it was being a part of something bigger than myself that made everything special.
“Along the way, I listened to my dad say, ‘Jake, go to school, get your education, then wake up in the morning and want to go to work.’ And I do. I love what I do. And that makes
all the difference.”
Photographs by Lynne Powe ’86