The history of intercollegiate swimming is one of dynasties. Through the first 31 years of NCAA competition, only five schools won championships—Ohio State (11), Michigan (10), Southern California (5), Yale (4) and Stanford (1). Now Indiana has taken over. The Hoosiers have won three straight NCAA titles, will add a fourth at Ames, Iowa next weekend, and the end of their reign is not in sight. In fact, a good case can be made for the 1971 Indiana swimming team being the best college team ever—in any sport.
How can a swimming team be compared with, say, the Oklahoma football teams that won 47 straight, the USC track teams that took nine consecutive NCAA championships or the UCLA basketball teams that have won six of the last seven NCAA titles? This way. If Indiana swam against an all-star team from the rest of the world, the Hoosiers very likely would win. In the same setup Oklahoma, USC and UCLA in their respective heydays almost certainly would have lost. Few college football, track or basketball teams have ever had four All-Americas at once. Indiana has four—Mark Spitz, Gary Hall, John Kinsella and Mike Stamm—who also rank among the top five or six swimmers in the world. Together they own or share six world and 17 American records.
Spitz, 21, holds world records in the 100-meter freestyle (:51.9) and the 100 butterfly (:55.6), and he shares the 200 freestyle record (1:54.3) with Don Schollander. Hall, 19, has world records in the 200-meter butterfly (2:05) and the 400 individual medley (4:31). Kinsella, 18, holds the world record for the 1,500-meter freestyle (15:57.1). Stamm, 18, is the top U.S. backstroker (:58.5 for 100 meters and 2:06.3 for 200).
At one time or place each of the four has been proclaimed the world's top swimmer in one stroke or another, and each has collected enough trophies and medals to displace the water in Indiana's Royer Pool. Kinsella is this year's recipient of the AAU's James E. Sullivan Award, given annually to the nation's top amateur athlete, while Hall gained a similar honor from the Helms Foundation. When Hall accepted the "Swimmer of the Year" award from the Columbus Touchdown Club (which Spitz won for 1969), he apologized for the absence of his coach, Dr. James E. Counsilman, by saying, with more truth than humor, "We have a meet tonight against Michigan, our toughest of the year, and at Indiana it seems that swimmers are more expendable than the coach."
March 22, 1971
The Big Four, plus other formidable swimmers from the U.S., Spain, Canada and Norway, give every practice in Royer Pool the aura of an international meet. It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that Counsilman's swimmers get tougher competition in their daily workouts than they will receive in the NCAAs. "But we still have a challenge," says Kinsella, who, although only a freshman, is the team leader. "We don't want just to win, we want to overwhelm."
At best, the presence of Indiana's Great American Dream Machine presents problems. "They're a cinch," says Coach Peter Daland, of Southern Cal, whose teams have finished second to Indiana in the last two NCAAs, "so you have to set realistic goals. You can't kid your squad that they have a shot at beating them. They don't."
At worst, some coaches are complaining that Counsilman has ruined college swimming by cornering the market on talent. It is a fact that in most dual meets, Indiana wins by such lopsided margins that Counsilman has got in the habit of allowing his swimmers to compete in whatever events they want. Says one bitter Midwestern coach, "It's not good in any sport for one team to dominate. I know the sport has risen everywhere and that all teams are better, but I see a possibility that it could tail off at other schools if they can't be competitive with Indiana."
"Hah!" retorts Counsilman. "They didn't talk that way when I came here and Michigan beat us 62-19 or when Peter Daland had Roy Saari and the rest at USC. When other coaches were attracting all the great swimmers, I didn't cry. When I hear all this talk, it makes me think of a quotation I read from Montaigne, something like 'Fame and serenity can never be bedfellows.' "
In the process of building his dynasty Counsilman, 50, has become known to his athletes, friends and family as a genius, coach, professor, scientist, author, physiologist, psychologist, psychoanalyst, nutritionist, businessman, photographer, anthropologist, gourmet, world traveler, comedian, metaphysician and all-round swimmer—Spitz recently clocked Doc in 1:15 for the 100-yard IM. Even his detractors concede that Counsilman elevated swimming from a sport to a science. His book, The Science of Swimming, has sold more than 50,000 copies in six languages, while pools around the world are equipped with work-out clocks that Counsilman manufactures in the basement of his palatial new home. Thanks to these and other business interests, he is one of the few coaches who have been able to make money out of swimming.
