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Original Issue

A heretic in an arty sport

Defying custom and brandishing wild ideas, Diving Coach Hobie Billingsley has confounded his rivals by producing national champions

Standing on the frosty flagstone walk outside his home high on a hill overlooking Bloomington, Ind., Hobart Sherwood Billingsley scans the city below, thrusts his arms heavenward and announces, "Get ready, world, here I come." Armed daily with fresh theories and new vigor, Hobie Billingsley is ready to take on the world. The question is whether the world is ready for Hobie Billingsley.

His particular world is that of competitive diving, an ascetic, artistic pursuit that is ridden with classical precepts and fixed ideas. It is into this sacrosanct realm that Billingsley barges with a fistful of radical notions, insisting that "diving is no longer an art, it is now an art and a science."

The wonder is not that Billingsley has survived, for he is a hardy soul, but that he has been so successful while surviving. Rival coaches, who often are vociferous in their denunciation of Billingsley's strange ways, have nevertheless voted him the outstanding coach in the country the past two years. They may not accept all he says and does, yet they respect what he has achieved in his seven years as coach at Indiana University. In the past four years alone, his divers have won titles everywhere—at the AAUs (8), the Big Ten (7), the Maccabiah Games (5), the NCAAs (3), the Olympics (2), the University Games (2) and the Pan-American Games (1).

Billingsley's current showpieces are Ken Sitzberger, the defending NCAA champion in both springboard events, and Miss Lesley Bush, who came to Billingsley shortly before the trials for the 1964 Olympic team as a 16-year-old who had been progressing nicely, though not nicely enough to win a major title. Unlike girl swimmers, who often start breaking records shortly after cutting their teeth, most divers do not master even the fundamentals of their art at the age of 16. At the time she joined the Billingsley camp, Lesley Bush had been aiming for the 1968 Olympics. After five weeks with Billingsley she tried out for the 1964 team, almost qualifying in springboard diving and making the team as a tower diver.

Lesley's mere presence in the tower competition seemed almost foolhardy ("It's 35 feet up the tower and 135 feet down," Hobie says of this event), yet she won. As convincing as her victory was, a few opposing coaches dismissed it as a fluke. Her age and her competitive background, they claimed, precluded any possibility of her winning anything in Tokyo, particularly since she would be pitting her limited experience against East Germany's Ingrid Kramer, an exquisite diver who already had two Olympic gold medals hanging around her neck. In Tokyo, Lesley Bush beat Defending Champion Krämer and all the old hands.

Despite Billingsley's successes, the diving world has not taken him to its bosom, largely because, by his own admission, he is very verbose ("I toured Australia for 23 days giving speeches and was never at a loss for words") and very excitable ("once I went to congratulate a diver on winning and ran smack into a wall") and very irascible ("sometimes I get brash, and it's my fault that I don't have any real close friends").

Rick Gilbert, the first prominent performer to come out of the Billingsley school of revolutionary diving four years ago, was disturbed by the shabby treatment accorded his coach at the outset. "I was mad at the way other coaches looked down at him, so I wanted the AAU indoor title for Hobie," says Gilbert, who got mad enough to win. "You'd think they would listen to him and then accept or reject what he had to say, but they wouldn't."

"A lot of people think Hobie is a crackpot," says Bob Clotworthy, 1956 Olympic gold medalist and now coach at Princeton. "I don't think so. He's sort of a renegade, a crusader who will try anything. People resent someone who is progressive, and Hobie is progressive."

Billingsley's progressive thoughts concerning the laws of motion as they apply to diving are the paramount issue in a sport that, before he showed up, had drifted along as unscientifically as a swan on a summer lake. In his coaching the superscientific Billingsley speaks about linear motion, transitory motion and double-axis displacement so easily and convincingly that one would never suspect he got a 22 on his college physics final.

Billingsley might have remained an orthodox coach except that, while hurriedly walking down the street to nowhere a few years ago, he bumped into Isaac Newton. Since then the world of diving has not been quite the same. "Newton was the greatest diving coach who ever lived," Billingsley says. "When I studied what he wrote I found that I didn't know anything."

After stoking up on the profundity of Newton, Billingsley began dishing it out to his divers, who swallowed it dutifully. Today, instead of orthodox critiques, Billingsley often uses oblique admonitions such as, "Don't weigh 75 pounds when you're on the board," or, "Remember, the shortest line between two distances is a straight point."

A detailed explanation of Billingsley lingo is possible, but no nondiving layman with less than three degrees from MIT can make head or tail of it. Quite simply, like Casey Stengel, Billingsley lives in a verbal world of his own. Somehow, Indiana divers comprehend his advice, or at least they nod their heads as if they do. Or are they simply shaking the water out of their ears?

In this matter of communication, Billingsley has gone yet another step toward total obscurity, using not only scientific mumbo jumbo but also an abbreviated code. He may tell one diver, "If you S-2 it you blow the dive. You have to L-5 it." To another he says, "Give me some MLR instead of some WLR."

Actually, by means of letters and numbers Billingsley is referring to key moves a diver makes through all the phases of a dive—a system that was born during a practice session in 1961, when a diver jokingly called his lateral arm movement his L-5. Before the laughter had subsided, Billingsley recognized that an expanded code would be a time-saver. Now, instead of giving long explanations, he rattles off advice in seconds. For example, when he instructs a diver to L-5 and not to S-2, he is reminding him to bring his arms overhead laterally, not out in front of him.

