Colby coaching legend "Swisher" Mitchell passes away at age 91

WATERVILLE, Maine -- Swisher.

John “Swisher” Mitchell, who passed away at age 91 Wednesday morning, was affectionately known more for his nickname than his real name. And known he was—all over New England and beyond.

Known for his 44 years as an assistant men's basketball coach at Colby College. Known for his 40 years with fellow Colby legend and head coach Dick Whitmore—the pair posting a 637-341 record before retiring together in 2011. Known for his ball-handling wizardry and shooting ability as the point guard for Waterville High School's unbeaten state and New England championship team of 1944.

“I was just thinking today how honored and blessed I was to have him as my greatest friend,” said Whitmore, who was 27 when he was named Colby men’s basketball coach. “I was anxious at age 27 to see how I would be as a coach. He was a man of great wisdom and was always able to counsel me. I can still hear him saying ‘don’t go so fast, don't go so fast.’”

Mitchell was all that and much more. He went on to play college basketball at the University of Rhode Island, where he was a two-time All-Yankee Conference selection. After a stint in the Navy, he taught and coached at John Bapst High School in Bangor, Maine. He moved to Arizona for two years to teach and coach before returning to coach Waterville High School from 1959 to 1964.

“Swisher was a legend, but that doesn't do justice in encapsulating who he was and the impact he had. His storied career as a player and incredible insight as a coach were amazing accomplishments,” said current Colby head coach Damien Strahorn ’02. “But Swisher was so much more. His personality was captivating, his storytelling mesmerizing, and the impact he had transformed lives for a lifetime. We will all miss Swisher immensely, but in a wonderful way his spirit will live on in all of us—and for that we are truly blessed.” 

The personal side of Mitchell was evident in April 2017 when family, friends, and alumni honored him for his 90th birthday and the creation of the John “Swisher” Mitchell Assistant Coach for Men’s Basketball at Colby fund, the first endowed assistant coaching position at the College.

The many photos of the event all had the same theme—smiles and laughter. Mitchell made everyone at ease with his presence and could make anyone laugh. Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, John’s younger brother, was also at the festivities.

“I know that was one of the greatest days of his life,” Whitmore said. “The players were his joy and so many of them were there that day. Each one had their own special connection with him.”

Jim Crook ’78, Chris Vickers ’87, Matt Hancock ’90, and Chad Higgins ’97 raised money from fellow basketball alumni and others to create the Whitmore Legacy Fund in 2011. The group raised $1.1 million in just 30 days, and the floor at Wadsworth Gymnasium was named the Whitmore-Mitchell Basketball Court.

The same alumni got together again to raise money for the Mitchell assistant coach endowment.

“I said at the time that he was a great example to all of us how to be a friend, a husband, and a father,” Higgins said. “We saw his friendship with Whit of 40-plus years, we saw him with his wonderful wife (Prinella) and how you treat your spouse, and we saw him as a great parent to his children and his grandchildren.”

Higgins and former Colby player T.J. Maines ’95 visited Mitchell last week.

“Swisher challenged T.J. to a 100-yard dash,’ said Higgins with a laugh. “Swisher was intense when it came to coaching, but off the court he always had that Cheshire cat grin.”