Jeff Jacobs: Banner career has led Hopkins Chuck Elrick to brink of 1,000 victories

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Every year Chuck Elrick hangs a banner the size of a king-sized bedsheet at The Hopkins School pool. The captains of the team design a theme. Every week during the season, Elrick picks someone who swam a personal best time, did something special in practice, etc.

Week 1. Week 2. Week 3. All the way to Week 14. Elrick puts a name up on the banner and he leaves that banner up until the next season rolls around.

“This is homecoming weekend,” Elrick said Thursday. “So I figured my last year I’m going to dig out all those banners. Right now, I’m three quarters of the way around the pool deck hanging them all up. I’m looking at these names. I’m like, ‘God, I remember this. I remember that.’”

So when you ask Chuck Elrick, who’ll soon notch his 1,000th career coaching victory at Hopkins, what his most memorable achievement is, he does not answer with particular a meet or a match or title.

“There isn’t any one specific meet,” Elrick said. “A swimmer did their best time or gave it their best effort, that’s what matters, that everybody gave it their best shot.”

The answer is on those banners with all those names hung this homecoming weekend at the Bud Erich Pool at the Walter Camp Athletic Center in New Haven. Yes, the Father of American Football was a graduate. Hopkins is a place of history and Elrick’s achievement is certainly an historical one.

“It’s an amazing milestone,” Hopkins athletic director Rocco DeMaio said. “I don’t know if there’s anything out there like it in high school. He has been an exemplary coach for us, an amazing leader and great teacher. He has maintained his passion for such a long period of time. The kids have the utmost respect for the guy. He has molded hundreds, maybe thousands of kids.”

Elrick has coached boys and girls swimming since 1983. He coached a co-ed water polo team starting in the mid-1990s and both the boys and girls teams since they split in 2006.

Among them, Hopkins’ director of aquatics has amassed a combined 997 victories. If all goes well, 1,000 will arrive within the next two weeks.

“It means I stuck around for a long time,” Elrick, 67, said. “The wins belong to the kids.”

Boys water polo in the fall. Girls and boys swimming in the winter. Girls water polo in the spring …

“I’ve already told the school I am retiring in June,” Elrick said. “I’ve been here 39 years. Our contests are always on Wednesday and Saturday. In essence, from September until the end of May, I’m working six days a week and never get a Saturday off. I also have the Hopkins Mariners swim club with meets on weekends.”

That has meant nearly four decades of working six and seven days a week.

“When COVID hit and we couldn’t have any contests, it was like, ‘Holy cow, I leave here and the sun is still up,’” Elrick said. “I have done this for all these years for someone else’s kids. And I’ve enjoyed it. But now my daughter is getting married. Now it’s time for me to step back and let some other person come in. I’m going to see the sunlight a little bit.”

For his first 10 years at Hopkins, Elrick taught in the math department. As Hopkins built its gymnasium and pool, there were many requests for use from outside campus. Elrick left the classroom to begin writing and executing contracts for those events. A new administration later decided to take over that role. In addition to coaching four sports, he tests students and teaches swimming lessons to those who don’t pass the test until they are able to do so before they graduate.

Some leave Hopkins as swimming champions. All leave able to save their lives in the water.

Bud Erich coached at Hopkins for 44 years. A young Elrick had been involved with a USA swim program team and several of the kids from Hopkins would come over to swim during the offseason. That’s how he got to know Erich, who asked him to apply for his job when he was leaving.

“Everyone looked up to Buddy,” Elrick said. “The pool is named after him. He was a legend. My first two years here, in particular, were very difficult. I demanded a lot from the kids. I expected a lot. That wasn’t Buddy’s way. He was everybody’s buddy. It was rough on me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to stick it out.

“I said I’ll stick it out for a couple years and gradually it became my own. Kids graduated. The new kids coming in didn’t know Buddy. They only knew my system. In recent years, simply because of my age, I’ve gotten softer. I still demand. My expectations haven’t changed. I think it’s more now that the kids expect it themselves rather than me harping on them. I’ve mellowed. I’m probably enjoying it more the past 10 years than the first 10 years. I tried so hard that there was a lot of strain and anguish on me. As I softened, I realized, no, I’ll put the expectations on the kids and let them take it from there.”

Although he grew up around the water in Branford, Elrick did not swim in college. He picked up lacrosse at Dean Junior College (now Dean College), loved it, captained at Southern Connecticut and along with two other captains filled in as coach of the lacrosse team as a senior.

Elrick had done a lot of diving in his youth in summer leagues and filled in swimming events. He assisted Bob Burns, long-time Amity High and Choate coach, on a USA Swimming program team. He worked under Bill Wall, long-time coach at Notre Dame-West Haven, as a diving coach. They had two very different styles and observing the variety helped in his development. Along with Jim Agli, who had been at Southern Connecticut and Ohio State, these were the men who made the biggest impact on him.

Under Elrick, Hopkins became a major competitor in the New England Prep School Swimming Association’s top division. In 1998, the boys won the New England championships. Hopkins was behind a couple of points to Phillips Exeter Academy going into the final event.

“Phillips Exeter had been dominant, nobody could touch them, they’d won like 16 years in a row,” Elrick said. “Well, we won the last event and beat them by two points. That’s the one I guess that put us on the map as a legitimate swim program.”

There have been four second-place finishes by the girls and three seconds by the boys.

“The swim team and the water polo team, they’re viewed at least historically — I don’t know how the kids see it now — as a little different than the other sports,” Elrick said. “More dedicated. I demand a lot out of the kids. I demand a lot out of the coaches. I demand a lot out of myself. As the teams were getting successful, the new crop of kids coming in wanted to carry that tradition of winning on. That has helped bring quality student athletes here each year. I just happen to be the person here reaping the benefits.”

Elrick, who lives in Clinton, has the opportunity to take over a trampoline park in East Haven that closed shortly before COVID hit. The trampolines, computers, were left behind. He is looking to add some other things. He has wanted to bring in the FlowRider indoor surf machine. The problem is the high cost. “Maybe over time,” Chuck Elrick says.

Time, he is going to have. To see the sun, to see his daughter Elizabeth get married next September. But first up is homecoming weekend — a 13-11 win over Suffield Academy on Friday night, Hydra from New Haven on Saturday — and the story of 1,000 wins. A story told by the banners with all those names.; @jeffjacobs123