Hoosier Athletics Mourns Loss of Former Coach
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Indiana University and the Hoosiers' men's golf team are mourning the loss of former coach, Bob Fitch.
Fitch passed away at his Bloomington residence April 5. He was 83 years old
Serving as the Indiana men's golf coach for 33 years, Fitch, along with former swimming coach James (Doc) Counsilman, is the longest-tenured IU coach in school history.
Having led the Hoosiers from 1957-89, Fitch coached the program to six conference titles and numerous top-20 rankings. Indiana garnered Big Ten championships in 1962, 1968, 1970, 1973, 1974, and 1975, while finishing as runner-up in 1958, 1964, 1972, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1983 and 1984. The Hoosiers also finished in third place on six different occasions.
Sam Carmichael, the man who would eventually succeed Fitch after his 33-year tenure, notes that the success of the men's golf team began with Fitch.
"Bob had a long and outstanding coaching career at Indiana," he said. "He did a tremendous and successful job with the men's golf team and for Indiana University in general."
Current Indiana head coach Mike Mayer agrees.
"I first met Coach Fitch in 1974 when he recruited me to come to Indiana," Mayer said. "Although it didn't work out playing for him, he gave me the opportunity to work under him and he really gave me my start in this profession. He was a pioneer in recruiting Canadians to come to the United States to play golf, and a tremendous individual."
Under Fitch's direction, the Hoosiers appeared in 12 NCAA tournaments, placing sixth in 1974 and seventh in 1975.
In the 1970s, Indiana men's golf was perhaps a dynasty, While Doc Counsilman had built champions with his swim teams across campus, Fitch did the same on the links.
The Hoosiers captured four Big Ten Championships, including three consecutive titles, from 1970 to 1975.
One of the golfers on the 1974 and 1975 championship teams was Mark Litz.
Litz began his career at Indiana as a pitcher on the baseball team, but after a career-ending injury, Litz could no longer throw, so he decided he wanted to look into golf. With a compromise between the baseball team and Fitch, Litz was able to keep his baseball scholarship and play golf for the Hoosiers.
"I truly wanted to play golf after my injury, and Coach took me under his wing as a project," Litz said. "He had a lot of influence on my career. He gave me a chance, and a direction in life. I had the opportunity to play with All-Americans and on Big Ten Championship teams."
And for Litz, who has remained in Bloomington as a golf professional since 1981, he notes that Fitch was a major influence for others on the team as well.
"A lot of the golfers that were on our teams are still in the golf profession today, which I think is a testament to him," Litz said.
One of those golfers is Byron Comstock, who along with his brother Terry, played under Fitch from 1962-65.
Byron is a member of the PGA and has overseen the construction of several golf courses in the United States, Mexico, and the Philippines throughout the years. He is currently building a nine-hole golf course and driving range with his brothers in Jacksonville, Fla., which will be owned and operated by the trio upon its completion.
"I could go on for quite some time about Coach," Byron said. "He took a chance on me and gave me a full scholarship. He had a lot of faith in me and told me that if I kept working hard that I would be successful."
Success came with Comstock's hard work, as in 1964 he became the first Indiana Big Ten Champion and All-American. He earned second-team All-American accolades along with Senior PGA stars Dave Eichelberger and Jay Sigel.
"He gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and I will never forget that," Byron said. "IU never really had a golf program until Coach got here. He was a great guy, a character, and a very intelligent and gifted person."
Fitch came to IU as an ends coach in football in 1952. Prior to that, he was an All-American football player at Minnesota and set a world record in the discus throw as a track and field performer.
In fact, in an interview with the Des Moines Register in 1969, former Minnesota track and field coach, Jim Kelly, credited Fitch with the advent of the "Minnesota Whip."
The "Minnesota Whip," or "Minnesota Twirl," as Fitch referred to when telling stories to his athletes, was an intricate pattern of footwork that enabled a thrower to build up much more momentum in the small ring. In previous centuries, throwers would spin just once in the circle before letting the discus fly.
Once Fitch had perfected the "twirl," he set the world record at 180 feet 2 3/4 inches in 1946.
Being the true competitor he was, Fitch would always share his world record throw with the golfers on his team. Byron Comstock remembers a time when a player didn't believe or at least questioned Fitch's world record.
"Coach used to have his world record trophy, which was the shape of a discus, sitting on his desk," he recalls. "One day, taken away by the fact someone challenged his story, Coach took his trophy off the desk and was set to prove the story's truth. He went out in front of the clubhouse, spun, and threw his world record trophy into the parking lot. It shattered in pieces, and my brother Terry, who was also on the team, picked all of them up and tried to glue it back together."
But Comstock notes that Fitch really didn't care too much about a trophy.
"Although he was a true competitor, he didn't care about the recognition back then," he said. "Once he set the record, he told us the attention was nice, but he just looked at that as another trophy."
Another trophy maybe, but Fitch was certainly not just another coach.
The captain of the 1963 squad and a member of the 1962 Big Ten Championship team - Indiana's first Big Ten golf championship - Phil White describes the "Bear" as a terrific individual and an extremely hard worker.
"The one thing about Coach is that he always had priorities straight: academics first, athletics second. There was not a nicer and more caring individual than Coach. He gave us all jobs at the golf course, but he was always there more than us combined. He was there before sun-up and there long after sun-down. I have the highest admiration of Coach. He was a great coach, a great counselor, and a great man."
Perhaps White said it best with regard to his former coach, when he penned his memories of being an IU student-athlete:
"Having grown up in Evansville, it was a life-long dream to attend Indiana University. The important thing, upon visiting the campus and meeting Coach Bob Fitch, was the emphasis he placed on meeting academic standards.
"The term 'student-athlete' meant just that--a student first and an athlete second. I learned much more at Indiana University than merely marketing, my major. Coach Fitch impressed upon the team life's most important values: Honesty, Integrity, and Honor, all vitally important.
"In golf, our 1962 team managed to win the Big Ten Championship played at Illinois. This was the first Big Ten Championship IU golf had ever won after a dry run of 42 years. With that victory came better recruiting, and Indiana University has experienced an unbelievable record in both men's and women's golf since that initial championship.
"To illustrate the 'student-athlete' values learned at IU, it should be noted that from our 1962 team are two medical doctors; one corporate president; a chemist; two high school teachers, a golf professional; and me, a career Air Force Officer who flew for 25 years before retiring. As can be seen, the term 'student' was first and foremost in all our minds all because the IU athletics department and Coach Fitch emphasized the scholastic side above the sport."
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