They describe Rob Jacobs as demanding as a drill sargeant, as a tough task master, as a grueling guru of the diving boards.
He admits he may be all of those.
But he’s also as likeable to the kids he coaches as the sound of a Mr. Softee truck.
“I’m tough on them,” Jacobs says from the deck of the Wyoming Valley West pool. “But I reward these kids. We have pizza nights, movie nights with food, their families come over my house. Once we’re outside of here, we have a good time. I make my point. I’m tough at practice, but yet, I’m there for them.”
He’ll be there again one last time this week, taking four divers - two from Wyoming Valley West and two more from Holy Redeemer - to the PIAA Swimming and Diving championships at Bucknell University’s Kinney Natatorium.
Then, after sculpting near-expert divers for nine years as Valley West’s head diving coach and this past year in a dual role while also coaching Holy Redeemer’s divers, Jacobs will float off into retirement.
Well, not exactly.
Jacobs still plans to conduct his summer diving program at the Valley West pool - which attracts athletes from grade school to high school from throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania and beyond. And if some school should call him to give a struggling diver some advice, “I’ll be glad to,” Jacobs said.
But for the most part, Jacobs will leave behind all the success he’s had coaching divers in the high school pool for nearly two decades as a head coach and assistant and watch his son, Robbie Jacobs, begin competing as a swimmer at the college level next year.
“It’s been a long ride. I’ve enjoyed it,” Jacobs, 45, said. “I’m going to miss it, but I know it’s time. I’ve missed a lot of things with my own son. I’ve raised everybody’s sons except my own. Fortunately, I’ve been able to see him swim here in high school. But his T-ball games, his (Kingston) Huskies (mini) football games, I wasn’t able to be there. Because I was here.
“His collegiate meets, I don’t want to miss those things.”
The Spartans will surely miss Jacobs.
“It’s sad to see that he’s leaving after so many years,” said Valley West senior Collin Vest, a District 2 record-holder and four-time district champ who will compete in his fourth straight state tournament under Jacobs this week. “He definitely has influenced me the most out of anybody in my diving career, even in life in general. He doesn’t sugar-coat anything. And life isn’t going to sugar-coat anything.
“He’s taught me to deal with things, push through them and give my best at all times.”
Vest isn’t the only diver who’s made dramatic strides following the directions of Jacobs.
Five years ago, Billy Williams broke the Valley West diving record Jacobs held for 23 years. Vest’s sister, Vanessa, also won a district championship for Valley West. And even divers from other schools, such as current Rutgers gymnast and former Dallas diving star Sara Skammer - who finished sixth in the state as a freshman - came through the summer program Jacobs runs to find immedate high school success.
“He’s had a lot of success, period,” Valley West swimming coach Frank Tribendis said.
Kelsey Williams thinks she knows why.
“He knows how the mind of a diver thinks,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of psychological things to overcome to be a diver. He knows how to help you overcome your fears.”
The Redeemer senior got an extended stint of first-hand experience with that this year.
When Holy Redeemer lost its former diving coach to a college job before the start of the 2012-13 season, Jacobs didn’t hesitate to lend a helping hand with the approval of Royals coach Maura Pawlenok.
“I said to Maura, ‘We’ll all practice together, we’ll work together as a team, as one,’ ” Jacobs said. “They pushed each other, they’re like a family.”
Guided by Jacobs, Kelsey Williams pushed to the forefront during her senior year, setting new school and pool records almost weekly throughout the season, then winning the District 2 Class 2A girls diving championship while earning her first trip to the state championships.
But she needed some help to get there.
“Oh yes,” agreed Kelsey Williams, who will be joined at states by her sophomore sister- a third-place finisher at districts. “There were many dives I was terrified of, like the 2 1/2-front somersault. I had problems with it in the past. I was just really, really afraid of it. He (Jacobs) taught me the only way out is through, to get over your fears.
“I couldn’t have done nearly as good had he not been my coach.”
Most of the divers who will give Jacobs his final ride to states echo that sentiment.
“I don’t think I’d be the diver I am without him,” said Valley West’s District 2 Class 3A girls champion Karina Zabresky. “He was a really good coach. He taught me not to give up.”
Jacobs did that with tough love.
“He wants you to do your best and he wants you to do the dives right,” Zabresky said.
“He pushes so hard,” said Collin Vest, who pushed aside the district diving record as a junior last season with a score of 534. “He doesn’t let you take it easy at practice at all. If he believes you can do a dive, he’s going to push you.
“He’s probably one of the hardest coaches around.”
Jacobs admits that.
But for him, and his divers, the reward comes when they walk up to the medal stand at districts and states.
“That’s my job as a coach,” Jacobs said. “I’m not here to be a buddy. There were days when every single one of them can’t stand me. But I’m here to take you to things you don’t expect to get.”
They will get up on the diving board one more time at states this week, hoping to take their instructor on a final, magical ride.
“I’m just pushing as hard as I can to do my best,” Collin Vest said, “to make sure he enjoys it and I enjoy it.”