This Date in Hoosier History: The Legendary Doc Counsilman is Born

When elite Indiana University athletics programs come to mind, the IU men’s soccer and basketball programs are likely the first that most people think of.  And that’s for good reason, as those programs have collectively produced 13 team national titles.

The IU men’s swimming and diving program takes a backseat to no one with 6 team national titles of its own.  Currently ranked No. 2 in the country, the 2018-19 Hoosiers should threaten in March for the long awaited 7th crown.

The 6 national titles came consecutively from 1968 through 1973.  The first of IU’s 26 Big Ten titles came in 1961 and IU won 22 from 1961 to 1985.

It is no coincidence that Doc Counsilman was the IU head swimming coach from 1958 until 1990.

From humble beginnings come great things

James E. “Doc” Counsilman was born on December 28, 1920, in Birmingham, Alabama.  Raised by their mother after their father left, the family moved to St. Louis when Doc was a young boy.  Doc and his brother Joe taught themselves to swim in a local fish hatchery and he eventually started swimming at an indoor YMCA pool where he was “discovered” and influenced by a coach there.  Counsilman went on to Ohio State to swim for the Buckeyes.  He set world records in the 50-meter and 300-yard breaststroke events early in his collegiate career.

In 1943 Doc’s collegiate career was interrupted as he was called to serve in the Army Air Corps.  He was assigned to fly the B-24 bomber.  In January 1945, Counsilman and his crew were sent to Italy on a World War II mission.  On one particular run, Counsilman’s plane was hit by antiaircraft fire.  Counsilman was forced to crash land the plane but he safely returned every member of the ten man crew to the base.  Counsilman received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery in action.

After the war, Counsilman returned home and went back to Ohio State and rejoined the swim team.  He would go on to earn a Masters degree at the University of Illinois and then went to the University of Iowa where he earned his doctorate in physiology.  It was that Ph.D. that led his friends and family to start calling him “Doc”.

In 1958, Indiana University named Doc Counsilman head swimming coach. Up to that point the IU swimming and diving program had few noteworthy accomplishments.  Along with handpicked new diving coach Hobie Billingsley, Doc would help to change that.  Counsilman recruited several swimmers from the Indianapolis Athletic Club where he had coached.  In 1961, IU won its first swimming and diving Big Ten championship.

Ever the innovator, Doc pioneered several swimming coaching and training techniques that helped to propel the Hoosiers to greatness.  One such innovation was the use of underwater filming to observe swimming stroke mechanics.  The observations gained from this revolutionized the understanding of the various forces that propel swimmers. Counsilman also developed a pace clock which allowed swimmers to keep their own time during interval training.

In 1968, Indiana won its first NCAA title and it would be the first of six in a row.  The Hoosiers would also win 20 Big Ten titles in a row from 1961 to 1980.

Doc retired in 1991 after a 33 year tenure for the Hoosiers.  On January 4, 2004, James ‘Doc’ Counsilman died in Bloomington.

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