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Mike Peppe’s Ohio State swimming and diving dynasty will likely never be matched

Buckeye swimmers and divers claimed 11 national championships during Peppe’s tenure from 1943-1962.

1948 Olympic Diving Champions
Mike Peppe (right) with 1948 London Olympics diving medalists: Joaquin Capilla Perez (bronze, Mexico), Sammy Lee (USA, silver), Bruce Harlan (USA and Buckeye, gold).
Photo by FPG/Getty Images

Football factory? Basketball powerhouse? Well, let’s see. The football Buckeyes have claimed eight national championships: 1942, 1954, 1957, 1961, 1968, 1970, 2002, and 2014. Impressive. And basketball? Just the one in 1960. Ten Final Fours and four runner-up finishes. Pretty good. But neither of these sports comes close to the records that Ohio State swimming and diving coach Mike Peppe achieved during his tenure from 1931-1962.

Peppe graduated from Ohio State in 1927 and became the university’s first swimming and diving coach. Unsurprisingly, it took him a few years to get the program really going, and his primary competition was that team up north. Peppe’s teams were national runners up in 1937, 1938, and 1939. But, then, after grabbing their first national championship in the 1943 season, the swimming Bucks won ten more before Peppe retired after the 1962 championship season. During that 20-year stretch, there were only six seasons when Peppe’s teams didn’t win the championship or come in second at the national competition.

Also winning 12 Big Ten swimming and diving championships, Peppe’s teams were undefeated in dual meets in 12 different seasons. His cumulative win-loss record in dual meets was a fantastic 173-37, an .824 win percentage.

Peppe’s athletes won 312 individual and relay championships and five Olympic gold medals. Twenty-four of his Buckeye swimmers and divers participated on U.S. Olympic teams; in fact, in the four Olympic games between 1948 and 1960, 19 of the 92 U.S. men’s swimmers and divers were Buckeyes. That’s dominating a sport at the national level, and their medal harvest extends their dominance into international territory.

Although Peppe coached both swimming and diving, and the two sports are combined for championships, his real specialty was diving. For a couple of decades, Mike Peppe was the American diving coach. Twice, in 1947 and again in 1952, the first four spots in the national diving competition were won by Buckeye divers. Peppe coached the American divers at the 1948 London Olympics and at the 1952 games in Helsinki. And then at the first ever Pan American games, held in 1951 in Buenos Aires, Peppe coached the American swimming and diving team.

Peppe is a member of the American Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame; oh, I know that it’s not Cooperstown or Canton, but it’s still quite the honor; and Mike is the Casey Stengel or Vince Lombardi of American swimming and diving. Peppe died at the age of 81 in September 1979, and it’s hard to imagine that his records at Ohio State will be matched by another coach in any sport.

And OSU’s swimming and diving today? Well, the men last won the Big Ten championship in the 2009-10 season, their only championship since Peppe’s retirement in 1962. The Buckeye women swimmers and divers have won back-to-back Big Ten championships in 2020 and 2021, their first championships since five in a row three decades ago, from 1982 to ‘86.

And what about national championships? First, congratulations to the Buckeye women who have won 32 national championships in synchronized swimming, though it’s not an NCAA-sanctioned sport. But there have been no national championships in swimming and diving since Mike Peppe was last on the pool deck for the Buckeyes.