Many coaches look askance at Hobie's new language. "It's a lot of baloney," says Michigan's Dick Kimball, the 1964 men's Olympic diving coach.

Although his methods are oddball, Billingsley's career has followed a fairly classical pattern. Like two other elite diving masters, Mike Peppe of Ohio State and Dick Smith of Arizona, Billingsley was born hungry and made a lot of his own luck by dedicating himself to diving. One of his predominant boyhood memories is of sneaking through alleys in his home town, Erie, Pa., so that no one would see him bringing home free, government-surplus food. For the sake of something to do when he did not have 11¢ for a movie, Billingsley went to the local YMCA and learned to dive by studying charts on the walls.

In 1943, as a high school senior, Billingsley placed third at the national championships. A wealthy family in Erie offered to pay his way through college—if he went to Michigan. Billingsley went instead to Ohio State, where Mike Peppe, whose pupils dominated diving for a quarter of a century, refused him a scholarship but told him, "Come here and I'll make you a champ." Billingsley worked his way through Ohio State and, competing as a freshman under World War II rules, won both the NCAA one-and three-meter titles.

"Kiphuth, the Yale coach, came to me after I won and said he heard that I wanted to enter the ministry," Billingsley recalls. "He asked me if I would like to come to the Yale Divinity School and I said, 'Is tomorrow too soon?' " As it turned out, "tomorrow" was several days too late. The Army had already called Billingsley.

After the war Billingsley completed his studies at Ohio State and earned his master's at the University of Washington. In 1952 he married the former Mary Drake and, since high school teaching and coaching hardly paid for the diapers (there were soon three little Billingsleys), he began doing comedy diving routines, teaming up with the late Bruce Harlan, also a national champion from Ohio State.

In the summers, wearing baggy clown suits and funny faces, Billingsley and Harlan barnstormed around the country, and here and there in the world beyond, diving in good pools and bad pools, and occasionally where there was no pool at all. When they went to Vermilion, Ohio they dove off a barge cruising down the mucky Vermilion River, synchronizing their dives to the swaying of the barge. In 1959 Harlan, a superb competitor and accomplished clown, was killed while dismantling their apparatus after a show.

With or without fancy Newtonian notions and timesaving codes, Billingsley doubtless would have succeeded because he came to recognize—here again, like Peppe and Smith—the very human First Law and Corollary of the art of diving. The Law: a coach must be able to persuade a diver that he, the coach, and diving, the sport, are worthwhile. The Corollary: one good diver so persuaded will attract other good divers.

When Billingsley went to work as coach at Indiana, he had only four so-called divers on his roster and had to scrounge up a corner in the crowded gym for them to practice on the trampoline. To keep his boys from injury when they landed wrong, Billingsley held fast to a rope that ran from overhead pulleys to their safety belt. When divers crash-landed they pulled the rope down and jerked Hobie upward, battering his head against the overhanging balcony.

When he finally led his divers to the water, they got the bruises, either from colliding with swimmers in the over-populated pool or from banging their heads on the low ceiling. After gingerly feeling the lumps on their skulls and deciding that they were more interested in longevity than in fame, the four divers quit the team.

It was a calamitous first season, and Billingsley, often given to introspection, blamed himself for being "too hard-nosed with the kids." Realizing that he had at times been as grumpy as a hibernating bear, Billingsley changed his ways. From then on if Hobie laid down any law at all, it was usually Newton's, and what evolved was a program that might best be described as Grin and Bear It.

Billingsley, the reformed, relaxed coach, now skitters around poolside, flapping his arms, contorting his pliable face, spouting Newtonian theory and occasionally falling into the pool. The new Billingsley sometimes speaks softly, sometimes loudly, shouting the length of the pool one moment and, the next, whispering nose to nose, at times like teacher to pupil, at times like father to son.

Divers frequently are highstrung and, in spite of the relaxed climate that Billingsley has created at Indiana, there have been incidents. One diver chased another around the pool with a hammer until Hobie convinced him that such action might result in an equal and opposite reaction from the strong arm of the law. A second diver took up another form of diving—skydiving—and landed kerplunk on the football field before the homecoming crowd. Another tried to eat all 28 flavors of Howard Johnson's ice cream, reached 22 and turned bright pistachio.

It is in his artful dealings with such temperamentalists that the true and extravagant talent of Billingsley has flourished. Yet he realized early that all the theories, all the coaching, all the codes he could muster would not suffice unless he had some talented divers. In 1961 Rick Gilbert, a 17-year-old high school senior from Lancaster, Pa., was the diver whom Billingsley felt he needed to attract other divers to Indiana.

"Gilbert wanted to go to Ohio State, and that put us in a bad spot," Billingsley recalls. "Ohio State had the reputation of being the place for a diver to go. Besides that, we were on probation." (Indiana was on a four-year ban because of football-recruiting violations, a ban that prevented athletes in all sports from taking part in NCAA championships.)

Despite the probation, Gilbert chose Indiana after being assured by diving enthusiasts that Hobie and the Hoosiers were on the way up. Although Indiana divers could not compete in the NCAAs, they could in the AAUs. In 1962 Gilbert took the AAU three-meter title "for Hobie"—the first freshman in 25 years to win the event. Thus Billingsley, who had kept the Ohio State dynasty going by winning a championship as a freshman a generation earlier, was repaid in kind. With Gilbert's victory a new dynasty was born at Indiana, and it has been going strong ever since.