Cal Bentz, the former Omaha Westside and Nebraska swimming coach who trained nearly 100 All-Americans and 22 Olympians, died Tuesday. Bentz was 84.
Pat DiBiase, one of Bentz’s former swimmers at Westside and his first assistant at Nebraska, said Bentz had been battling bone cancer that had spread for many years after Bentz’s initial diagnosis and treatment for prostate cancer.
“Today we lost, arguably, one of the greatest coaches in any sport in the state of Nebraska,” DiBiase said. “He had a Hall of Fame career coaching swimming, but those of us he taught and coached will remember a man who made you believe you could do more than you ever thought possible.”
Bentz grew up near the old downtown YMCA in Hastings, Nebraska, where he had his first swimming lesson at 7. After graduating from Hastings High, Bentz began swimming for Nebraska in 1951 and lettered four times.
After serving as NU’s interim coach for one year after graduation, Bentz coached swimming at Beaver Crossing High and Lincoln High before moving to Omaha.
Bentz landed at Westside, where he won 12 boys state championships and three girls state championships. In 1977, he was named The World-Herald’s boys high school coach of the year.
The next year, NU Athletic Director Bob Devaney recruited Bentz to take over the Husker programs after seven consecutive last-place finishes in the Big Eight.
In a 2005 interview with The World-Herald, Bentz said there was no way he could say no.
“Bob said, ‘We want you to come down and be our new coach,’ ” Bentz said. “How many people refuse Bob Devaney? I wasn’t about to be the first.”
Over the next 22 years, Bentz’s men’s teams won 15 Big Eight championships while the women won six. Bentz’s athletes won 94 All-America awards.
Then came the end to Bentz’s tenure at Nebraska and the shutdown of the men’s program after 80 years in March 2001.
In January 2002, the NCAA infractions committee announced seven rules violations and nine secondary violations between 1996 and 2000 that included “impermissible” extra benefits, administration of financial aid — including asking swimmers to accept cuts in financial aid, then reimbursing them with cash — and distribution of benefits — including meal money on trips being distributed based on swimmers’ performances.
Bentz said years afterward that neither he nor his assistants intentionally violated any NCAA rule or regulation.
In 2005, he returned to the pool deck to work with swimmers of all ages, from youths to masters-level swimmers. Among his pupils were the Kearney High boys and girls teams and 2016 Olympic Trials participants Dannie Dilsaver of Lincoln Southwest and Caroline Thiele of Lincoln Pius X.
DiBiase, who later led Omaha Marian to seven team titles in eight years and was a World-Herald coach of the year honoree, said Bentz will be remembered for the help he provided to thousands of swimmers.
“Cal was much more than a coach,” DiBiase said. “To many, he was a mentor, a friend and a second father. His legacy and the lessons he taught us will live on and be passed on by the lives of everyone he touched.”