The Story of the Closest and Most Controversial NCAAs Ever

The Story of the Closest and Most Controversial NCAAs Ever

By Tom Slear//Contributor  | Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The 1974 men’s NCAA swimming championships are still the closest in history. There were one-point differentials before – Yale over Michigan, 39 – 38, in 1944 and Michigan over Ohio State, 46 – 45, in 1938 – but those meets included a mere 11 events. Only six swimmers or divers scored in each event. By 1974, those numbers had jumped to 18 events and 12 scorers in each. The top teams typically ran up more than 300 points. The probability of one point separating first and second was something akin to throwing a baseball through a keyhole.

(Today, with 21 events and 16 scorers in each, a one-point difference is almost inconceivable. The closest score since the expanded format was in 2002, when Texas beat Stanford, 512 – 501.)

Star Power Aplenty and More Controversy Than Ever
The ‘74 contest offered more than a nail-biting finish. There was star power aplenty. Fourteen of the 24 swimmers on America’s 1972 men’s Olympic team were in the meet. Eleven world record holders from the era were there. The top two teams, Southern California and Indiana, were coached by icons Peter Daland and James “Doc” Counsilman, U.S. Olympic men’s or women’s head coaches four times over.

And, as with any good story, there was a bundle of controversy, more than at any other NCAA swimming championships before or since.

Coming into the meet, Indiana had been the alpha male of college swimming for six years, a perch it assumed from Southern Cal. One or the other had won the NCAA title 10 of the previous 11 years. It’s a hefty understatement to say the two were bitter rivals. Indiana was the favorite in 1974 because of its depth and divers. USC had less of the former and none of the latter, but it had added three blue-chip recruits – John Naber (pictured, above), Joe Bottom, and Rod Strachan – who were ready for prime time.


“Indiana was better on paper” recalls Steve Furniss, a junior that year at USC and a ’72 Olympic bronze medalist and world record holder in the 200-meter IM. “But when their medley relay was disqualified the first day (the breaststroker left early in the preliminaries), that opened the door and gave us the opportunity to duke it out.”

Duking it out actually started the night before when USC missed the scratch deadline for the first day’s events. Daland pleaded with the meet committee and secured a favorable vote despite the rule that specifically prohibited any deviations. Counsilman must have been furious.

“I always voted for the swimmer,” recalls Dick Jochums, a member of the meet committee and head coach at Long Beach State, which hosted the meet at the old Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool, the site of the 1968 men’s Olympic Trials. “I felt bad for Doc, but I thought it was the right decision.”

With Naber winning the 500 free and Furniss taking the 200 IM, Southern Cal finished the first day ahead of Indiana, 106-70. The relay disqualification aside, it was not a good day for Indiana. Its depth was matched by Southern Cal.  Stanchan was third in the 500 free and Jack Tingley, who two days later would rise to mythical heights among Trojan faithful, was seventh. Southern Cal was first, seventh, eighth and ninth in the IM. Indiana outscored Southern Cal in the 50 free, but only by six points.

“We Got Fruck’ed”
Most worrisome for the Hoosiers was senior John Kinsella’s swim in the 500 free. The 1968 and 1972 Olympian finished sixth, nine seconds off his NCAA record. His only explanation is the ill-advised, last-minute scheme cooked up by Counsilman and a sports nutritionist who thought fructose on an empty stomach would moderate blood sugar and enhance performance, or at least something like that. Whatever the concept, Kinsella remembers eating less than he should have and popping enough fructose tablets to cover a lifetime. Crazy, Kinsella remembers, and why try it out at the biggest meet of the year?

Teammate Fred Tyler, another ’72 Olympian, doesn’t think the fructose overload affected him, but he remembers that, “We got fruck’ed,” was a common saying among the Indiana swimmers after the meet.

On the second day, Furniss outdueled Tyler in the 400 IM by just over a second, but the real gain came with other Southern Cal swimmers finishing third, fifth and seventh and outscoring Indiana by 32 points. Indiana recovered 19 points in the 100 back, though Counsilman believed his team should have earned more. Mike Stamm, the defending NCAA champion, was second in the preliminaries only to drop to sixth in the finals with a time 1.2 seconds slower than the morning swim.

Counsilman claimed the touchpad malfunctioned and Stamm should be placed according to hand times. The meet committee met for 15 minutes to consider the appeal before turning him down.

Indiana was 0 – 2 on appeals. Granted, the case for Stamm was weak, but giving Southern Cal a pass on missing the scratch deadline the day before was hard to figure. This was the first NCAA swimming championships held in California. The Southern Cal campus was just down the road. The people in the stands were overwhelmingly for Southern Cal. Rightly or wrongly, the Indiana swimmers lined up the dots. 

An impressive win in the 800 free relay over Washington by .007 seconds (today that would be a tie, but back then thousandths were used to determine finishes), including Tyler’s fastest split in the field, did little to alleviate Indiana’s sense of unease.

The Race of the Meet 
The third, and last, day featured Bottom coming from last at the 50 to win the 100 free and Naber winning the 200 back with an American record. But the story of the day was Tingley in the 1650 free. The Southern Cal senior had set the American record the previous spring at the AAU nationals. After that his training was underwhelming due to bursitis in his shoulder and playing water polo in the fall. 

