June 22, 2010
SEATTLE - Conibear Shellhouse is steeped in tradition. The lower floor of the rowing program's headquarters is a veritable museum of rowing history, adorned with trophies, medals and memorabilia from when the white oars of Washington cut through foreign waters against powerful worldly crews.
This month, Rowing News magazine honored a select group of legendary coaches as part of a magazine feature on "The Greatest American Coaches of All Time." Listed in the group were several Washington names, including current women's coach and rowing director Bob Ernst, who will be entering his 38th year on Montlake this fall. But while Ernst has made an indelible mark on the UW program, he was quick to point out the pathways cleared by his predecessors and protégés, many of whom have enjoyed considerable success within intercollegiate rowing themselves.
On the "who's who" list of American coaches honored by Rowing News, there are six who have a UW affiliation. Headlined by Hiram Conibear, who serves as the patriarch of the UW program, the lineage of coaches here have molded talented young rowers on Lake Washington for more than a century. Those names include the likes of Stork Sanford and Jan Harville, as well as alums of rowing who have gone elsewhere to achieve their mark, a la Lori Dauphiny (Princeton). And while George Pocock never rowed or coached at UW, he's held a tight affiliation through the program through his business of developing Pocock racing shells.
"It's a huge honor (to be mentioned in that group). It's a big statement about Washington rowing," Ernst said. "I didn't go to school here and I didn't row here but when I had a chance to come here, I knew it was a great opportunity."
Ernst came to Washington in 1974 from UC Irvine, his alma mater. He chose the Huskies because of the school and the region's commitment to the sport of rowing. There are few other areas in the world, Ernst said, where the sport is able to enjoy the same attention. In Seattle, Ernst is able to coach elite student-athletes and have them compete against not only the best intercollegiate crews, but some of the best that the world offers, such as Oxford University and the Russian National Team.
After Ernst took over the women's program for the first time, he won six National Championships from 1980 to `87, instantly solidifying the Huskies as a re-commissioned powerhouse. In 1984, Ernst coached the USA women to a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. So far, Ernst has the distinction of being the only coach in the sport who has won collegiate titles with both the men's and women's crews.
Harville was just as successful coaching the Husky women, and helped usher the program into the NCAA age. During her time on Montlake, Harville's crews captured three NCAA national championships, along with a National Collegiate Rowing Championship in 1988. In that stretch, the varsity eight never finished out of the medals. Her no-nonsense but fair approach to coaching made her a favorite among her rowers.
"The first year Jan coached the women, she won the national championship, and then just built her own program after that," Ernst said. "She was one of the real cornerstones with the NCAAs."
The groundwork of their success was laid by the likes of Conibear, who developed the eponymous stroke - albeit slightly modified for technology - the crews still uses to this day. Although he was only in Seattle a short time (10 years), his presence formed the bedrock for all future Husky coaches.
Washington is an institution that embraces its past, but also swiftly moves toward its future. While Ernst is proud of what he has accomplished here, he's even more excited about what the future holds. He points to Michael Callahan, the current men's crew coach at UW and a Husky, as a strong influence on the program going forward. The same is true for Luke McGee (men's freshmen coach) and Nicole Minett (women's novice coach), who have both demonstrated extraordinary success in their short tenures so far at Washington.
"It has been a really fulfilling, complete career and to be able to work now with guys like Michael, Luke and Nicole," Ernst said. "Three of those four went to school here. And I coached two of them."