The New Math--Or Harvard Chooses a Coach

(This is the second article in a three-part series dealing with the state of the Harvard swimming program.)

At the beginning of last season things looked bright. The strongest freshman team in a decade was eligible for varsity competition, the upperclassmen, led by former Eastern champion sprinters Mike Cahalan and Steve Krause, were strong, and it was head coach Bill Brooks's last year.

Captain Mike Cahalan, a gung-ho, short haired, hard working, non-dope smoking swimmer, was talking of an undefeated season. Before the season started distance freestyler and IM'er Howie Burns and top butterflyer Craig Sewell quit, and Cahalan already began to feel that the swimmers were sabotaging his dreams of an undefeated season.

The first big meet of the season, at Army, came along and it went down to the final relay, which Harvard lost by 4 seconds. Cahalan wasn't too pleased.

As was usual for a Harvard swim team, not all the swimmers were regularly making practice. The standard policy had been if you were one of the two fastest men in your event you got to swim in the meet, regardless of how much you had been working out. The coaches and most of the swimmers recognized the secondary role swimming played for most of the swimmers and treated them accordingly.

The team lost close meets to Dartmouth and Princeton and the only way to salvage the season was to beat Yale. Cahalan, not the coaches, decided to leave 200-yd. freestylers Al Ackerman and Henry Watson off the traveling team to Penn, ostensibly to stay at Harvard and work out for the upcoming Yale meet. Resentment toward Cahalan and his philosophy of rah-rah swimming was building, and the team wasn't quite sure how he had obtained so much power. However, everyone did want to beat Yale. They lost to Yale and all that was left were the Easterns. Usually, anyone who had qualified would get to go, but Ackerman. Watson and Rich Roebuck were left off the traveling list. By now the team was completely split, with Cahalan justifying his position with statements like. "Henry is a world class swimmer and he isn't doing those times now. I just can't have him embarass Harvard at the Easterns." Tim Chetin, Harvard's fastest breaststroker last year, was angry enough to refuse to swim with Cahalan on the medley relay at the Easterns.

Underlying the Mike Cahalan gamesmanship was the question. "How could a swimmer come to make important team decisions that traditionally and exclusively are the province of the head coach?" The answer is found in the uneasy arrangement the coaching structure was in.

Head Coach Bill Brooks, top Harvard man from 1946 until last year had, in his advanced age and failing health, relinquished actual running of the team to assistant coaches Benn Merritt and Harold Miroff. During the first part of last season it was assumed by most people that Merritt would become head coach upon Bill Brooks's retirement. He was reluctant to exercise power over the man he admired and would hopefully be replacing. But Brooks had no real knowledge of the internal disputes on the team and wasn't used to making decisions, thinking his assistant coaches could handle the matter. Cahalan, captain and top performer, was liked by the coaches, and his decisions went unchallenged by them.

It was against such a background that a committee was formed to choose a new head swim coach for Harvard. The committee consisted of Cahalan, senior backstroker John Burris. Director of Athletics Robert Watson. Associate Director of Athletics Baron Pittenger Jr., Robert Kaufmann, senior tutor in Leverett House and a member of Harvard's last undefeated team in 1962. Assistant Dean of Freshmen Burriss Young and Assistant Director of Athletics Eric Cutler.

When the committee was first formed sentiment around the IAB was that it simply was a formality before naming Benn Merritt as head coach. Bill Brooks was heard to say, "I brought Benn here 12 years ago so that he could be head coach upon my retirement." The team recognized that Benn was the natural man for the job, for he had been with the team and was universally liked as a great person who treated swimmers as people. Some of the swimmers, particularly those who had come from big-time programs were dissatisfied with his coaching ability and the satisfaction with mediocrity they found with the team, but they were convinced he'd be named head coach.

But the Harvard athletic administration had different ideas. Baron Pittenger Jr. said that Harvard was looking for: a) A coach that would assume control and give direction to the team. There had definitely been dissatisfaction in the athletic office over the way the swim coaches had handled the Cahalan hassle, particularly the bad publicity they felt it received in the Crimson and elsewhere. b) "We wanted to attract the best coach possible." The sentiment expressed in numerous quarters was "Benn's a great guy but not a great coach." c) "We wanted a coach who understood the Harvard system and its philosophy, approved of it, and would fit harmoniously in it." Here appeared to be Benn's strongpoint, but if the Harvard system was to produce 2-5 teams in the Eastern league, there was feeling that the system could use a little revamping.

So the committee went into one of Harvard's patented nationwide searches. Rumors of possible choices included just about every big name coach in the U.S., including George Haines. Indiana's Doc Counsilman, Long Beach's Don Gambril, and USC's Peter Dayland. The list was whittled down, coaches flown in for interviewing, and the committee came down to their final two prospects--Merritt and Gambril. The vote was 4-3 for Benn, nevertheless Gambril was hired as Harvard's new head swimming coach. Baron Pittenger described what happened this way. "Undergraduates on a selection committee will always choose the known over the unknown. Their personal loyalty gets in the way of objectively looking at all candidates. We learned a lesson from those selection committees last year, and while we will always consult with the athletes themselves, they shouldn't participate as full voting members."

Gambril confirmed that during the interview process Athletic Director Bob Watson and Co."...were not too pleased with the way the swim program was going"-and then hastily added, "but their aim was not to win championships." He was assured that if hired that was an expression of their belief that he would fit in well at Harvard and that the athletic administration would back him up in any decisions he made.

Don Gambril came to Harvard from the uppermost reaches of national and international swimming. His career dual meet record previous to this year was 67-6, his Long Beach swimmers won the NCAA college-division championships in 1968, and, after moving up to the university division, finished fifth in 1970 and 1971. He was assistant Olympic coach at Mexico City in 1968, coaching eight gold medal winners, and he will be back in Munich this fall. His Phillips 66 AAU team has won three consecutive long-course titles, and his swimmers have established 20 world records. It's been a long time since he has been used to finishing second, and there is no particular reason to believe he'll settle with being second at Harvard.

The announcement of Gambril's selection as head coach on May 8 was more than coincidence. This gave him enough time to put in calls to the 11 known swimmers that Harvard had accepted. Of the three freshmen stars on this years squad. Tim Neville, Dave Brumwell, and Rich Baughman, his phone call made the difference in Brumwell and Baughman coming here. One of Baughman's complaints about his high school swim program at New Trier, Illinois, was that his coach just didn't give him enough work. He decided on Harvard because "Don is definitely one of the best coaches in the world, and I knew I could get tough workouts from him."

The upperclassmen didn't share Baughman's enthusiasm. Some had a wait and see attitude, but many were upset that Merritt hadn't gotten the job and had visions of Gambril as a crew-cut, marine drill sergeant who would wring a national championship out of Harvard if it killed them all. Gambril felt this hostility, and in his first appearance before the swimmers last May 17 he treaded softly, was well-spoken, and let the team know that radical changes weren't in the planning stages: no one would be cut, twice a day practices would not be required, and the team could dress and wear their hair as they pleased.