Entering the 1974 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships Indiana and USC had won 10 out of the previous 11 titles. For USC the problem was, Indiana had won the previous six, with the Trojans finishing 2nd in four of those years.
In 1974, for the first time in the history of the event, the National Championship Meet would be held in California, hosted by Long Beach State University at the Belmont Plaza Pool. This gave USC a advantage with the big crowds. In the end, the partisan nature of the crowds would have significant impact on the results.
Indiana was the favorite to earn their 7th straight title, but they weren’t the overwhelming favorite they had been in previous years. The Hoosiers’ great Mark Spitz was gone, and by adding top recruits John Nabor, Joe Bottom and Rod Strachan USC could match Indiana with front line star power. The Trojans’ problem was that Indiana was significantly deeper. In 1974 the top 12 finishers in each event scored, so Indiana’s depth allowed them significant points even in events they had little chance to win.
“Indiana was better on paper,” admitted USC Junior Steve Furniss.
The battle began the night before the first event. USC missed the scratch deadline for the first day’s line-up. Despite a rule that specifically prohibited any deviations after the deadline, USC Coach Peter Daland appealed to the meet committee to overlook the violation. To the astonishment of Indiana’s Coach James “Doc” Counsilman the committee sided with Dalan. USC would have their preferred line-up.
“I always voted for the swimmer” remembered Long Beach State’s Coach Dick Jochums, a member of the committee. Counsilman protest went nowhere, but he still knew that he had the horses to overcome the setback. If his young men could just meet expectations Indiana would win.
Counsilman did not anticipate the disaster the first day would be for the defending National Champs. First Indiana’s outstanding 400 Medley Relay team was disqualified in the preliminaries when their breaststroker left early on the transition. Then Indiana’s 500 Free favorite John Kinsella finished a disappointing 6th. USC stars John Nabor and Steve Furniss won the 500 Free and 200 IM respectively, but more significantly Trojan swimmers also finished 3rd and 7th in the 500 and 7th, 8th and 9th in the IM.
Indiana did dominate the 50 Free, as expected, but only managed to score six more points than the Trojans. The result was a surprising 106-70 lead after the first day for USC. Furniss summed the first day up best, “When their medley relay was disqualified the first day, that opened the door and gave us an opportunity to duke it out.”
USC was still an underdog entering day two, primarily because they had no chance to pick up points in the diving events, while Indiana was well stocked in those events.
This put immense pressure on the Trojan swimmers. The much anticipated duel between Indiana’s Fred Tyler and the 200 IM winner the day before, Steve Furniss in the 400 IM ended with a one second win by USC’s Furniss, but more importantly Trojan swimmers also finished 3rd, 5th and 7th, outscoring Indiana in the event by 32 points.
Indiana figured to make up the points in the 100 Backstroke, but could only regain 19 points mainly because Indiana’s defending National Champion Mike Stamm could only manage a 6th. Behind Tyler’s fastest split in the event, Indiana did end the day with a thrilling .007 win in the 800 Free Relay. Despite all the misfortunes, the win in the relay put Indiana in position to defend their Title on day three.
This set up the craziest day in the history of NCAA Swimming history. Both coaches made their plans. Though it was no sure thing, the set up seemed to favor Indiana. USC had two swimmers in the final of the 1650, qualifying 2nd and 8th. The Hoosier hope was John Kinsella, but Counsilman was concerned after his disappointing performance in the 500. Coach Dalan had his own concerns. His charges had to do better to keep the Trojans in the hunt. The 100 free was next, and it seemed to be wide open, but Indiana had more quality sprinters than did USC. The 200 Backstroke seemed to be a shoo-in for the Trojan’s John Nabor, but that was countered by Indiana’s strength off the three-meter diving board. The Hoosier diver was seeded third, while USC had no chance for any points in the event. The final event would be a slam dunk for Indiana. Only a DQ could prevent them from winning the 400 Free Relay.
But if sports was decided on paper, a lot of sports history would be different. Sports is about preforming when the pressure is on. And Day 3 of NCAA’s is the time to preform.
The 1650 was first. Dalan was wary of the chances of Jack Tingley, who was seeded 8th, and started in the outside lane. His best hope was Steve Furniss. Dalan told Furniss, “We both know that Jack hasn’t done the work. He doesn’t have a chance.” He emphasized that Furniss couldn’t finish worst than 2nd to keep USC’s hope alive. Washington’s Rick DeMont was a clear favorite, but Furniss needed to beat Indiana’s John Kinsella.
The noise during the event was deafening. The highly partisan USC crowd was going wild. Furniss worked hard to stay with DeMont, but after 1000 yards began to fall off the pace. He sprinted towards the finish, but when he looked up at the finish he was listed 3rd, a disaster for the Trojans. He then noticed that the USC partisans were going wild. The reason soon became apparent. From lane 8, Tingley had surged to a lead and won the race. USC had earned an astounding one, three finish in the 1650. Tingley said of the fans, “I could see they were going crazy and it couldn’t be because I was last.”
The 100 Free was next and Indiana dominated, finishing 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 9th in the event, but Joe Bottom saved USC’s chances by winning the race after making the turn at the 50 in last place. Indiana closed the point gap, but the Trojans still held the lead. Nabor then easily won the 200 back in an American record time, keeping USC with a precarious lead.
The meet then got ugly. In the Three-Meter Dive event, the 3rd place Indiana diver missed his first dive. The crowd broke into wild cheers. The rattled diver then missed his second dive and the crowd celebration increased.
“It was the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen in athletics,” said Indiana sportswriter Bob Hammel.
“I agree, the crowd was unsportsmanlike,” concurred the Trojan’s Furniss.
As a result of the disturbing display, the Indiana diver finished 10th, meaning that it would all come down to the 400 Free Relay. USC coach Dalan had no illusions of beating the Hoosiers relay, but as a consequence of the diving fiasco USC only needed to finish 2nd to win the championship. It would not be easy, Tennessee was the defending NCAA Champion in the event. USC had to beat them. Joe Bottom led off, putting the Trojans slightly ahead of the Vols. USC held second going into the anchor leg, but the exhausted Steve Furniss was up for the final leg. He had finished 3rd in the grueling 1650 just a few hours earlier. But in a brilliant showing of tenacity and grit he held off Tennessee and USC had their National Championship, winning by the incredible score of 339-338.
Indiana was devastated by the defeat, and with some justification felt wronged. The ruling on the scratch deadline was clearly wrong, even though at the time it didn’t seem to matter. The USC crowd’s treatment of the Indiana diver was inexcusable, but again the bad behavior was crucial to the Trojan victory. “It was the way 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,” said Indiana’s Fred Tyler.
But for the Trojans it was a life defining event. “Those three days were the most memorable and meaningful of my athletic career” said Furniss. The victory was best summed up by the totally unexpected hero Jack Tingley. “Winning the NCAA’s by one point. That’s something I’ll hear about the rest of my life.”