Neil Diamond and Herb Cohen were recruited from Lincoln High School in Brooklyn more than a decade ago to help New York University retain its ranking as the nation's top college fencing team. Diamond wielded a saber impressively throughout his career, but it was Cohen who twice won the NCAA foil title and became an All-America. "Neil was a good fencer and a fine athlete," Coach Hugo Castello recalls, "but he had a guitar he used to take with him on road trips. Fencing was always secondary to his music. If he were in Russia they would have made his fencing come first."
Assuredly, Castello, who is 56, has learned to accept the fate of his sport in a free society. It is just that while Diamond has his guitar—and the gold records and fame that followed—Castello has other passions. His projection of the NYU varsity four years hence is one. Another is his fantasy of turning Willis Reed into the world's épée champion.
"I've already got four freshmen recruited for next year," Castello says. He confidently adds, "They will most likely represent the U.S. in the 1976 and 1980 Olympics." Castello also predicts that two current NYU fencers and five alumni will make the 18-man Olympic team next year. This does not include Ruth White and Sally Pechinsky, NYU sophomores who are candidates for the women's Olympic squad. Miss White won the national foil title as a high school senior. There is no gainsaying NYU's dominion in fencing. This weekend at West Point the Violets defend their Intercollegiate Fencing Association title. Next weekend at the Air Force Academy they are favored to retain their NCAA championship.
Castello recruits fencers on the basis of skill, physical potential and desire. This is where Willis Reed comes in. "Give me—or any other coach—-the kind of athletes the New York Knicks have and I could turn them into world fencing champions," Castello says. "Maybe not now, but when they were 20 years old or younger. Can you imagine what I could do with Reed and that reach? Especially in épée, the weapon for even the crudest fencer. Any touch is legal—the foot, the arm. Once he acquired some skill he could be switched to foil, where just the torso is legal, or saber, where strength is important."
March 8, 1971
The theories of a coach who has won seven NCAA and 10 IFA titles in 23 seasons are worth noting, even though the U.S. has never won a gold medal in Olympic fencing. "There is no reason why this country could not win the eight gold medals it loses every four years," Castello says. "Fencing wasn't introduced into Russia until after the revolution. The determination of the Russians and other foreign athletes to win is the sole reason for their success."
The same may be said of NYU, which finished unbeaten in 11 dual meets this season to run its consecutive streak to 24 over three years. A 19-8 defeat of previously unbeaten Columbia two weeks ago was the most impressive victory for the Violets. The NYU-Columbia event is fencing's version of the Texas-Arkansas game. Spectators even materialized at the Columbia gym—as many as 300, which is a far cry from the usual handful of relatives, fiancées and 13-year-old would-be basketball players who thought the gym would be open for an hour of free play. Any time more than 23 people attend a fencing meet it is a mistake—someone circulated the wrong address for a Neil Diamond concert.
Therein, according to Castello, lies fencing's major obstacle—recognition. "How can we expect a fencer to be dedicated when his feats go unnoticed?" he says. "The day a fencer can walk down Broadway and be recognized as a sports figure will be when we will be able to compete on an international level. I was the IFA foil champion in '35 and '36 and nobody knew it. The next year, when I went to Georgetown Law School, I gave up the sport completely until after the war. And my father was a coach."
A Basque, Julio Castello had planned to retire in Spain after a fencing career that culminated in his selection as coach of the 1924 U.S. Olympic team. Instead he accepted $200 from the student council to become the first—and only other—NYU fencing coach. Five years later the Violets won the IFA championship. Papa Castello, who is now 90, retired in 1947 after NYU won its first NCAA title. By this time Hugo, who had spent five years in the Navy as a judo and karate instructor, was ready to step in. He had the choice of using his law degree or helping his father reorganize the two family businesses, Castello Fencing Equipment and Castello Combative Sports. He decided to follow family tradition and took over both the businesses and the NYU coaching job. The decision was hardly surprising, for fencing runs as thick as blood in the Castello family. Hugo's brother James is an assistant at NYU and his daughter Eileen is married to Kevin McMahon, a former IFA épée champion.
"I never fenced against my father," Castello says. "Now that I think about it, I know he planned it that way. He could have destroyed me. That, of course, is the secret of fencing—confidence. No matter how frantic the other fellow gets, you just have to calm him down and touch him. Make no mistake about it, this is a very violent sport. You are fighting at close quarters. It's like boxing, except that it doesn't matter how hard you hit as long as you hit first." Castello's method of instilling confidence is to make sure his fencers have moves which will work 90% of the time. "That way," he says, "when they need a sure point they can get it."
An electrical system, which Castello Fencing Equipment sells to such opponents as Columbia, determines who has made his first touch. "It has revolutionized the sport," says Castello. "The touch is made, the circuit completed and the light goes on—a very impartial system, quite unlike the officials in my day. I remember they used to say, 'That Hugo, such a beautiful fencer, but he is so young.' How could a young fencer ever win when the officials believed there was no way he could beat an experienced opponent? Now, thanks to this equipment, an unknown like Ruth White can win a national championship."
Castello will be disappointed if NYU does not retain its two major titles. "I don't guarantee we'll win," he says, "but it will be close. As usual, Navy, Penn, Notre Dame, Columbia and Princeton are strong. The Midwest is getting there, too." During a regular season match, Navy took a 13-10 lead over NYU but the Violets won the last four bouts. "I had to do a little coaching in that one," Castello says. "I pretend I'm mad, but it's all calculated." Castello calculates a lot. Much of NYU's strength is its depth, which Castello begins to plot out as many as five years from the bout he happens to be watching. Depth will be a big factor in the IFAs, where the top nine fencers count in the team score, but will be less important in the NCAAs, where the top three determine the results.
Hugo Castello has perpetuated his father's approach to the sport: a relentless devotion to fundamentals. There are times when an entire practice session will be devoted to the execution of the lunge—500 times per fencer. A reporter once called Castello the Vince Lombardi of fencing. Hugo prefers the reaction of a woman he met at a Greenwich Village cocktail party:
"What do you do?"
"I'm the fencing coach at NYU."
"That's nice. But what else do you do?"