Many years ago, when footballs were almost round and shortstops wore mustaches, men argued as fiercely as they do today about what college was best in what sport. In that day the arguments seldom included swimming: before World War I there were simply no swimming teams or kings worth defending or knocking. Then along came Yale, followed by Michigan and Ohio State. Today a swimming debate among real believers can be lively, as long as it skirts the special art of diving, for at this point defenders of Yale and Michigan will fall silent and may, in fact, become morose. The divers of Ohio State are better than anybody.
To take the facts coldly from the record book, in the past 20 years the springboard divers of Ohio State have won 79 national titles. Everybody else has won 21.
A championship record of 79 wins and 21 losses is the sort of percentage many colleges have sought in other sports by swinging the ax at a succession of coaches. Ohio State's diving supremacy has been achieved by leaving the coach's head alone. The University started competitive swimming in 1931 with a 32-year-old coach named Michael Peppe, an eager, compactly built all-round athlete who stood 5 feet 4 inches with his head on. Mike Peppe is still coach, he still has his head but not much hair, he is still fairly compact, but shaped now at age 59 a bit more like a barrel. Because his present duties entail more than coaching, he now ranks as professor and rates the proper fancy title Director of Swimming. The title is academic at this point. He has long ranked high as a swimming coach and in a class by himself as diving master of the world.
A master of a sport as precise as diving might be expected to have some qualities of an Old World fencing maestro—a flinty eye, the taut nerves of a cat, a cavalier flair and a temper that can blow higher than a Roman candle. Mike Peppe has quick moments, but his eyes are a soft mahogany, and his mien and pace are usually that of a Newfoundland dog. In a tough season he behaves like a man who will live through the next 20 years if his divers lose everything except their trunks.
April 8, 1957
Beyond his years of experience, other coaches pick two things that perhaps serve Peppe best: firstly, a seldom obvious but deep love of perfection, which he never achieved himself as an uncoached diver 40 years ago; secondly, a remarkably quick eye to spot the hidden, split-second error that is marring a near-perfect dive. Joe Hewlett, the Ohio coach of gymnastics, a sport with some affinity to diving, has a point to add. "Peppe doesn't over-coach," Hewlett remarked recently. "The fault of most of us today is over-coaching. When a coach keeps saying 'Do this,' where does a boy get insight into his ability? You'll see Peppe going over fundamentals with his best divers one day, then you'll see him leaving the kids to coach each other, so they beat their brains out and get some insight into diving."
Rival coaches think well of Peppe but wish him less success—starting as soon as possible. None of them likes to send a team to the collegiate championships knowing Ohio State has 20 to 30 points for sure in diving. It is reasonable to expect that Ohio State's diving strength will diminish. For one thing, some of Mike Peppe's divers are now coaching elsewhere, notably 1948 Olympic Champion Bruce Harlan at Michigan. But there is no sign of decline yet. In fact, it has been less than a year since Ohio State made its greatest show of strength in a single competition, and that showing was a corker.
Because it came just two weeks before the Olympic trials, the National Outdoor championship at Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio last July naturally attracted a large field. Dartmouth Coach Karl Michael, who served as Olympic coach, considered it the finest field ever. There were 40 competitors—28 who had not gone to Ohio State and 12 who had. When the field was cut to 12 for the finals, there were nine Ohio Staters left. Bob Clotworthy, Ohio State, class of '53, won; the other five medal winners were Don Harper, Glen Whitten, Jerry Harrison, Miller Anderson and Morley Shapiro, all undergrads or grads of Ohio State. Remembering that picture editors do not care much for boy divers, to make the picture of the diving winners more palatable the local junior chamber of commerce brought on two bathing-suit cuties to pose with the boys. While the girls kissed the boys, and cameras snapped, someone realized Ohio State had made a six-man sweep. The cry went up, "Get Mike Peppe for a picture." Peppe was close at hand, merely hidden by taller men. While the photographers fired away at him, Peppe stood submissively, face somewhat red from sun and possibly embarrassment, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, looking out of the top of his eyes so he seemed shorter than he is. The total effect of the diving master at this grand moment was that of Walt Disney's bashful dwarf meeting Snow White for the first time.
