He clasped his hands in prayer at poolside before each of his races and he did the same thing in the water afterward. Once, climbing back onto the deck of Cleveland State University's gleaming new pool, he impulsively grabbed the nearest coed and, to her surprise, kissed her. In one of his appearances on the victory stand, he jubilantly twirled a knit cap on a finger. And when anybody at the NCAA swimming and diving championships asked what made him so exuberant, Southern Cal's John Naber was glad to answer. "It's because I'm crazy about Jesus," he said. "My heart is filled with joy for Him." But he also declared, "It's my personality, too. I've always had a little of the thespian in me."
Whatever the explanation, Naber is as irrepressible on land as in the water—and that is irrepressible indeed. As a freshman at last year's NCAA meet, Naber won three events and led USC to a stormy 339-338 upset of Indiana, snapping the Hoosiers' unprecedented six-year reign as national champions. At last week's meet, Naber took the same three events—the 100- and 200-yard backstroke and the 500 freestyle—and, for added measure, turned in a blistering backstroke leg that powered the Trojans to victory in the 400-yard medley relay. The net result was an American record in each of these four events plus a second straight national collegiate title for USC, which outscored runner-up Indiana far more comfortably this time, 344 to 274.
In the process, the Trojans reestablished the supremacy they had enjoyed in the early '60s. Last year's win hardly was considered conclusive. It occurred at Long Beach State in front of a rabidly pro-USC crowd and it came about only after a succession of Indiana calamities and disputed decisions that included, notably, the disqualification of the Hoosier medley relay team when one of its swimmers went into the water too soon. Not even USC Coach Peter Daland dared make too much of the '74 result. "Long Beach was a fluke," he allowed. "If you held 10 other NCAA meets last year, we would have lost to Indiana by 50 points every time."
The triumph in Cleveland was far tidier, even though it had to be pulled off without Steve Furniss, the Trojan captain who had won the 200- and 400-yard individual medley events last year. Sidelined since January by torn ligaments suffered in a pickup basketball game, Furniss was still limping when he arrived in Cleveland as team manager, a role that often prompted Naber to snap his fingers and waggishly command, "Towels, please."
April 6, 1975
Without Furniss, and without much hope of picking up points in the diving events, Southern Cal arrived in Cleveland as slight underdogs. But the depth of the Trojan swim squad was enough to make up the difference. While taking just one individual event besides Naber's three—a win in the 50 freestyle by sophomore Joe Bottom—USC relied on strong performances from the likes of distance freestyler Ron Orr, one of several freshmen who contributed to the victory.
This depth was evident in the 500 freestyle, the first event in the three-day competition. Naber won it, setting a U.S. record of 4:20.45, but more important in terms of the team title, Naber led four other teammates, including Orr, to a dazzling 1-4-6-8-11 finish that gave the Trojans a 40-point jump on Indiana. Indiana's strong showing in the opening night's one-meter diving event cut the Hoosiers' first-day deficit to 20 points but it was already clear that the only way they could stop USC was by letting the water out of the pool.
While Indiana must have felt encircled by the army of maroon-suited Trojans, it was Naber's presence that drew their attention. A 6'6" stringbean, the self-confessed extrovert has corresponded with as many as 30 pen pals at the same time, swimmers and nonswimmers alike. While attending high school in Woodside, Calif. where he was student body president, he made his decision for Christ, a conversion he credits with playing a major influence on his swimming. "By dedicating my life to Christ, I have Him in my heart at all times," he says. "When I pray at a swim meet, I'm not asking to win but simply to do my best, accept the results and be gracious to my opponents."
This spiritual commitment, Naber finds, is sometimes misunderstood. Competing in a dual meet at Stanford, he won the 500, whereupon he thrust his index finger into the air. "That's a Christian symbol meaning 'One way, His way,' " he explained, "but some people thought I meant that I was No. 1." At last summer's U.S.-East German meet in Concord, Calif., Naber handed Roland Matthes his first backstroke defeat in seven years and then celebrated by flinging roses into the crowd. It was a gesture that caused one U.S. teammate, obviously no flower child, to snarl, "Can you imagine that—throwing tulips to the crowd?"