A man of tremendous energy and ambition, Counsilman is uncommonly devoted to swimming and his swimmers. His first practice usually begins at 7 a.m., and his last often doesn't end until after 9 p.m. The Hoosiers probably put in more hours and yardage than any college team, yet they seem to love every excruciating moment. Even the stars appear to take an almost masochistic delight in competing for the candy and crackerjacks that Counsilman doles out for excellence. He encourages everyone to call him "Doc" (he has a doctorate in phys ed from Iowa), and he is as adept at mending a bruised ego as he is at recommending a cure for a faulty stroke. His swimmers feel free to tease Counsilman about his big belly and equally big appetite, to ask his advice on a matter of love, to drop by his home to study, watch TV or to be served his wife Marge's homemade lasagna.
Everyone around Counsilman seems to love him, but no one—except, perhaps, his wife—claims to wholly fathom him. "I come on easygoing," says Counsilman, "but I'm really not. I just don't show my aggressions overtly."
"Most people don't understand Doc," says one of his Big Ten colleagues. "I don't. Maybe I don't understand that kind of dedication. But the people who do understand him include all of his swimmers, and this is what counts, this is what puzzles me. If he is as bad as most people say, I don't see how he could fool the kids."
Many of his fellow coaches denigrate Counsilman. "Doc's hated," says one coach. "He's unethical. I've never heard anybody rooting for Indiana or Counsilman." Another says, "He's almost an eccentric. He can be completely ruthless when it comes to recruiting. I know he shades ethics; everybody's shading it today." Most of this talk smacks of sour grapes. It is a matter of record that Indiana swimmers were not allowed to compete in the NCAAs for three years (1961-64), but that was because of recruiting violations in football, not swimming. Various allegations have been filed against Counsilman and Indiana through the years but, says Doc, "They never came up with anything."
Counsilman's interest in swimming goes back to Blewett High School in St. Louis, where in 1938 he graduated 113th in a class of 116. "I was suffering from a poor self-image," he says. He had been captain of the track team in high school, but after graduation he began hanging around the downtown YMCA, where a coach named Ernie Vornbrock interested him in swimming. "Ernie convinced me that I was human," says Counsilman, "that I could go to college."
Counsilman enrolled at Ohio State in 1941, and at the end of his freshman year he was a national AAU breaststroke champion. But in his sophomore season he was called into the Army Air Forces where he became a B-24 pilot and flew 32 missions before being shot down over Yugoslavia in 1944. For his exploits on that flight he got the DFC.
Returning to Ohio State after the war, Counsilman captained the NCAA champion teams in 1946-47, but he no longer excelled. "I was as good when I came back," he says, "but everyone else was better." Today there is conflicting opinion about Counsilman's relationship with his coach at Ohio State, Mike Peppe. "As far as I knew, we were good friends," says Counsilman. "Mike was never around that much. The kids worked out mainly on their own."
Peppe, now 74 and retired, has different memories. "Counsilman was probably the most disloyal kid I ever had," he says. "When he came back he had personal problems, was frustrated, kind of bitter. He couldn't understand why he wasn't any better. He was a big shot, though, with the kids on our team. They all liked his war stories, elected him captain. We couldn't handle him. He thought I was a lousy coach and he told the kids that.... Doc was belligerent, traitorous."
After graduating Counsilman was an assistant at Illinois and Iowa. In 1952 he took the head coaching job at Cortland State in New York, and there developed George Breen, who was the first American to break 18 minutes in the 1,500. In 1957 Counsilman came to Bloomington and succeeded the late Robert Royer as head coach.
