April 19, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Bob Ernst has done this before: Sparked a flat-lining Washington rowing team back to the top of the nation.
Actually, he's done just about everything at UW before.
Ernst has been leading Husky rowers since the first year of Gerald Ford's presidency. That's 1974, for those not yet born then.
"It took me 10 years to win a national championship when I took the guys' team over in 1987," Ernst said in his office at Conibear Shellhouse this week as he prepared the Huskies' second-ranked women's varsity eight for a Simpson Cup showdown with bitter rival and fourth-ranked California on Saturday in Redwood Shores, Calif.
"Let's just say both programs needed to be overhauled at the time," Ernst said of the UW men a quarter century ago and its women's team when he took it over again in 2007.
Ernst won six national championships from 1980-87 when he coached Washington women's crew, before he then took over the men's program from legendary coach Dick Erickson - and won two more national titles with the guys until he jumped back over to revive the women's team.
So he knows turning rebuilding into rewarding.
"You know, the biggest challenge is always redeveloping the culture," he said through bites of a lunch sandwich prior to practice on Monday. "Sometimes you can be a good athlete, but you have to have a significant number of them to where people train to win rather than just train to race. It's different.
"Changing the culture has been the biggest challenge. And finally - fortunately - we are getting enough really good athletes to have this change."
So good, this appears to be Washington's best chance in nearly a decade to end Cal's streak of eight consecutive dual-match victories over the Huskies and the Simpson Cup that goes annually to the winner of it. The Huskies have won 22 of the 33 dual races with the Bears, but none since 2003.
"I have a picture of the Cal crew team in my locker, from 1982," Ernst said. "I get paid to beat Cal. And it hasn't happened yet."
Not in this go-around with the UW women's team in a dual race, anyway.
UW chopped through wild waters on San Diego's Mission Bay that Ernst likened to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on April 1 to pass the Golden Bears and finish third in the Grand Final of the elite Crew Classic. Cal finished fourth, a fact Ernst noted this week.
"They are madder than hornets," the folksy, mustached Ernst said. "Those kids go to Cal because they want to beat Washington."
Washington hasn't won a conference championship with its women's varsity eight boat since 2002. That was also the season the Huskies won the last of their four NCAA championships. They slipped to a program-low 15th in the national finals in 2007, immediately before Ernst returned to run the women's program.
As UW's director of rowing, Ernst decided to install Michael Callahan to replace him on the men's side.
That's worked out OK.
Last summer Callahan's men won the program's 14th national championship in the varsity eight dating to 1913. And Ernst's women have gone from finishing second at the NCAAs in what he called his first, "honeymoon year" in 2008 to 11th at the national finals two years ago to currently being ranked behind only Virginia.
Ernst first reached the elite level of women's rowing in 1976 when he coached the United States' women's doubles boat at the Montreal Olympics. He also coached U.S. women's Olympic boats in 1980, in '84 (to a gold medal), and in '88.
One of his secrets to turning programs from in need of Ernst energy into elite? Basketball, volleyball and swimming meets.
Ernst attends the Washington state high school championships in each of those sports every year. He's invited by coaches across the state that have driven, athletically gifted young women who may not be getting a major college scholarship in their first sport.
Ernst loves those hidden gems. It's a reason he's leading Washington's women's program again.
Twenty-five percent of his current varsity-eight powerhouse are walk-ons: Erin Lauber was an all-state volleyball player and also started in basketball. Skye Pearman-Gillman was a top track runner and also played basketball. Each has since earned their scholarships, as well as a place on the top boat, at UW.
"And then the other six rowers are world-class rowers," Ernst said of his current varsity eight. "To have 25 percent of your lineup as walk-ons, that doesn't happen in any other sport."
Ernst explained that one of the reasons he wanted to coach the women's team again after coaching the UW men for 20 years -- "I didn't have to coach the women's team," he says - was because of these facts: There are roughly 85 women's intercollegiate, Division-I rowing teams. There are about 20 scholarships available for women in the sport at each of those schools.
"That's 1,700 full-ride scholarships every year. I'm here to tell you that there aren't 1,700 blue-chip recruits every year," he says. "And so it is an extremely interesting puzzle to solve."
A win at Cal on Saturday and a reclaiming of that Simpson Cup would show the puzzle is about solved with Husky women's crew.
"I'm a solver. I'm a builder," Ernst says, smiling. "I love that."