But Naber concedes that there is such a thing as being too ebullient. Keyed up by the competition in Cleveland, he had trouble sleeping and lost 13 pounds by the time the three-day event ended. "John carries exuberance to excess and it drains him," says Daland. "He's got to learn that 'the higher the peaks, the lower the valleys.' " Far from being adversely affected in the pool, however, Naber saved his best swim for last, a sizzling 1:46.827 in the 200 backstroke on Saturday night that sliced more than two seconds off his American record and brought a standing ovation from the sellout crowd. And with 10 national records being set in the 16 swimming events one might have expected the crowd to have cheered itself hoarse. Naber was the only swimmer to score multiple record victories but Indiana's Fred Tyler (200 individual medley), UCLA's Tim McDonnell (200 freestyle), Alabama's Jonty Skinner (100 freestyle) and Stanford's John Hencken (200 breaststroke) all set American marks, and in the relays USC posted a record in the 400 medley while Indiana did the same in the 400 and 800 freestyle.
But there were too few glory moments for Indiana. Time was when it was the Hoosiers who boasted the headliners—does anybody remember Mark Spitz?—and Southern Cal had to get by with lesser names. Their ranks decimated, most recently by the graduation of such standouts as John Kinsella and Mike Stamm, Indiana's swimmers were so faceless that they kiddingly referred to themselves as Brand X. The most seasoned of them was co-captain John Murphy, a painfully quiet, 6'5" senior who won a relay gold medal in the '72 Olympics only to have his last name printed in The World Almanac as "Murray."
Before Indiana could look to '75, the books had to be closed on '74. Galled by what it considered a lynch-mob atmosphere at Long Beach, the school's athletic department had formally protested the way the meet had been run to the NCAA. This season, as Indiana routinely increased its string of consecutive dual-meet victories and Big Ten titles to 112 and 15, Doc Counsilman, the mastermind who forged swimming's No. 1 dynasty, tried to turn the Long Beach loss into an asset. "I don't believe in hate psychology," he said. "I just told my swimmers that if they wanted to make up for last year they'd have to work harder. And they did, too."
But Indiana came up flat at Cleveland State. In the opening 500, the race in which USC poured it on, Counsilman was counting on Bruce Dickson, who had finished fifth in the event a year ago. Dickson missed placing in the top 12, which is necessary for scoring points. Sitting gloomily by himself, he said, "I don't want to face my teammates. They'll probably strangle me—and I deserve it."
Dickson need not have worried; Indiana's defeat was to be every bit a team effort. Besides the three events in which they set records, there were few successes of any consequence for the Hoosiers. Tyler, for instance, followed his triumph in the 200 IM with a sluggish fifth in the 400 IM, a disappointment Jim Montgomery matched when he settled for a third in the 200 freestyle, an event he won a year ago. A different sort of indignity occurred when Murphy finished second to Naber in the 100 backstroke only to bloody the knuckles of his left hand while slamming into the wall at the finish.
With Indiana bloodying itself in every sense, it became clear that Daland had not only out-recruited Counsilman over the last few years but had excelled in honing his squad for the year's biggest meet. Looking ahead, Indiana must also worry about the likes of fourth-place finisher Tennessee as well as a pair of emerging superpowers, UCLA (third) and Alabama (fifth). "We can be right back up there in a hurry," argued Counsilman. "All we need to do is come up with a good bunch next year." Swallowing hard, he added, "But in a way, it's the end of an era."
Sharing their coach's frustration, a couple of Indiana swimmers briefly talked about trying to steal John Naber's wool hat, which he has worn to swim meets for so long that it has become a trademark. They finally decided against larceny, but Naber, getting wind of the plot, took pains to hide the hat whenever he went to the pool. He allowed that he had great affection for it, but denied that it had any talismanic properties.
"I guess you could call it a superstition, kind of," Naber said. "But mainly it's a matter of pride. I'd hate to give anybody the satisfaction of stealing it. If they did, I doubt that I'd suddenly start losing races or anything like that." Probably not, but a thespian deserves at least one prop.