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Many years ago, when footballs were almost round and shortstops wore mustaches, men argued as fiercely as they do today about what college was best in what sport. In that day the arguments seldom included swimming: before World War I there were simply no swimming teams or kings worth defending or knocking. Then along came Yale, followed by Michigan and Ohio State. Today a swimming debate among real believers can be lively, as long as it skirts the special art of diving, for at this point defenders of Yale and Michigan will fall silent and may, in fact, become morose. The divers of Ohio State are better than anybody.
To take the facts coldly from the record book, in the past 20 years the springboard divers of Ohio State have won 79 national titles. Everybody else has won 21.
A championship record of 79 wins and 21 losses is the sort of percentage many colleges have sought in other sports by swinging the ax at a succession of coaches. Ohio State's diving supremacy has been achieved by leaving the coach's head alone. The University started competitive swimming in 1931 with a 32-year-old coach named Michael Peppe, an eager, compactly built all-round athlete who stood 5 feet 4 inches with his head on. Mike Peppe is still coach, he still has his head but not much hair, he is still fairly compact, but shaped now at age 59 a bit more like a barrel. Because his present duties entail more than coaching, he now ranks as professor and rates the proper fancy title Director of Swimming. The title is academic at this point. He has long ranked high as a swimming coach and in a class by himself as diving master of the world.
A master of a sport as precise as diving might be expected to have some qualities of an Old World fencing maestro—a flinty eye, the taut nerves of a cat, a cavalier flair and a temper that can blow higher than a Roman candle. Mike Peppe has quick moments, but his eyes are a soft mahogany, and his mien and pace are usually that of a Newfoundland dog. In a tough season he behaves like a man who will live through the next 20 years if his divers lose everything except their trunks.
Beyond his years of experience, other coaches pick two things that perhaps serve Peppe best: firstly, a seldom obvious but deep love of perfection, which he never achieved himself as an uncoached diver 40 years ago; secondly, a remarkably quick eye to spot the hidden, split-second error that is marring a near-perfect dive. Joe Hewlett, the Ohio coach of gymnastics, a sport with some affinity to diving, has a point to add. "Peppe doesn't over-coach," Hewlett remarked recently. "The fault of most of us today is over-coaching. When a coach keeps saying 'Do this,' where does a boy get insight into his ability? You'll see Peppe going over fundamentals with his best divers one day, then you'll see him leaving the kids to coach each other, so they beat their brains out and get some insight into diving."
Rival coaches think well of Peppe but wish him less success—starting as soon as possible. None of them likes to send a team to the collegiate championships knowing Ohio State has 20 to 30 points for sure in diving. It is reasonable to expect that Ohio State's diving strength will diminish. For one thing, some of Mike Peppe's divers are now coaching elsewhere, notably 1948 Olympic Champion Bruce Harlan at Michigan. But there is no sign of decline yet. In fact, it has been less than a year since Ohio State made its greatest show of strength in a single competition, and that showing was a corker.
Because it came just two weeks before the Olympic trials, the National Outdoor championship at Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio last July naturally attracted a large field. Dartmouth Coach Karl Michael, who served as Olympic coach, considered it the finest field ever. There were 40 competitors—28 who had not gone to Ohio State and 12 who had. When the field was cut to 12 for the finals, there were nine Ohio Staters left. Bob Clotworthy, Ohio State, class of '53, won; the other five medal winners were Don Harper, Glen Whitten, Jerry Harrison, Miller Anderson and Morley Shapiro, all undergrads or grads of Ohio State. Remembering that picture editors do not care much for boy divers, to make the picture of the diving winners more palatable the local junior chamber of commerce brought on two bathing-suit cuties to pose with the boys. While the girls kissed the boys, and cameras snapped, someone realized Ohio State had made a six-man sweep. The cry went up, "Get Mike Peppe for a picture." Peppe was close at hand, merely hidden by taller men. While the photographers fired away at him, Peppe stood submissively, face somewhat red from sun and possibly embarrassment, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, looking out of the top of his eyes so he seemed shorter than he is. The total effect of the diving master at this grand moment was that of Walt Disney's bashful dwarf meeting Snow White for the first time.
TRIUMPH AT MELBOURNE
Olympic Coach Karl Michael waved a hand at the posed array of diving talent. "Right now," Michael said, "I'd take any three of Peppe's boys for the team." As it turned out, Coach Michael got three of them. Bob Clot-worthy won the gold medal at Melbourne; Harper took second, and Glen Whitten, going for broke with two tough dives, mushed both slightly and came fourth.
In the daily run of things, Mike Peppe is not a bashful man; he merely does not bask well in limelight. And as the sports world knows, the football city of Columbus, Ohio, surrounding the university campus, is a poor place for basking for anyone not aiming for the Rose Bowl. A fancy diver doing three somersaults out of a downtown window into High Street would get some notice, but a good quarterback would probably rate as much if he got a foot stuck in the water pail.