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That old sinking feeling

Feb. 12, 1973
Feb. 12, 1973

Table of Contents
Feb. 12, 1973

Roof Raiser
Un-Golf Classic
Robert E. Snopes
Group Therapy
College Basketball
Swimming
  • By Morton Sharnik

    Blacks lack buoyancy, as Dr. James Haines has demonstrated, but his Morehouse College swimmers have overcome gravity and the opposition

Tennis
Glub, Glub
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

That old sinking feeling

Blacks lack buoyancy, as Dr. James Haines has demonstrated, but his Morehouse College swimmers have overcome gravity and the opposition

By Morton Sharnik

In the water the Morehouse Tiger Sharks live up to their awesome nickname: they are, beyond a doubt, the best black-college swimming team in the nation. But on the road they look more like the Morehouse Sardines, traveling with 15 swimmers, one diver and one extra-large coach packed into three station wagons. And it was in this compressed fashion that they departed Atlanta one morning last month for the 173-mile trip to Montgomery, where they would swim Alabama State and record their 110th victory in 115 meets.

This is an article from the Feb. 12, 1973 issue Original Layout

But winners do not complain. At least, not those who perform for the imposing Dr. James Haines, who is both swimming coach and head of the Morehouse physical education department.

"It's a matter of perspective," explains the 6'4", 225-pound Haines. "My swimmers know they are not Mark Spitz. And I certainly am not Dr. Counsilman. We are simply the biggest fish in a very small pond." From Haines' point of view this situation will prevail until he has produced world-class swimmers, black Olympians. (There was only one black finalist at Munich, Enith Brigitha of The Netherlands.) The modest appraisal also reflects Morehouse tradition. The school prides itself on its long, illustrious record of academic achievement rather than the records of its teams. Intellectual arrogance is the way those at rival black schools describe it. As the saying goes, you can always tell a Morehouse man, but you can never tell him a damn thing. Be it pride or arrogance, Morehouse has grounds for its pretensions. Sixty-two percent of its faculty have doctorates (Haines' is from Springfield), more than any other black college of university in the country.

Any reference to alumni automatically begins with Nobel Prizewinner Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and includes Detroit Judge George Crockett, Julian Bond (a former backstroker for Haines) and Historian Lerone Bennett. As an afterthought, long after, Donn Clendenon, the ex-New York Met and World Series hero, will be identified as a Morehouse man. Art Walker, Olympic triple-jumper, is usually overlooked. "You could call Morehouse the black Harvard," said an alumnus recently, trying to define the character of the 105-year-old college. "You're close, brother, but confused," interrupted a young grad. "Harvard is the honky Morehouse."

In any event the student body is wild about the swimming team. As many as 800 of the 1,150 students jam the pool for meets, and there is talk of knocking out a wall so additional bleachers can be erected.

"The idea of black swimmers was so new, so revolutionary that at first the fans didn't know a hot time for the 100 from a squeeze bunt," says Haines. "All they knew was that we were winners but that was enough." For the other members of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference it is too much. Morehouse has won the league championship 13 times in the 15 years it has had a swimming team.

No one in the SIAC is more frustrated than Alabama State's Freddie Wyckoff. "Beat Dr. Haines and you've taken a chunk out of a legend," says Wyckoff, who has been trying without success for 11 years, four as a swimmer and seven as a coach. "When I whip Morehouse, I'm going to quit. It's my goal. My one goal. Everybody's aim in the SIAC is to beat Morehouse and Doc Haines. But I'm the one that's going to do it."

Just before his most recent attempt Wyckoff felt that early retirement was at hand. In fact, he claimed to have his letter of resignation written. Wyckoff was even more certain that his day had come when the Christmas-fat Morehouse swimmers got out of their station wagons. Indeed, he was so delighted that he began what Morehouse men call "woofing." Now woofing can be many things. In this instance, it was pure psychological warfare, as opposed to the jive lying that Texas Southern gets into when its swimmers and coach claim that Morehouse is afraid to put its laurels on the line and schedule them.

"Hi, Coach, tough trip?" said Wyckoff, beaming. "As a matter of fact, Freddie, it was very pleasant, only took us 2½ hours," replied Haines, exaggerating amiably. "By the way, how's that good diver of yours? He ought to be graduated by now." "Oh, you mean my national-caliber man," replied Wyckoff, improving his diver's ranking several notches. "He has two more years of eligibility, so I'm going to keep him over for his master's."

The noon meal, less than two hours before the meet, was bountiful and very heavy: ham, yams, peas and bread. "Morehouse, eat up!" Wyckoff bellowed. "Be my guests. Have seconds. Yes, sir, I do believe this is my day."

