Jewish World Review Jan. 8, 2004 / 14 Teves, 5764
Doc, the greatest swim coach of all time
My first gaucherie committed in our nation's capital came in 1970. I was traveling with Vice President
Spiro Agnew, the acerbic pol who for obvious reasons was trying to coax me away from The American
Spectator to become one of his speechwriters. He was an easygoing fellow, and he remarked to me and
young staffers seated with him that he found signing autographs to be a pleasant task.
I told him I did too, and then heard the groans of the young men around me. Agnew asked when I started
signing autographs. When I was a teen-ager, I replied. I had been a swimmer for Doc Counsilman, and every
swimmer around Doc was thought to be a world record holder. Agnew knew about sports and understood.
Possibly he also understood that my autograph was not quite world class. The other day, Doc died.
Simply stated, Doc was the greatest swim coach of all time, and among history's greatest coaches in
any sport. From 1957 to 1990 as coach at Indiana University, his teams won 23 Big Ten Titles, six consecutive
NCAA titles and seven AAU Outdoor national championships. In the early 1960s, though allowed to compete in
the AAUs, his IU teams were barred from NCAA championships owing to recruiting violations committed by
other IU teams. Were he free to compete in the NCAAs in those years, he almost certainly would have
accounted for three more NCAA titles.
Doc coached two Olympic teams. He trained 48 Olympians from 10 nations who won 46 medals, 26 of
them gold. How many world record holders holding how many world records I can only estimate, but I can say
that in the early 1960s, my teammates broke world records during practice and held anywhere between
two-thirds to four-fifths of all men's world records. In the AAUs, we beat the best national teams in the world and
might well have been able to win a dual meet against the best non-IU swimmers in the world.
Because I came from that athletic milieu, you will understand, perhaps, why I say that of all the virtues, I
have always found humility the most mystifying. God knows, Doc was not a humble man. Yet he was not
arrogant, either. He was a creature of the Enlightenment. Raised on the other side of the tracks in St. Louis in
the 1930s his father being a carnival worker, his mother what we now call a single-parent mom he
graduated 113th from a high school class of 116. But his boyhood hero was Lawrence Tibbett, the great
baritone, and when he left Ohio State University for the Army Air Corps, he scored in the ninety-ninth percentile
on the Army's IQ test.
During the war, he piloted a B-24 on 32 missions during one of which he successfully crash landed into
Yugoslavia. A notorious problem with cras- landing those heavy bombers was that their noses would catch the
ground, causing the plane to flip. On this fated flight, enemy fire destroyed Doc's landing gear and hit a
compartment, leaving the crew one parachute short. Doc ordered his crew to leap, leaving him at the controls.
They refused to do so. All of a sudden, the man his swimmers would one day call the Great White Ph.D. got an
idea. If the crew ran to the back of the plane at the last minute, its weight distribution would be sufficient to keep
the nose from catching and the plane from cartwheeling. As his disabled bomber approached the Yugoslav
fields, Doc rang a bell. The crew scurried to the tail. And all were soon being escorted by partisans from harm's
way. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
I would like to have been with him on that flight. Surely Doc would have had a wry remark as he gave his
orders. Swimming under him was demanding to the utmost "hurt, pain, agony," he would sing. And along with
the agony there was always humor "Reach down in the bread basket and come up with the cookies," was
another of his exhortations. And from Shakespeare, "Screw your courage to the sticking point."
Most of my adult life has been spent in the company of intellectuals of greater or lesser voltage, and it
was Doc, an intellectual of the highest voltage, that sent me out of the swimming pool and into the reading
room. His house was filled with the books of a truly literate man and the appurtenances of a man of science:
technical papers, scientific instruments, tanks filled with fish and reptiles. When we trained at the indoor pool,
opera and concert music lilted from the public address system. When we traveled, he would have a museum to
direct us to.
We kidded him about keeping his art books in his bedroom and out of the public eye, for Doc never
made a display of his artistic interests. Science was a different matter. He often brought conversations back to
science. By suggesting I read Robert Ardery's books such as "The Territorial Imperative" and Desmond Morris'
"The Naked Ape," I suspect he thought he might lure me to science, but I remained obtuse.
Another of Doc's bequests to his swimmers has been a life-long respect for fitness. He himself had
become a national champion breaststroker at Ohio State after the war and before that a national YMCA
handball champion. His interest in sports for health endured. In 1979, he became the oldest man to swim the
English Channel, and the nation's vast master's swimming program for adults owes much to his
encouragement. I have remained fit for four decades, lifting weights, running, playing handball and defying the
crank Puritans who confuse vitality with crapulence thanks to him.
The dominance his swimmers had over the sport will never again be duplicated. There are all the titles I
cited above. In the early 1960s, he revolutionized stroke mechanics in every stroke. In the 1964 Olympic Trials,
seven IU swimmers stood on the eight starting blocks in the breaststroke. Incidentally, that being my stroke, you
might properly deduce that I was the team's eighth stringer. He also insisted on strict amateurism. His IU teams
had none of the wealth that so-called amateur sport has today, and the showmanship was strictly that of quiet
At the 1962 summer nationals, where his swimmers took practically every title, I recall the frustration of
ABC's Jim McKay asking each champion as the cameras whirred, "To what do you attribute your victory?" Our
world record holder in the backstroke set the undemonstrative tone: Wearing a threadbare nondescript
warm-up jacket, Tommy Stock replied, "Superior coaching." It became the IU champions' signature response
and McKay's despair.
The professionalization of amateur sports became one of Doc Counsilman's last challenges. Though
usually phlegmatic, he was surprisingly ardent in his derision of the cataracts of money washing into amateur
sport. In fact, any contaminant that threatened fair-play and what we might term sport for sport's sake angered
He had numerous complaints with the drift of college sports into gaudy show biz and away from the
ancients' ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body. Doc was an idealist disciplined by objective fact and ethics.
In his youth, he had been an ardent New Dealer. In his last days, he remained faithful to the memory of
FDR, but he had come to admire another former New Dealer, Ronald Reagan. As with Reagan, so it was with
Doc he never left the liberals. They left him and Doc, a man devoted to fact and principle, found himself
voting with me and with Agnew.
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