James 'Doc' Counsilman
January 4, 2004
Bloomington, Ind.- Former Indiana swimming coach James 'Doc' Counsilman passed away Sunday in Bloomington. Counsilman, who was 83, had been suffering from Parkinson's Disease.
He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Marjorie.
Counsilman was arguably the greatest swimming coach ever and for good reason. 'Doc' , as he was referred to for his doctorate's degree in physiology from the University of Iowa, led the Hoosiers to six straight NCAA Championships from 1968-73. The Counsilman-led Hoosiers won 23 Big Ten titles during his 33-year tenure, including 20 straight championships from 1961-80.
Upon the announcement of Doc's retirement Bob Hammel, long-time editor of the Bloomington Herald Times and nationally recognized writer, wrote, "Grade him by individual achievement, by team achievement, by impact on the sport. By performance in a tiny, tight time frame, or over two generations. However the grading is done, it comes out the same: Doc Counsilman retires as Indiana University's men's swimming coach with standing as the greatest coach in the history of the sport - and perhaps all sports."
Counsilman's career record at Indiana is unmatched in any sport. In his 33 years, he went 285-41, including 18 undefeated seasons, 12 of which came in a row from 1967-78. 60 of Counsilman's swimmer went on to be Olympians, including arguably the best swimmer in U.S. history, Mark Spitz. Spitz seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics are still a record. Counsilman also coached 29 individual NCAA Champions in 49 events and 10 national championship relays.
Doc's success went beyond Indiana University as well. He coached the 1964 and 1976 Olympic teams. During those Olympics, U.S. swimmers captured 48 medals (17 gold, 18 silver, 13 bronze), including five gold medal relays.
He was inducted into the International Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame in 1976. He was President of the American Swimming Coaches Association as well as two-time National Coach of the Year in 1969 and 1971. He also received a Certificate of Merit by FINA, the international swimming federation, in 1981.
Counsilman took a mediocre swim program and transformed it into one of the greatest dynasties in collegiate sports. Doc took the sport of swimming to new levels, not only at Indiana with his research and contributions that are still used by today's athletes. Counsilman's book, The Science of Swimming, had been published in over 20 languages. The book is considered the Bible of competitive swimming.
Doc's innovative coaching style allowed him to build a dynasty that not only won six national championships, but finished in the top five at the NCAA Championships on 17 occasions. Counsilman based his coaching style on Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory.
"We all need love and affection; we need to feel a part of a group," Counsilman said. "We all have the need to express our creativity, and we have a need for recognition. Of course if a young man is very successful, he may require a little head shrinking. But I would never strip a young man of his dignity."
He based his disciplinary system on "peer presence," a correlation in which the supervisors of the team are the captains. Counsilman provided his swimmers freedom to be themselves within the disciplinary system. Doc's coaching style was self-admittedly mild mannered.
The Counsilman stamp is still on the Hoosier program today both in the Counsilman/Billingsley Aquatic Center and through the coaching techniques and philosophies that current Indiana head coach Ray Looze uses. Counsilman oversaw the development of the aquatic center that was completed in 1996.
"He was the greatest swimming coach ever and no one would argue that point," Indiana head swimming coach Ray Looze said. "We need to show our alumni, our swimmers, our recruits and everyone involved with this program that this is where the greatest swimming coach ever was. I am really interested in history and I have studied what Doc did. As much as things change, they stay the same, so I look at what he did and try to use that in what I do."
At the age of 58, Counsilman became the oldest man to swim the English Channel. Doc attended Ohio State for his bachelor's degree. He attended OSU on a swim scholarship and won a national championship in the butterfly-breaststroke. In March of 1943, Counsilman held the world's best time in the event. He was drafted into the Army Air Force that year and became a B-24 bomber pilot in the European Theater. He earned a distinguished combat record during his time in World War II.
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