But the best-laid tables can come to naught, which is what happened to Wyckoff's. He had figured Haines would ease up in the 400-meter medley relay, the first event, and load up for the 400 freestyle relay, the last. It did not work out that way. Haines sent his Pistols (his aces) out to win the medley. Backstroker Joe Lebron, "the Rose of Spanish Harlem," opened up a lead of half the length of the pool and the race was never in doubt.

Haines gave State the 1,000, saving his best swimmers for the 500 and 200. That was not the way Freddie Wyckoff had it figured. State's white distance man was a good one, "but I'm going to put my Pistols on him and shut him out in the 500," said Haines. It was a triumph of physical unfitness. Although neither Winston Mardis of Chicago, one of what Haines calls his Midwestern Mobsters, nor Byron Richardson, a New York Slick from Jamaica, had spent much time in the pool the previous month, they went one-two in the 500. The shocker came, however, when Gerald Oliver, a University of Michigan transfer, won the 200 breaststroke. With his chin whiskers, Oliver resembled Lenin biting into a bad anchovy as he gulped for air, but he set a pool record of 2:46.9.

Andrew Brown, a high school All-America at Williston (Mass.) Academy, won the 50 and the 100—establishing a pool record of 0:58 in the latter—making the score Morehouse 42, Alabama State 27. A bit later Haines called a halt to the slaughter. "Now we can't lose, so let's leave them some pride," he said. "That's something the black schools haven't learned yet. The courtesies. You don't pile it on when you have a meet won." With that Haines called to his diver, Dorsey Hillard, an engineering student who was doing his homework, and told him to stick with his book. Morehouse would allow State's "national-caliber" diver to put on an exhibition. Haines would forfeit. But even while trying to hold down the score Morehouse won the 400 freestyle relay with a dud team and took the meet 68-40.

"I don't know how you do it, but you won again," said Wyckoff. "Congratulations. Looks like you're going to grab another title."

How Haines does it is a question a lot of schools have asked. "It is just a matter of having an excellent feeder system," he says. His talent is fed in by his former swimmers in New York and the Midwest. "I stay away from the creek swimmers," says Haines. "When a Morehouse man in the South tells me there's a kid in his town who can really do it, I know he is not a competition swimmer. Kinesthetically, the kid can't make it. It takes competitive swimming and first-class training, and you don't get that paddling around in creeks."

Even so, some of his Pistols are walk-ons or close to it, like Gerald Oliver. "At Michigan I swam for an excellent coach," he says. "A great man, but I was a hired hand. A freak. A black swimmer! At Morehouse swimming is just an extracurricular activity, not my primary function. An all-black environment is probably just as unnatural as the whiter-than-white ones at the big schools, but many of us need the security of a black environment today." Darryl Oliver, a transfer from Williams, had come to Morehouse for the same reason, and to swim for Haines.

"Dr. Haines is a man we can identify with," says Captain Mike Wright. "He's the Big Daddy. He's really too busy to give us the time we need, but then he'll come down nights and on weekends to open the pool. He does it all. Helps us with our problems, gets us out of jail, and keeps us at the books."

What he does not do is allow his swimmers to cuss. Not so much as a damn is said in his presence. Nor are they allowed to call him Pinky, which was Haines' nickname when he played baseball with Josh Gibson on the Homestead Grays and during his brief stint with the Globetrotters.

In a large way, Haines has become an institution on campus. He not only founded the swimming team but lobbied successfully for the pool. A new field house was planned 17 years ago, but without provision for a pool. It was not surprising: blacks just were not swimmers "There were a whole bunch of theories that I don't believe would hold up under the microscope." says Haines. "Like their bone density was wrong, or the fat-to-muscle ratio was unfavorable."

These theories were as well-founded as the one Gerald Oliver heard a TV personality spout and that made him determined to become a swimmer rather than a basketball player: blacks can't swim because there are too many crocodiles in the Congo. What is evidently true is that blacks are not buoyant. At Morehouse, Haines tested 841 subjects in the Red Cross jellyfish float. The outcome was that 73% couldn't.

"The results were purely descriptive, not inferential," says Haines. "I don't know why they were sinkers, but they were." Since then he has conducted what he calls "randomization tests" at Morehouse and during his two years in Africa as head of the phys-ed department at the University of Nigeria. These bore out his original conclusion—blacks lack buoyancy. In 1967 Haines presented his findings in a paper entitled The Incidence of Specific Gravity as Found Among Selected Negro College Males.

Despite this sinking feeling, Haines is optimistic about the future of black Olympic swimmers. "All other factors being equal, we shall overcome," he says. And he wants to be the man behind the first black man named to the U.S. Olympic swimming team.

"Do that and the U.S. Government will designate you a natural resource, like the Brazilians did with Pelé," woofed Haines' son Skip. "I'll buy that," said Haines.

TWO PHOTOSBREASTSTROKER GERALD OLIVER BRAIDS HIS HAIR TO "FEEL THE WATER," BUT COACH HAINES RARELY UPBRAIDS HIS TIGER SHARKS