By 1961 Counsilman had assembled what he considered to be the finest team in the country, one led by breaststroker Chet Jastremski. But it never got to compete in the NCAAs because of the football team's recruiting transgressions. The ban was lifted in 1964, but it was too late: most of the top swimmers had gone to other schools and Counsilman had to rebuild from scratch.
The groundwork for Indiana's dynasty was laid in 1965 with the arrival of Charlie Hickcox. By the spring of 1968 Counsilman had turned him into the No. 1 college swimmer in the country, which Hickcox showed by leading Indiana to its first NCAA title. In the Mexico City Olympics, Hickcox was the top male swimmer with three gold medals and a silver. He was so indebted to Counsilman that he became a sort of floating advertisement for Indiana swimming. It was through contact with Hickcox and Indiana's other Olympians that Spitz, Hall and Kinsella first entertained thoughts of going to IU.
Each year Counsilman has the use of five full scholarships and, surprisingly, his recruiting method is really no method at all. "It's weird," says Kinsella. "There's no pressure. When I came for a visit, all Doc did was tell jokes." Nevertheless, many of his colleagues cite the Spitz case as the classic example of Counsilman's ruthlessness. Before the '68 Olympics, Spitz was considered the personal property of Coach Don Gambril of Long Beach State. But following his return from Mexico City, Spitz announced he would attend Indiana. Some coaches still accuse Doc of pirating Spitz away from Gambril, but Spitz says, emphatically, "It was my own initiative that brought me here." Shortly after Spitz enrolled in January 1969 the NCAA decreed that freshmen were eligible for varsity swimming, and Spitz won three gold medals as Indiana took NCAA title No. 2.
The competition for Hall also was fierce. A doctor's son from Garden Grove, Calif., Hall was considered a coach's dream—talented, introspective and intelligent. He was sought by the top swimming schools, but Doc's easygoing style won out. "I'm not the type who's too impressed with high-pressure tactics," says Hall. "I finally decided that all the schools were academically suitable, so it came down to swimming." Hall was sold on Counsilman's scientific expertise. "I wanted to study physics and relate it to swimming," he says.
Getting Stamm and Kinsella was made easier for Counsilman by the fact that both swam for his protégés in AAU programs. Stamm's coach in San Diego was Mike Troy, who became Doc's first individual Olympic gold medalist by winning the 200-meter butterfly at Rome in 1960. Whem Stamm visited Indiana he liked Counsilman, but he also was impressed by the revolving door in the Memorial Union Building. "I had never seen one except in the movies," he says. "When I first went through I got in the same compartment with another guy."
Kinsella's AAU and high school coach at Hinsdale, Ill. was Don Watson, who has known and worked with Doc since the days of the St. Louis YMCA. Kinsella was first brought to Doc's attention when he was 14, and he often went to Bloomington in the summer to work out. Up until the last moment, however, Counsilman was afraid that Kinsella might be stolen away by Southern Cal. Counsilman remembers well the night that Kinsella called to announce his decision.
Kinsella: "Doc, I've made up my mind, but before I tell you I want you to know that we'll always be friends."
Counsilman (swallowing hard): "Oh, so then you've decided on USC?"
Kinsella: "No, I'm coming to Indiana. I just wanted to shake you up."
Kinsella has also had a profound effect on Indiana's swimmers. Says Hall, "John has changed the whole attitude in workouts. He's so much better in practice than any swimmer I've ever known. If I can keep up with him, that's an accomplishment." Too, Kinsella provides the sort of inspirational leadership that Hickcox did. Kinsella was one of the few top swimmers who made the trip to Ohio State in January during exams, a meet the Hoosiers won by a mere 13 points. When Indiana fell behind midway, he announced that he would swim a new event—the 100 free. "I've never lost a meet in high school and I'm not going to lose now," he said. He won the 100.
When Indiana began practicing last fall the swimming world was curious to see whether four world-class swimmers could compete happily on the same team. Some predicted that in the battle for headlines and records, Indiana's dynasty would sink. But so far everything has gone swimmingly. "There's no friction," says Hall. "We're all so versatile that we don't have to swim against each other all the time. I think working out together helps us all get better." To maintain this camaraderie, Counsilman takes certain precautions. For one, he tries to give each swimmer his due amount of attention, but he also handles each differently. While Kinsella is a tireless worker who never has to be told when or how to practice, Spitz needs to be coaxed, prodded and challenged. And where Hall lives mainly within himself, Stamm is emotional and tends to get easily depressed.
