At Long Beach State in California, Don Gambril seemed to have everything a swimming coach could want—the use of a modern pool, warm weather, a powerhouse team and the latitude to recruit swimmers from any longitude of the world. So, naturally, some of his rival coaches questioned his sanity when Gambril announced last spring that he was leaving Long Beach to become head coach at Harvard. What was in Cambridge, they wondered, besides cold weather, an antiquated pool, long-haired student/athletes and a swimming program that had produced only three victories over Yale in 30 years?
Just as puzzling was why Harvard wanted Gambril. His reputation as a freewheeling recruiter and strict disciplinarian hardly seemed to fit the Cantabridgian image. With his GI crew cut ("My trademark," he says) and the build of an ex-football center (which he is), Gambril didn't even look like a Harvard man, for heaven's sake. His friends were amused at the thought of Gambril in Cambridge, amid all those tweedy, pipe-smoking intellectuals. As one wrote, "You going to Harvard is about like putting peanut butter on caviar."
On closer inspection, however, it wasn't all that much of a misalliance. According to Gambril, his setup at Long Beach was not as ideal as it looked. "The program was sliding," he says, "and there was nothing I could do about it." Also, Harvard offered him inducements he could not get at Long Beach: a higher salary, a national recruiting setup, no classroom teaching and, says Gambril, "a challenge." On his part, Harvard's athletic director, Robert Watson, was impressed with Gambril's record and personality. "He was the best coach and teacher available," says Watson. Also, Watson was keen enough to realize that in Gambril's case the outward doth not the inward show. "He's very fair," admits co-captain Paul Horvitz. "I think it's to his credit that things have gone so smoothly so far."
When Gambril first arrived at Harvard, he walked into a delicate situation. His predecessor, Bill Brooks, had not done much coaching in recent years because of failing health. Most of the work had been left to an assistant, Benn Merritt, whose easygoing ways were popular with a number of the swimmers. When Brooks retired after last season's 5-5 record, many favored Merritt as his replacement. "He might not have had the technical ability," says Horvitz, "but some felt Harvard didn't need a super, fantastic, outtasight coach, so they were disappointed when Don was named."
Also a little apprehensive. Under Brooks and Merritt, the swimming program had been rather unstructured. The coaches didn't seem concerned with having a big winner, or mind how long the swimmers wore their hair or how seldom they worked out. But the swimmers knew it would be different with Gambril, who had not become one of the world's most successful coaches at Long Beach by permitting students to dictate policy. But Gambril surprised them. He recognized that Harvard was "a lot different from Long Beach" and that "I was the nonconformist here, not my swimmers." So rather than coming on like a Lombardi, Gambril took the pragmatic route. For example, he told his swimmers that long hair was acceptable—provided they wore a bathing cap.
"There is a different type of motivation here," says Gambril. "You can't lay down ultimatums. Every step I've taken has been fair and firm, yet I haven't set down rigid rules—only guidelines. I'm really learning a lot."
So are his swimmers. Most of the upperclassmen quit after Gambril's first few workouts, but those who elected to stay showed marked improvement as Harvard won four of its first five dual meets. One of the best examples of Gambril's influence is senior Greg Huff. "He's not really a good swimmer," says Gambril, "but against Navy he managed to get a point in the 1,000—and we won by a point, 57-56. Now, if he doesn't get another point all year, he feels as if he's made a contribution."
This is the sort of thing that Gambril, 38, a self-made man, admires. He was reared by his grandparents, growing up poor in the inaptly named El Sueno area of Los Angeles. His grandparents lived mainly off Social Security, so Don had to work to help out. He shined shoes, delivered newspapers, swept floors. He had jobs in warehouses, tin-can factories and in a self-service gasoline station, where he was a roller-skating attendant. His main interest through high school, junior college and two colleges was football. "I went to college to play ball," says Gambril. "I didn't have any idea of graduating."
But graduate he did, from Los Angeles State in 1958. He spent his next five years coaching at Rosemead ( Calif.) High School, where his football teams were 34-4-1. He also coached swimming but didn't get into it seriously until 1963-65, when he was at Arcadia ( Calif.) High. In 1964 three of his girls made the Olympic swimming team, one, Sharon Stouder, winning three gold medals and a silver. "All of a sudden," says Gambril, "I was thrust into swimming."
After a stint at Pasadena City College, where he was 19-3 in dual meets, Gambril was named head coach at Long Beach State in 1967. Over the next four years the 49ers were 48-3 in dual meets. They won the NCAA college-division championships in 1968 and were fifth in the university division in 1970 and 1971. In the summertime Gambril coached the Phillips 66 AAU team—consisting mainly of his Long Beach swimmers—to three straight national AAU long-course titles.