His fortunes took a turn for the better the night before the 1650 when the Harvard coach failed to submit entry cards for the last day. The sixth seed, Harvard freshman Peter Tetlow, was out and Tingley, who had been seeded ninth, moved into the final heat of the mile. He would swim in the finals session before a full house of biased spectators instead of a few hours earlier in front of a handful of coaches and swimmers.

Tingley knew he was dead meat if he swam in the afternoon. But with the crowd’s noise in the evening muting his burning lungs and aching muscles, he felt he had a chance.

Daland met with Tingley and Furniss in a hotel room a couple of hours before the race. Daland, never one for rah-rah, stepped out of character to get Tingley’s juices flowing: “You’re a senior. This is the last race of your career. You can do it.” Tingley left the room convinced he could win. 

Daland didn’t believe any of it. No sooner did the door close behind Tingley than Daland turned to Furniss and said, “We both know Jack hasn’t done the work. He doesn’t have a chance.”

Washington’s Rick DeMont, a ’72 Olympian, was the favorite in the race, especially given how Kinsella was swimming. Daland implored Furniss to stay with DeMont and try to win at the end. If not, at least get second. Daland strategized precisely. Third wouldn’t be good enough. 

The noise during the race was deafening. Tingley went out fast and hoped for the best. Swimming in an outside lane, he had an unobstructed view of his teammates on the pool deck. He was pumped.

“I could see they were going crazy,” he says, “and it couldn’t be because I was last.”

DeMont made a move on Tingley after the 1000 but couldn’t close the gap. In fact, Tingley was moving away from DeMont at the end. Furniss finished third. He was distraught until he realized that he wasn’t second because Tingley had done the impossible.

Ecstatic, Furniss crossed into an adjacent lane on his way to celebrate with Tingley. Other swimmers were still racing. Tingley immediately signaled Furniss to get back, which he did, but not before some Indiana swimmers saw what he had done and told Counsilman.

Yet Another Appeal
What Furniss did was like a driver passing on the right. It didn’t look right, but it wasn’t illegal. The rules that year allowed for an incursion into another lane. A foul occurred only when one swimmer “touched” another. Even at that, disqualification was at the discretion of the referee.

The bigger problem for Southern Cal was that Counsilman also heard that after Furniss returned to his lane, he got out of the pool, walker over to Tingley’s lane and jumped in to celebrate. Re-entering the pool after a race merited a disqualification. There was no wiggle room. But is that what Furniss did?

Many recall Furniss briefly wandering out of his lane. But when it comes to whether he re-entered the pool, memories fog over. (Tingley and Furniss don’t remember it.) While Furniss fretted over whether he cost his team a national championship, meet officials met with Daland and Counsilman. Once again, Counsilman failed to make a case. After 15 minutes, Daland emerged with his arms raised in the Trojan fight-on sign.

The crowd erupted. Southern Cal escaped a crippling setback yet a seemingly insurmountable hurdle remained. The final for the three-meter diving was coming up and an Indiana diver was seeded third. If he held his place or close to it, Indiana would win the meet, assuming no disqualification in the final event, the 400 free relay.

“The Most Outrageous Thing I’ve Seen in Athletics”
What happened next is what many of those who were there remember most. After the Indiana diver badly missed his first dive, the crowd reacted with raucous approval. The utter disregard for courtesy and protocol caused many to squirm, yet when the diver missed his second dive, the cheering resumed.

“It was the most outrageous thing I’ve seen in athletics,” says Bob Hammel, the Indiana hall-of-fame sportswriter and editor who covered many NCAA swimming championships. “Nothing even comes close. It was like people screaming while a guy is putting in the Masters.”

“I agree,” says Furniss. “The crowd was unsportsmanlike.”

Counsilman must have been beside himself. What happened wasn’t right, but there was no specific rule violation he could cite to the officials.

Clearly rattled, the Indiana diver dropped to 10th and turned the tables in Southern Cal’s favor, though not enough to seal the deal. If Indiana won the closing relay, which was expected – its sprinters finished third, fifth, eighth, and ninth in the 100 free – then Southern Cal would have to beat Tennessee, the defending NCAA champion in the event, for second to win the meet. Otherwise, it would be seven straight for Indiana.

Southern Cal’s relay was a sample of contrasts. Bottom, the 100 free champion, swam first and Furniss, who an hour earlier had finished third in the mile, anchored.

“I kept saying, ‘Why me?’” Furniss remembers.

But he came through, holding off Tennessee’s John Trembley, the NCAA champion and record holder in the 50. Indiana won with an American record. Southern Cal was second and won the meet 339 - 338.

“Those three days were the most memorable and meaningful of my athletic career,” says Furniss.

“Winning the NCAA’s by one point – that’s something I’ll hear about the rest of my life,” says Tingley.

“Disappointing to say the least,” says Kinsella. “It’s not like I can’t sleep at night, but when someone brings it up, there’s a twinge of regret.”

“I felt terrible,” Tyler says. “It was the way that we lost. It’s one thing to get beat straight up, but when there’s controversy? It’s part of sports, but it takes something to get through.” 
 

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