Another way Counsilman maintains harmony is by keeping his superstars from competing head to head in workouts and meets. "I teach them to submerge any aggressive tendencies within the group," he says. "I give them a lot of physical stress but not too much psychological stress. I don't drive them to set records." Nevertheless, egos will be egos, and problems sometimes pop up.
"Early in the season, it's like everybody's good friends," says Spitz, "but now I can begin to feel a little tension. When any of us intrudes on the others' territory, it gets kind of hairy. Like a few weeks ago Gary was getting ready to swim the 200 fly. I asked him how he thought he would do. 'Oh, I just hope to finish,' he said. But I knew he was really thinking, 'I'm going out there and beat your record.'
"And I think it hacks John off when he works out so hard all the time and I work out spasmodically, but we turn in the same times for certain events. Like one day in practice we were swimming 50s side by side. It got so that we were swimming against each other. Every time we'd touch we'd look at the clock to see what the other guy had done. Finally we had to split up and swim on different sides of the pool."
Sometimes, too, Counsilman finds his stars challenging his authority. The other day Spitz announced that he wouldn't get his hair cut before the Big Ten meet, which Indiana won for the 11th consecutive time, compiling a record 601 points and setting 11 conference, five NCAA and one American record. "He was mainly just kidding around," said Counsilman, "but they like to test me, too." In these cases Counsilman brings into play some of the principles he has learned by reading such books as The Human Zoo. Indeed, he is fond of drawing an analogy between human social relationships and those of beasts. "A baboon does not always dominate because of physical strength," says Counsilman. "What the baboon does is to use psychology, his posture, things like that. It's the same with a coach. I have to dominate without seeming domineering." Spitz got his hair cut.
In terms of morale, Counsilman's most sensitive problems are not with the four stars, but with the group just beneath them. Swimmers such as Peder Dahlberg, Jack Horsley, Pat O'Connor, Larry Barbiere and Gary Conelly are good enough to be standouts at almost any school; at Indiana they go virtually unnoticed. "We try to keep from limiting the publicity to our four or five top swimmers," says Counsilman, "and we try to give everyone his share of recognition within the team." Another problem is the NCAA rule that restricts championship squads to 18 swimmers and divers, with a diver counting as half a person. What that means at Indiana is that Counsilman almost surely will have to leave home a couple of swimmers who could earn points in the NCAAs. "This creates a lot of mental anguish for me and some of the boys," says Doc, "but I guess when they consider what it means to be a part of this team, they decide to take their chances on making the 18-man NCAA squad."
Ironically, Counsilman has reached every swimmer except one—his eldest son, Jim Jr. For the last two years young Counsilman has been a medal-winning breaststroker at the NCAAs, but he went to Europe last summer and didn't return. He is now living and studying in England. Some coaches claim Jim Jr. rebelled against his father's arduous workouts, but Counsilman denies it. "I never felt I pushed Jimmy too hard," he says. "In fact, I possibly didn't push him hard enough. He was confused about today's problems, like a lot of kids. In four semesters he had four majors. He just didn't know what he wanted to do."
Many coaches have convinced themselves that swimming is now in a Counsilman cycle and that the pendulum will eventually swing from Indiana to some other school. "It can't go on forever," says UCLA's Bob Horn. He's right, but the swing is not foreseeable immediately. Only three seniors—none stars—will be lost from this year's team, and Counsilman already seems to have an in with many of the high school standouts. Even Indiana's swimmers are wondering how long Counsilman can keep it up. "Doc is the guy who really has the pressure on him," says Barbiere. "He is supposed to have the greatest team ever. Well, what happens if he loses a meet? Then he looks like a dummy."
"Fame and serenity can never be bedfellows," says Counsilman, with as serene a smile as he can muster.