by Alex Morando, Ohio State Athletics Communications Intern
COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s an early July morning and James Sweeney is making preparations for his 12th season at the helm of Ohio State’s pistol team this fall. To find him, head down the steps of Converse Hall to the Lt. Hugh W. Wylie Range and don’t be surprised if he kindly asks if he can give his own personal lesson on the sport.
“I love any kind of coaching,” Sweeney said. “If you come down here, you’re going to learn how to shoot a pistol by the time you leave.”
Underneath the building and sidewalks of campus for the last 11 years, Sweeney has led the Buckeyes to five National Collegiate Championships, including one on the men’s side (2000) and four on the women’s squad (2000, 04, 06, 09).
Always with a smile and laugh, Sweeney’s pistol story is just a chapter of a timeline of sporting events for the 1957 Buckeye graduate. If there is a competitive event, there’s a good chance Sweeney has checked it off his list.
“I was fortunate to grow up in a small town by a lake in northern Ohio and recreational outdoor opportunities were abundant,” Sweeney, a native of Lake Milton, Ohio, said. “I grew up with an outdoor ethic and loved sports and competition.”
An avid sports fan, especially in individual and Olympic style sports, he also has background in shooting, archery, canoe racing, hydroplane racing, and acrosport. Also adding football, basketball and track to his coaching resumé, sports knowledge has become a part of his life.
Sweeney traveled to Columbus for college, joining the Ohio State football team in 1952 on the scout squad – when Woody Hayes, the Buckeyes’ 19th head coach, was just in his second year. But by the time spring rolled around, he would no longer be competing in shoulder pads.
“I was a walk-on but got injured halfway through my freshman year,” Sweeney said. “In some ways it was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me because I went and messed around with some rehab and someone told me to try out gymnastics.”
A former football player, Sweeney decided to change his ambitions to something he stuck with for the next 25 years. He walked into a gymnastics practice, tried out for the team and made it.
“You might have seen a couple pole vaulters come in and practice with the team, but not usually football players,” Sweeney said. “People tell me that I played for Woody, but actually I was playing agaisnt Woody on the scout team.”
However, it was clear Sweeney made the right decision for him. By 1956, the former walk-on was a four-year letterman, captain of the team and qualified for national finals in the rings event. Nine years after graduation with a degree in physical education, he came back to Ohio State to become head coach of the gymnastics team from 1966-1977 where he was honored as the NCAA Mid-East Coach of the Year in 1968.
“A football player walking into a gym like I did would be laughable today,” Sweeney said. “Gymnastics became a major part of my life.”
Coaching wasn’t enough for Sweeney. During the summers between 1962-1966, he returned to Ohio State and received his Ph.D. in sports pedagogy with a minor in educational psychology. By 1978, after his coaching career in gymnastics, Sweeney became an associate professor on campus until retiring in 1994.
“About half my job as a professor was doing things like outdoor education, backpacking, canoeing, archery and shooting at the range,” Sweeney said. “Little did I know I would become the pistol coach in the future here.”
With his connections from teaching a rifle class, his next challenge was with the varsity pistol team as an interim head coach from 1985-86 and he did not disappoint. Sweeney took the team to nationals both years.
“I got permission to take over the pistol team for two years,” Sweeney said. “It was enjoyable like any other sport I have coached. It was a thrilling experience to step right in and have success.”
Ohio State didn’t forget about Sweeney. In 1999, he interviewed for the pistol team and got the job to become simply the “one-of-a-kind teacher.” One of his greatest sources of pride is coaching three Big Ten Medal of Honor winners in two different sports at Ohio State: Bruce Trott of gymnastics and Laura Murray and Jessica Marshall in pistol.
“I don’t picture people as empty vessels that I pour knowledge into,” Sweeney said. “I look at it more as a proactive approach on the part of the student. I try to create an environment in which they take it upon themselves to excel.”
Ohio State pistol assistant coach Donna Knisley, who won the 1993 State of Ohio championship in air pistol, has been working under Sweeney for the past 11 years. Knisley said her success has been due to the teaching of Sweeney.
“I’ve always considered him a master teacher and instructor,” Knisley, who was instrumental in helping Ohio State capture the 2000 national title, said. “I’ve seen a lot of his students return and praise him for his contribution to how they teach today. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here. He practices what he teaches, which is very important.”
As a source of motivation to others, Sweeney continues his philosophy of teaching. In 24 years of service at Ohio State, he never purchased a parking permit. Sweeney began riding his bike to work from his off-campus home, and today, the 76-year-old continues his routine.
“It’s funny now that I’m retired, I get a free lifetime parking permit,” Sweeney said with a laugh. “I don’t use it that much. I walk two and a half miles to work every day during the season.”
Besides the 50 sit-ups he does every morning to go along with his toast and coffee, Sweeney has the range set up each day before his student-athletes arrive so they can just concentrate on their shooting. From setting up the tables to maintaining the shooting range with fellow rife head coach Patrick Cherry, he can get his exercise in for the day.
“It’s a surprisingly physical job,” Sweeney said.
The coach that’s done almost everything has an enthusiastic attitude when he walks in any room and that’s something you just can’t teach.
“Teaching is more than passing on knowledge,” Sweeney said. “When you have a group of responsive students, there’s really a chemistry that goes on. It’s the same thing with coaching. Forcing someone to learn something by rigid method is hardly educational. If they have a hand in their achievement, to me, that’s true education.”