Losing the Franchise (a true story)
A few weeks before the Big 10 Swimming Championships of 1971, Sports Illustrated sent one of its most famous photographers to Indiana University in Bloomington to shoot a group photo of four of the fastest swimmers in the world, Mark Spitz, John Kinsella, Mike Stamm and me. In those days, Doc’s Indiana teams dominated NCAA swimming and this one was heading toward its fourth consecutive championship. With a very talented freshman recruiting class, this I.U. team may have been the best one ever. It was predicted that if the I.U. swimming team had been a country, rather than a school, we would have been fourth in the swimming medal count at the 1972 Olympic Games. With Spitz winning 7 gold medals there, that was just about right. In 1970, the I.U. men’s swimmers held 9 out of the 12 individual world records.
There was a catch. Sports Illustrated also promised that if we did something special at the Big 10 Championships, not only would they run the article about the great I.U. swimming team, they would also put the photo of the four of us on the cover. There had not been too many swimmers on the cover of Sports Illustrated up to that point, so it was a big incentive for Doc. The something special was that he needed to have all six finalists (only six swimmers swam in finals in those days) in the 200 IM on the first day be I.U. swimmers. What better way was there to show team dominance? Considering the level of competition in the Big 10, that was a tall order. Nonetheless, Doc told them he thought that we could do that.
As Pat O’Connor neared the exit off of the I-70 to get to Ohio State, it was nearly as frigid inside the car as it was outside. The only steam seemed to be coming out of John Kinsella’s ears, as he was still fuming mad at us. Just before the exit, with the snow still coming down hard, we peered down to the left to see a white station wagon stuck at the bottom of a deep V-shaped meridian dividing the interstate. The tracks in the snow from the station wagon were still visible going down to the bottom of the incline from the opposite side, where the car had obviously gotten stuck. It looked as if the car was trying to make a U-turn down the embankment, but couldn’t make it up the other side. Not many would even consider trying to do that stunt.
As we passed the stranded vehicle, we could see Doc sitting behind the wheel with Marge’s head resting on the dashboard.
“Oh my God!” we said. “It’s Doc and Marge.”
We thought for a second about turning around and trying to rescue them, but realized we would just get stuck. Besides, we really didn’t want Doc to find out that we almost lost the franchise, Kinsella, his prize swimmer. We decided to let a tow truck pull them out and made our way toward Ohio State.
We were the last swimmers to arrive at the old Ohio State pool, where we were instructed to go to warm up for the meet the following morning. With the driving mishap, Doc wouldn’t arrive at the pool in time to warm us up. By the time he got pulled out from the meridian, he needed to go directly to the Big 10 coaches meeting held the night before the first day of competition.
Our manager, Mark Wallace, whom we called Mark-Mark, to help differentiate from Mark Spitz, decided he would warm us up. To us that was laughable, as Mark-Mark didn’t even know how to swim. After about 10 minutes in the competition pool, we all found our way to the old spa pool, located behind the diving boards. It was like something out of the movies of the 1930’s; rectangular with fountains in the corners, warm water and no windows. There was just one big box of soft spongy kick boards at one end of the pool. Otherwise, no other equipment or lane lines were in there.
For the next hour, about 20 I.U. swimmers engaged in one of the most intense and exciting games of kick board war imaginable. The object was not to get hit by a flying kickboard, or you were out of the game. With kickboards flying in virtually every direction through the air, avoiding them was no easy task. At the end of an hour of flipping and hurling kick boards at high speed, Bill Heiss, a tall, strong swimmer from Colorado, was declared the winner. We took a long hot shower in what were likely the best showers of any pool I had ever swum in, then made our way to the hotel.
The following morning, the day of the 200 I.M, Heiss, who was supposed to be one of the six I.U. swimmers in the finals, could not even lift his right arm above his shoulder. It was so sore from throwing kick boards, he was in agony. In the butterfly leg of his IM, he looked like a chicken with a broken wing. He missed making the finals by 1/10th of a second. Instead of six I.U. swimmers in the finals, there were only five I.U. swimmers and one from Ohio State. Doc was not happy.
It didn’t make him any happier when he later discovered that we had almost lost and frozen his franchise freshman swimmer, Kinsella. Before the finals, Doc reamed us out for a good 30 minutes, calling us the most immature group of swimmers he had ever coached. That was before he even knew about the kick board war.
On the cover of the next issue of Sports Illustrated was Wes Parker, the golden glove first baseman for the red-hot LA Dodgers. There was a nice article about Doc and the Indiana Hoosiers swimming team inside the magazine, but the kickboard war kept us off the cover.
Three weeks later, Doc managed to forget all of that, as Indiana won its fourth consecutive NCAA Division I Championships in Ames, Iowa. As expected, the franchise, Kinsella, along with Spitz, Stamm and I, came through with lots of wins and a few American records. Doc was happy again.