‘The easiest yes’: Swim & Dive head coach Jeana Kempe’s cross-country journey back to the midwest, program vision


Photo courtesy of @IlliniSwimDive on twitter

Fall 2022 swim & dive team pose together for a photo on April 28. New swim & dive head coach Jenna Fuccillo Kemp reflects on her history coaching at UCLA, NAU and LSU leading to her new position at Illinois.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

When former head coach Sue Novitsky announced her retirement, she left a new challenge for Athletic Director Josh Whitman. How does one replace a leader of 22 years? Since 2000, the Illinois swim & dive team has maintained a consistent manner of working and achieving goals.

However, much like other recent leadership changes within Illini Athletics, Whitman has gone out to find new visionaries that match his goal for the image and competitiveness of the athletic programs.

His solution to the question is new head coach Jeana Fuccillo Kempe, a Lebanon, Ill., native with experience coaching at South Carolina, Auburn, LSU and NAU. Kempe’s journey started in her senior year, finishing her storied high school career as a five-time State Champion, All-American, three-time junior champion and competitive international athlete with Team USA.

With so many accomplishments, accolades and potential as a swimmer, she had a variety of choices of who to compete for. Looking for a change of scenery, she chose UCLA for its rising success on the national level.

“I was ready to leave the Midwest,” Kempe said. “I was at a point in my athletic career where I had two options, I could go to a smaller program that didn’t have the same goals, or go to an elite program, knowing that I can be a huge contributor to that program.”

And contribute she did, helping lead the Bruins to high team and individual placements at Pac-10 championships, eventually becoming the co-captain by her senior year. After UCLA, she attended NAU to get a master’s in educational psychology and human relations, working as a graduate assistant in the athletics department, aiming to become the role model she had relied on through undergrad.

“When I was done at UCLA, I couldn’t get out of (Los Angeles) fast enough,” Kempe said. “My learning specialists were huge mentors to me throughout college, I found value in those positions. My intention was never to coach.”

She was given a club coaching job at NAU to help make some income while a student and while she wasn’t enjoying her experience as an academic advisor, she fell in love with coaching and the opportunities she had to lead in that position.

With the increased interest, she found herself going to the NAU head swimming and diving coach Andy Johns. Johns would teach her how to coach, how to strategize and give her the opportunities to learn.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am if I didn’t have Andy Johns as my head coach,” Kempe said. “The experience was invaluable, all around.”

After NAU, she continued to pursue coaching opportunities, leading to an assistant coaching position and eventual associate head coaching position at LSU. After six years, she took another assistant position at Auburn before a one year stint at the University of South Carolina. After so many years leading high level athletes and being a high level athlete, she understands the qualities and routines necessary to cultivate a competitive team.

“There’s just a different expectation of the athletes (in the SEC),” Kempe said. “Elite athletes just want to be surrounded by elite athletes. It’s easy to have those recruiting connections now that I’ve been in California, Arizona, Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina while having my Midwest roots.”

When the call went out to apply for Illinois, Kempe was compelled to the position. Since her move to the west coast, Kempe found herself going to places that felt more like the Midwest. Even once she had started coaching, she always wondered if she could get a shot of leading the program at a school which she had grown up supporting.

Once she got an interview for the position, she opened up to Whitman and showed her passion for building the program into a Big Ten competitor.

“I’ve always loved Illinois,” Kempe said. “I told Josh (Whitman) in my interview, ‘I know I have all the tools and they’re sharpened and they’re ready to go, I just haven’t been able to use them.’ I don’t just want to go anywhere.”

When she was offered the position some time after, Kempe claimed that “it was the easiest yes I’ve ever been able to say.”

Since taking the reins she’s focused on building relationships, establishing a coaching staff that can take advantage of the unique location and history that Illinois has.

“I knew I wanted to bring Kyle (Patnode) with me the whole time,” Kempe said. “He’s young, he’s energetic, he knows the Big Ten.”

Patnode was a fellow assistant coach at South Carolina who grew up in Oak Park, Ill. He attended the University of Iowa, becoming a team captain and earned the Jim Marshall Award, given to the male senior who immensely contributes to Iowa Athletics. After graduation he coached at Oakland University before moving to Ohio State, where he helped the team win the Big Ten Championship in 2020.

The state of Illinois is nationally known for constantly producing high level swimmers that go on to become national champions and Olympians, a positive that Illinois hasn’t been able to take advantage of.

Much like many programs at Illinois, setting up a recruiting border around the state is crucial for revitalizing a program which hasn’t seen much success at the Big Ten level.

“It takes a couple of really brave leaders to come and build something,” Kempe said. “You can’t hide from the hard work that you have to put in to be a successful student athlete.”

With a vision and grit built in the Pac-10 and SEC, the rebuilt ceiling for the program to attract and cultivate elite athletes will be sure to create dividends as the program continues recruiting and developing the revitalized brand and mentality.

“The reason I’m sitting in this position is because of the relationships I’ve built,” Kempe said. “I’ve always wanted to make an everlasting stamp on a program. I’m honored to be able to do that here.”


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