TRIUMPH AT MELBOURNE
Olympic Coach Karl Michael waved a hand at the posed array of diving talent. "Right now," Michael said, "I'd take any three of Peppe's boys for the team." As it turned out, Coach Michael got three of them. Bob Clot-worthy won the gold medal at Melbourne; Harper took second, and Glen Whitten, going for broke with two tough dives, mushed both slightly and came fourth.
In the daily run of things, Mike Peppe is not a bashful man; he merely does not bask well in limelight. And as the sports world knows, the football city of Columbus, Ohio, surrounding the university campus, is a poor place for basking for anyone not aiming for the Rose Bowl. A fancy diver doing three somersaults out of a downtown window into High Street would get some notice, but a good quarterback would probably rate as much if he got a foot stuck in the water pail.
Football is the big thing, but the athletic garden at Ohio State is a large one, so other sports flourish. Rival nations have been studying Peppe's divers for some time, yet have not come up with a man better at the Olympics (Skippy Browning of Texas, who won the 1952 Olympic title from Miller Anderson, then, sadly, died in a plane crash last year, was the only diver who consistently topped Ohio Staters in the past 10 years). The fact that the best divers in the world compete in Columbus and rarely attract 500 off-campus customers does not bother Peppe. He is fairly famous around town. On the street, friends and strangers often stop him to ask how the football team is shaping up. There are, of course, among his friends some odd ones who follow swimming and tout prospects. Marine Captain Dick McCutchen, who won a bundle for his smart cooking answers on the $64,000 quiz, often officiates at meets. In the lounge of the Scioto Country Club, Senator John Bricker (R., Ohio), his eyes shining like the gold key dangling from his watch chain, reports to Mike that the son of Senator Barry Goldwater (R., Ariz.) is a hot swimming prospect. Insurance Executive Allen Hale has been known to say aloud in the country club that swimming is more fun to watch than golf or football—and people around Columbus still like Allen Hale.
Without intending it, the Ohio State football giant fetched Peppe and his divers a mean wallop this winter. Last year Ohio State football was judged to have violated the conference code. Instead of penalizing the offending sport, Big Ten officialdom banned all Ohio State teams from collegiate championships—a weird bit of justice, like outlawing wood chopping because someone used an ax on mother. Accordingly Ohio State last weekend could not defend its team title and diving titles at the University of North Carolina (for lack of swimming depth, Ohio would doubtless have lost the team title anyway). This unjust ruling rankles Peppe, and he throws at it the phrase with which he scores all petty officialdom. "That ruling," he says, "is so much 'ackus marackus.' " Unless more ackus marackus pops up, this week at the National Amateur Indoor Championships in Daytona Beach, Divers Don Harper, Glen Whitten and Ron O'Brien should re-establish Ohio State supremacy.
The best way to see how the art reached its advanced state at Ohio is to take a quick plunge into diving history and find where Peppe fitted into it. Before 1900 the U.S. reputation was one of jumping off high bridges. The gymnastically inclined Swedes and Germans were better at acrobatic diving. The English wrote books about it, some terrible indeed. About 70 years ago in a fumbling treatise Henry Sinclair, Honorable Secretary of British Life Savers, pronounced—not noticing the adept Swedes and Germans—that there were three dives: a "header," a "foot first" and a "sitting jump" (under the name "cannon ball" this dive is still practiced by swimming pool bores today). Further along, discussing how to eat cake and smoke a cigar underwater, Sinclair mentions that "a single somersault in the air is possible," but, without suggesting how, he strikes his tent and moves on. In 1899 Captain Davis Dalton, famous for having swum the Channel on his back, recommended that a diver learn by having two friends heave up on his ankles at the moment of plunge. This mastered, then there is nothing finer than a flight from a springboard. "The knack," Captain Davis reports, "is to pull yourself together in the air, turn head downward, straighten out, balance yourself, and enter the water without making a sound louder than 'chug."
