At the end of this 37th season as the head coach of Brandeis men's and women's fencing, Bill Shipman announced his retirement. We sat down with coach Shipman to get his thoughts on his remarkable career.
How did you come to Brandeis in 1981?
Well, after college, I'd coached at Clemson, the initial women's team there and assisted with the men's team. After a year at home, I took an assistant job at UPenn, which is a powerhouse program. My third year at Penn was long enough. Several head coaching jobs came open, Brandeis being one. I interviewed for two of them. Brandeis offered me the job first, and I took it. Those jobs didn't come open too often, so I came up north - to the chagrin of my parents. Here we are.
What is the most significant difference in fencing between when you started in 1981 and now?
The biggest difference, as it is in many sports, is the influx of young people fencing earlier and earlier. So now, typically, kids start fencing as young as eight years old, and frequently before they are 12. In 1981, that was much less common. Most kids didn't start until they were in the ninth grade, and the numbers were so much smaller then. So we had to train fencers at the beginning, from zero – about half the team. Now we hardly ever do that.
Over the years, you've been able to take fencers from PE classes and make them into collegiate-level competitors. What's the secret to that?
One thing, of course, is to find someone who has natural athletic talent – that's helpful! But also a feel for fencing. Those things don't always come together. And they have to be willing to put the time in. We do still get some who are quite inexperienced, usually not totally from zero, but quite inexperienced. That was a lot of fun, to coach from zero and see how far they could go. It was even more gratifying, probably, than the current system. Andy Lesser, Steve Goldin, Scott Hinjin in the early days, really did well.
On the other end of the spectrum, you coached Brandeis's only Olympian. Did you know that Tim Morehouse '00 had that potential when he started?
No! He was a good high school fencer, not a national level fencer. [A coach at a high-level program] saw him and didn't take him – [Tim] had a bad day or whatever. So he came to Brandeis. But his motivation was extreme, and while he was at Brandeis, he got much bigger. Physically bigger and stronger. He was fencing in New York City, in the off times, during the summer. And he realized he was nearly as good as, or capable of competing with some of the best fencers in the country who he was with every day, every practice. So then as he ended his senior year, and in the few years after that, he could possibly reach this level. And he made all the commitments to do so.
What were your feelings when he made the Olympics and when he earned a medal?
Of course, I was very proud of him, because he really put in more time and effort than almost anybody in that situation. Olympians know they might be Olympians when they are 16 or 18 years old. They are already in the top five of their age group, competing on the world level. He was not in that same situation. He had no reason to think he would be able to do that until he was 23 or 24 years old. That really showed his determination and sacrifice to reach those goals. You have to be proud of a guy like that.
Which were your favorite events to take part in over the years?
The UAA (University Athletic Association) championships was my favorite because it was a small event, so everyone had a chance to do well. Either the squad, or the individual, or the whole team, had some kind of chance to do well. And it was small enough that it was comfortable. It wasn't rushed, frantic trying to get all the bouts in. We always had a challenge with NYU to win – even though we rarely beat them in the men's – and Johns Hopkins was always chasing us from behind – they beat us a few times. That the bouts were interesting, the matches were interesting. Case Western was there, and Chicago at the beginning. It was a good competition, at the same time it was a comfortable quality of competition. So that was probably my favorite. The IFAs (Intercollegiate Fencing Association Championships) was a lot of fun when we had the IFAs. We could test ourselves against the best fencers in the country with, really, nothing to lose. And we had some good results there.
Brandeis has hosted nationals four times over the years. What did that experience mean for you and the program?
I think it gave us a lot of credibility in the college fencing community among the schools above us – the Ohio States, the Notre Dames, Columbia, Princeton. We did a nice job and it gave us some credibility. Not only in fencing, but in general, that Brandeis was a place that supported fencing. I'm sure it helped our visibility in recruiting quite a bit, and it was a good experience for the team. It's a special event for them, really brought the team together and gave them something to talk about. And I appreciated the support and willingness of the administration to do something like that. It's a big effort for a small department like ours to do that.
What was the biggest factor in your remaining at Brandeis all these years?
Well, the major factor was that I got married to Cheryl, who is from Worcester. She had no plans to leave, so nor would I. There was nothing to complain about at Brandeis: the support was good, the team was improving all the time, the facility is nice. So I became comfortable. They allowed me to work on my own, without much interference. The admissions office was helpful to fencing.
If you could sum up Brandeis fencers in three words, what would they be?
Brandeis fencers, on the whole, are enthusiastic, reliable, and intelligent.