In 1951, Don Rosenthal, a highly touted high school swimmer from Cincinnati, walked into the men's athletic office at Santa Monica Community College and asked to meet the new swim coach.
Rosenthal told the coach that he was interested in trying out for the swim team and began rattling off some impressive times he had in freestyle races.
The coach, who played football and rugby at UCLA, gave the recruit a deadpan look.
"I wasn't the least impressed," John Joseph said. "I shocked him because I didn't make a reaction.
"I didn't know what the hell his times meant."
Rosenthal, his ego bruised, turned to walk away when Joseph revealed his secret.
"His opening remarks to me were, 'I don't know a lane line from a stopwatch' " Rosenthal said. Rosenthal never lost a race during the two years he swam for Joseph and set five national community college records, including three in the same race.
And Joseph quickly discovered the difference between a lane line and a stopwatch.
"John developed a love affair with swimming since that first day," Rosenthal said. "He's so humble he hasn't changed since Day One. He's priceless, the sweetest man in the world."
Rosenthal, 60, was one of nearly 400 athletes to pay tribute to the legendary coach Sunday with an alumni swimming meet at Santa Monica College and a dinner at the Holiday Inn Bayview.
"I've never been so touched," Joseph said. "It was such a thrill to see those people there. People I admired and loved. The kids were wonderful and I don't know how to express myself."
Joseph, who will turn 72 in August, retired after coaching swimming for 42 years at Santa Monica College. Joseph, a resident of Redondo Beach, produced 308 All-Americans, had an impressive 453-125-2 record and 22 top five finishes at the state meet. His teams went undefeated 13 times and at one point won 51 consecutive dual meets.
Joseph played football for one season and rugby for three years at UCLA before graduating with a credential in teaching in 1950. He was hired as a teacher and an assistant football coach 10 days later at Santa Monica College.
Joseph was given the additional duty of coaching men's and women's swimming coach even though he had never seen a swim meet, much less competed in one.
For the first 25 years of his 42-year tenure, Joseph doubled as a football coach. He was an assistant for two years before he was named head coach from 1952-55 and became an offensive line coach from 1956-74.
While his students prepared for advanced studies, Joseph took a crash course in swimming from Urho (Whitey) Saari, who coached at El Segundo High and later El Camino College.
"For a year, I'm sure I drove him crazy with questions. I was lost, but he showed me around," Joseph said.
The first lesson Joseph learned was to be patient and maintain a positive attitude.
"I tried to be cheerful even though I would be dragging covers off the pool at 5 a.m.," he said. "If I came out grumpy, dragging butt, soon the whole team was like that. I found out earlier that you get a lot more kids if you use praise. At times I would chew kids out, but they knew they had it coming."
Joseph became a master motivator and soon was respected throughout the swimming community. He once was offered the job of swimming coach at UCLA but turned it down because he did not want to recruit.
"John is just a super guy," said Coach Peter Daland, who retired recently after coaching USC for the past 35 years. "Anyone who has ever known him, likes him and respects him. He was a very good coach, a well-respected coach, a person of great integrity."
During the years, Joseph went from student to instructor, teaching the sons of swimmers who once helped him with coaching.
Chuck Sassara, an All-City swimmer and football player at University High, began his college swimming career on Joseph's first team and was an All-American in the sprint freestyle. Sassara told a story about how he taught Joseph to skin-dive.
"I just got married and my wife, John and his wife and I went to Catalina," Sassara said. "We went snorkeling and I had to help John put on a mask and fins and teach him how to swim.
"My son Richard went to Santa Monica College in 1977 and Joseph certified him as a diver. In a sense, I was the first to teach him how to dive."
Bill Asturias, who swam for Joseph in 1970 and 1972, became the first athlete from Guatemala to win a swimming medal of any sort for his country. He won five medals in the Central American and Caribbean Games.
"The thing about J.J. was that he got the most of his swimmers even though most of them didn't have tremendous ability," Asturias said. "To us he was a second father.
"One time before the state finals, I felt he was working us too much on longer distances than we should and I walked out of the pool. He waited until I calmed down and called me to the side of the pool and told me he knew what he was doing. Two days later, I swam my best time ever in the 200 freestyle."
Asturias and Tom Olson were members of the 1970 team that pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever, defeating conference rival Bakersfield, 53-51.
"One meet stands out in my mind," Olson said. "We were swimming against Bakersfield, which is our natural rival, and we had only seven people competing. They had 25 swimmers--more than a full team--and they took us lightly.
"Joseph strategically assigned us in races so that we each got a break. Everyone had to do a certain job and finish a certain place in the race."
Joseph prefers to talk about the 1988 men's team, the only time he won a state championship. Giuseppe Tiano was the star of the team, setting school records in the 100- and 200-yard backstroke and the 200-yard individual medley. He later swam at UCLA, where he set a school record of 1:47:77 in the 200-yard backstroke in 1989. That record has since been broken.
"Giuseppe was the most outstanding swimmer on that team, but every kid down the line had to place for us to win," Joseph said.
One of Joseph's best swimmers was Bruce Stahl, who swam for the Corsairs in 1977-78. Undistinguished at Venice High, Stahl later competed at UC Santa Barbara and set a world-best time of 22:83 in the 50-meter freestyle at the 1980 U.S. Swimming Assn. National Championships in Austin, Tex.
"I wasn't ready athletically to swim at a four-year school," Stahl said. "Joseph gave me confidence and each year I got progressively better."
Karoline Martin, who swam at Santa Monica in 1985-86, said that Joseph treated his swimmers equally whether they were men or women. Martin, 26, tries to emulate her mentor while coaching at University High in San Diego.
"J.J. treated everyone the same even if you weren't the greatest swimmer," Martin said. "He would be so proud and so happy if all you did was swim your best time. You worked hard for J.J. because you never wanted to let him down."
In addition to coaching swimming, Joseph also prepared his athletes to be lifeguards. From San Pedro to Malibu, you can spot some of his former pupils working the beaches.
Arthur Verge Jr., who competed for Santa Monica in 1976, became a lifeguard to pay for his college education. He is now a history professor at El Camino College.
"Not only did we learn to save lives and benefit society, but we also earned enough money to continue our education at four-year and graduate school," Verge said.
The John Joseph Swim scholarship was established at Santa Monica College in 1987 after Joseph was named state college coach of the year for third time. Former swimmers and divers raised money for an $800 scholarship for a student to continue his education at a four-year school. Alumni are trying to raise enough money for a second scholarship.
"You'll never find a nicer, more caring human being," Verge said. "He treated all swimmers the same regardless of their ability. He worked us so hard that we learned to accomplish what we once thought was impossible."
Joseph had one philosophy that he stuck to throughout his college coaching career.
"I would tell my swimmers the proof in a season is not necessarily whether you win the conference or individual title," he said. "It's when you get to the starting blocks for last race and you give the best performance of your life. It doesn't matter where you finished. If you ask yourself, 'Did I do the best job I possibly can? Have I paid the price?' If the answer is yes, God bless you. You did it."