In assessing his former coach, Jim Patterson, who won the first national title for Ohio State in 1937, attributes Mike Peppe's success to the fact that he stresses fundamentals and has developed himself as a coach at a pace equal to his divers' talents. Such gropers as Captain Dalton made no impact on the art because they were greatly deficient in these respects: they had no idea of true fundamentals and were, in fact, way behind what divers were actually doing. While people were still reading Captain Dalton's advice that no diver should venture higher than 30 feet, a Columbus, Ohio youngster, Mike Peppe, was taking off the girders of the old Fifth Avenue bridge and rocketing 40 feet into the Olentangy River. The only trick to it, Peppe recalls, was to miss the phone wires. When Captain Dalton's son, in a revised book, was admitting a full somersault possible, young Peppe and many others were doing 1½ somersaults with half twist.
The sport needed someone to lay down fundamentals and give the art some direction. Even if he had been inclined to concentrate on diving then, Mike Peppe would scarcely have had time. As it was he really did not have a boyhood. To scratch up money he was a sports teacher while still a high school learner. For 15 years, as YMCA leader, schoolteacher and camp coach, he made his way in many sports, taking a full year here and spare hours there to get, finally, a diploma from Ohio State and a master's degree from Columbia.
In the early '20s, the U.S. collegiate rule book listed over 20 dives but was fairly vague as to just what was expected of a diver beyond going as high as possible, executing required movements and entering the water cleanly (in that day, the diver's entry was not necessarily vertical, and judges were advised to be tolerant of heavier men). The advice of the day was very vague on how to leave the board. The man who set the art right was a Swede, Ernest Brandsten, coach at Stanford University, who supplied a number of divers to U.S. Olympic teams. Brandsten laid down the basic law: if the hurdle (the final, high jumping step the diver takes to press the board and get his lift) is not perfect, the dive cannot be perfect. Brandsten first set up diving boards over sand pits, so divers could work for hours perfecting board technique and eliminate the drudge of climbing out of water. As Brandsten saw it, a dive was not a series of different movements but a beautiful flow through the hurdle to the top, then a drop out into a smooth entry. It is extreme dedication to and improvements on Brandsten's tenets that make diving a fine art at Ohio State. Under Peppe, a six-time champion who falters in a hurdle goes back to the sand pit.
PERFECTION OFF THE BOARD
A spectator watching Ohio Staters can get some sense of this perfection in fundamentals by blocking out the actual aerial action with his hand and noting only the run, jump, press and lift from the board. An Ohio diver, to oversimplify colloquially, is in the groove from the start.
There are errors a champion can make beyond the board. He can, for one thing, merely forget. The reverse pike dive which Bob Clotworthy is pictured doing on pages 26 and 27 helped him win the Olympic title. Earlier at the Olympic trials it nearly cost him a place on the team. At the top of the dive, instead of bending in a pike, he forgot and tucked. As it happened, in the tension, almost everyone muffed a few, and Clotworthy squeezed on the team as third man. In this day when men can get 3½ somersaults, or 1½ somersaults and 2½ twists, into their flight from a three-meter board, a diver may often "lose" himself and hit flat with a horrid splash that hurts. At the London Games in the I platform dive, Miller Anderson, two-time silver-medal winner from the springboard, struck his feet on the platform, lost himself in the 33-foot fall, threw his head back instead of forward. He came up spitting blood.
Some speculate that at 2½ twists and 3½ somersaults, diving has just about reached its limit. Remembering when officials wanted to rule out anything more than two somersaults as impossibly dangerous, Peppe feels even tougher dives will be done in the future. He also acknowledges the possibility that some of the future stars may not be from Ohio State. "I see where my old diver Bruce Harlan at Michigan gives Ohio State a year more on top," Peppe has said. "He's possibly right. We have never really aimed for anything except perfection, and if we keep after that, I don't really see anything to worry about."