Sept. 18, 2011
Michigan State will induct five new members into its Athletics Hall of Fame on Thursday, Sept. 22. In the first of a five-part series this week on msuspartans.com, online columnist Steve Grinczel profiles former swimming and diving head coach Charles McCaffree Jr.
The men behind the names on Munn Ice Arena, the Duffy Daugherty Football Building, and the Breslin Center are well known for their contributions to Michigan State University Athletics, much the way Charles McCaffree was in 1979 when the Intramural West swimming pools were named in his honor.
No one's to blame, really, for memories fading, great feats being forgotten and informed advocates moving away to distant locales, but over time, "McCaffree Pools" has become a generic term along the lines of, say, Fairchild Auditorium, which is named after an English professor who taught at Michigan Agricultural College from 1865-79.
That's about to change.
When Coach Mac, who died at the age of 73 in 1980, is enshrined posthumously in the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame, his pioneering spirit and innovative impact on swimming at the local, national and international levels will once again illuminate the relevance behind the name.
"This just means the world to me personally and the team members in general," said Jack Beattie, who earned All-America honors while swimming for MSU from 1952-56. "Coach Mac is probably best remembered for the personal interest he took in us swimmers.
"Michigan State, in my opinion, has a nice personal touch and takes better care of their former athletes than any other university I know. It's a unique atmosphere and Coach Mac set the tone."
McCaffree's claim to fame just happened to be doing "more than any other individual to organize American swimming," according to one tribute from several years ago.
After leaving Iowa State, where he coached the Cyclones to four straight Big Six titles, to take charge of the Michigan State program in 1941, McCaffree did as much to draw attention to the burgeoning institution in East Lansing as anyone else in athletics, and he was the face of MSU for many around the world until he retired from coaching 28 years later.
Under his direction, a once-dormant program became a national powerhouse, winning eight straight Central Collegiate Conference Championships from 1942-50 and one Big Ten title in `57. His '51 team finished second in the NCAA championships and the Spartans were third three times while averaging fifth in the national meet over a 19-year span.
The Spartans posted winning dual-meet records every season from '45-69 and had an overall mark of 191-58-2 under McCaffree. His swimmers captured 34 Big Ten and 22 NCAA titles and he coached six Olympians including two gold-medal winners, Clarke Scholes and Ken Walsh, and silver-medalist Gary Dilley.
"I think this is just a culmination of a very interesting and fascinating person who dedicated his later life to Michigan State," said David Lee McCaffree, who swam for his father in during the '58-59 seasons. "I think he would just be overwhelmed by this honor."
That's a telling statement for someone with a persona as big as McCaffree's. Legendary MSU president John Hannah called McCaffree "the Pope" because after he stepped down as coach to take over as director of the men's swimming programs, he watched practice from a balcony outside his office.
McCaffree was the very picture of sartorial splendor - known for his Harris Tweed overcoat and impeccable taste in clothing - and renowned for his revolutionary ideas.
For example, even though football was king on college campuses from coast-to-coast, McCaffree dismissed swimming's designation as a minor sport.
"Any activity contributing to the health and welfare of an individual is of major importance despite the size of the gallery witnessing that activity in action," he said in a Michigan State athletics publication article in 1945.
He was instrumental in the design of starting blocks and played a major role in planning MSU's indoor and outdoor pools, which now bear his name and were considered state-of-the-art when they were opened in '59. That same year, McCaffree was named head coach of the U.S. national team that competed in the Pan American Games.
Other titles include: secretary of the NCAA swimming rules committee, editor of the NCAA swimming guide, member of the national AAU men's swimming committee and the national YMCA aquatic committee, and secretary of the U.S. Olympic swimming committee.
In '64, the American National Red Cross bestowed its highest honor, the service medal, on McCaffree for his long devotion to water safety, and he was the assistant manager of the U.S. men's national team that competed in the '72 Munich Olympics. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame on April 21, 1976.
Even though McCaffree competed in the freestyle for the University of Michigan on coach Matt Mann's first Big Ten championship team in the late 1920s, he was a Spartan through and through, according to David.
"I don't think he had any problem (with allegiances)," he said. "Dad stayed with the Spartans. Of course, that's where he came from."
McCaffree said as much in a Michigan State Athletic Publications article run in conjunction with the dedication of the pools, celebrated in Spartan Stadium before the MSU-Purdue football game on Oct. 20, 1979.
"The swimmers I coached here were a fine group of men, and many of them were from the state of Michigan," McCaffree said. "And the swimming facilities at State always were, and are now, some of the finest in the nation. All-in-all, I'm proud to be a Spartan."
Swimming was a family affair in the McCaffree household, and David's sister and brothers, Peggy McCaffree-Gerrie, Don, who became a team manager, and Chuck, were considered members of the team while growing up.
"I'm glad they're bringing up all the things he did, some of which I didn't even realize," said Peggy, MSU class of '56. "The thing that amazed me was we got to know all the swimmers. They were part of the family.
After a graduating senior completes his final competitive lap as a Spartan, he receives the Golden Spike "to hang their suit up on for the last time," said David McCaffree. "I say this is the ultimate hanging up of my dad's suit for the Royal Order of the Golden Spike.
"We're just so honored to participate in this and that the McCaffree name will live on at Michigan State."