Gulliver Prep aquatics director and head swim coach Jeff Poppell has been hired as associate head coach at the University of Florida.
Poppell led the girls’ team to back-to-back FHSAA State 2A Swimming and Diving titles the past two seasons and is one of the state’s most successful high school coaches.
The Jacksonville native will replace Martyn Wilby, who recently announced his retirement after 19 seasons.
Poppell’s assistant coach Christopher George, 31, was named Gulliver interim coach for the 2016-17 school year. The school plans to move forward with a nationwide search to fill the position.
The news of his departure sent shock waves through the local swimming community. Poppell resurrected the Gulliver program and built a powerhouse in only four seasons. The Raiders were favored to three-peat the girls’ title and was a boys state title favorite for the upcoming fall season.
Poppell told his swimmers about his plans after Wednesday morning’s workout.
“I wanted them to know before they read about it,” Poppell said. “I’ve always talked about working hard, taking this sport as far as you can take it and try to accomplish goals and set yourself up for success. It shouldn’t be any different for coaches career-wise. It wasn’t planned and was kind of unexpected. It’s a great opportunity for sure and I am closer to home and family.”
Poppell will continue to coach the program’s club team through the June 26-July 3 U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. where Poppell will coach four of his swimmers—Niki Urquidi and Kelly Fertel, both University of Florida-bound, Miguel Cancel and Nick Carter. He will start his new job on July 5th.
“I have mixed emotions about leaving,” Poppell said. “We love it here. My kids go to school here. My son swims in the program. It’s been a wonderful experience these four years. I am excited about the future. It’s definitely something I would have regretted had I not accepted the opportunity.”
Poppell said he is proud of what he accomplished at Gulliver and is looking forward to seeing the program’s success continue.
“As much as there is sadness in leaving, to look back at the last four years and understand where it was when I got here and how far we have come is very satisfying,” Poppell said. “We literally started from scratch so to see how far Gulliver has come as a program and more importantly, these individuals’ success, brings me great satisfaction and joy.”
“I know this program is in a great place. It’s in a much better place than when I got here and I feel great about that. At the same time, it’s very well set up to continue. This is not a stopping point. I don’t feel they are at their full potential. There’s plenty to do.”
The head position is expected to be one of the nation’s most sought-after high school coaching jobs.
“This position is more attractive now,” Poppell said. “The program has done a whole lot of great things. Everybody is returning on the girls and boys teams and there are some other kids who will be eligible this fall. It’s a great situation for whoever comes in.”
Poppell has recommended his longtime swimmer and coach Christopher George for the position. Poppell coached George at Bolles since he was 7. George also coached with him at Arkansas and Gulliver the past four seasons.
“The kids love him, the parents love him,” Poppell said. “Like any business when you are happy with the way things have gone and the positive direction of the organization, you are best served to be able to promote from within to keep things consistent. The school has been very happy with our program and what we have accomplished.”
Poppell began his coaching career in 1993 as head age group coach at Jacksonville Bolles under then head coach Gregg Troy, now head coach and his new boss at Florida. Poppell moved up to head coach at Bolles from 2002-06 where he led the Bulldogs to two national titles. In 2004, he was named the NHSCA Girls National High School Coach of the Year.
Poppell has plenty of college coaching experience, too. Before taking the Gulliver job, Poppell led Arkansas’ women’s swimming and diving teams to national prominence during his six-year tenure.
Under Poppell’s leadership, the Razorbacks were ranked in the Top 25 nationally for four seasons. He coached the program to a fifth place at the 2009 Southeastern Conference Championships, the highest finish in the program’s history. He also had 10 swimmers qualify for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.
From 2009 to 2011 Poppell was awarded the American Swimming Coaches Association Certificate of Excellence. He coached the U.S. women’s team at the 2009 World Maccabiah Games in Israel. He also coached two swimmers at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and three swimmers at the 2009 Rome World Championships.
It is the third college coaching change around the state in the last two weeks.
St. Thomas Aquinas 1993 alum Frankie Bradley will not return for a fourth season at Florida State. With one year left, school officials terminated his contract. The Seminoles finished ninth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in both men’s and women’s swimming this past season. Three girls swimmers including Sagemont alum and three-time MVP Daniella van den Berg transferred to Florida Gulf Coast and Jason Coombs retired after his junior season.
Nova Southeastern head coach Hollie Bonwit-Cron, who has recruited several local high school swimmers the past seven seasons, was named new head men’s and women’s head coach of Miami (Ohio) University.