With the changing of the guard at both California and Washington, new faces and new training styles were set to renew the rivalry on the west coast. The sixties would include continued fierce racing at the Cal-Washington Dual, and as importantly, would also see the development of other programs throughout the west and a permanent, popular Western Sprints Regatta.
Meanwhile, rowing on the east coast was also changing, particularly with the naming of Harry Parker as coach of Harvard in 1963. The ascendancy of that program, coupled with disappointing results at the Olympics by American eights, prompted a number of training and racing changes nationally including the adoption of the 2,000 meter distance as standard at the IRA.
American culture was also evolving rapidly. By virtue of the interstate highway system, Americans were now free to travel anywhere in the car. Air travel was available. Leisure activities were no longer limited to a thirty mile radius like they had been. The television was going mainstream. And campuses across the country were becoming polarized by politics and student revolution.
Add to that the fact that sporting events were growing, both in scope and level of play. The sixties would see an explosion in professional sports and by 1967, Seattle would have their first professional sports team, the Seattle Supersonics. That same year, the first Super Bowl was played, attracting an estimated 60 million television viewers. Rowing, as a spectator sport, was on the decline; compared to Poughkeepsie, where 100,000 fans would consistently watch from shore, pack the viewing cars on the train, and line the rails of a thousand watercraft, upstate Syracuse was bringing in one-fifth as many.
So put that all together, the sixties were a complicated mix of external forces and internal change that dramatically transformed the sport. At Washington, the solid tradition and community support, coupled with the continued dedication of the athletes and staff, carried the program largely unscathed into the seventies, a triumph in itself. And ultimately, out of the cloud of dust left by the upheaval of these years, would emerge a Washington coaching legend to rival any that had come before him.
In his first fall training session since taking the helm at Washington, Fil Leanderson began an off the water workout campaign that included weight training and stair-running. Stair running in particular was emphasized for cardiovascular fitness and leg strength. (1) This would not be the only change in workout emphasis or coaching style, the changes creating enough unrest within the squad that by spring break a significant number of men had left the team.
Even so, in their first test over the 2000m Montlake Cut sprint course in April, the team showed little signs of dissension as they dispatched both UBC and a new LWRC contingent. LWRC, founded in 1957 and coached by former Washington freshmen coach Stan Pocock, boated a crew of elite oarsmen training for the 1960 Olympics, many of them former Washington grads. Yet in a close race down to the wire, the Washington varsity prevailed. Then in a follow up 2000 meter event a week later, the Washington freshmen, JV’s and varsity swept OSU on the Cut, the varsity and JV by at least five lengths.
All of this was in preparation for the Stanford three miler a week later. “Amid a whistle blowing and cheering line of boats on Seattle’s yachting season opening day”, said the Tyee, “the varsity pulled away to a ten and a half-length victory over Stanford”. Not sure how they calculated that extra half length. In any event, the varsity missed breaking the Seward Park course record (this was not the opening day festivities as known today on the Montlake Cut) by two seconds, underscoring the determination of this squad that were, in effect, rowing by themselves. The JV’s and freshmen also won by multiple lengths.
On to the Cal Dual on the Estuary, where the varsity and freshmen were victors. The JV event was bizarre, where the Huskies came screaming back in the last quarter mile, Cal holding them off as the Cal bow man passed out and crabbed, pulling the shell directly into a footing of the Fruitvale Bridge.
The revamped Western Sprints at Long Beach were next for thirteen western varsity crews, Washington advancing to the 2000m final. However, this time California, who had lost by less than a boat length on the Estuary over three miles, came through Washington at the very end to win by a few feet.
The races against Cal would set up the potential for a terrific showdown at the IRA’s, but ultimately for Washington the results would be little changed from years past. The varsity, leading by as many as two lengths coming into the final mile, faded badly in the heat as both Navy and then a sprinting California pushed past to win. It was, like 1959, painful to lose, made that much worse by a celebrating Cal squad that just won the varsity event at the IRA for the first time since 1949. The JV’s and freshmen also lost, the freshmen finishing third behind Navy and a surprising MIT squad – coached by first-year man Dick Erickson.
The Olympic Trials weeks later on a 2000 meter Lake Onondaga course saw the varsity coming third in their first prelim, defeating Harvard in the repechage, and finishing third in the final behind the favored California crew and Navy, who proceeded to Rome as the U.S. entry. At Rome, the Navy crew did not finish in the medals, the United States losing the event for the first time since 1912. The West Germans won, an event that would reverberate through the American rowing community and leave a permanent mark on future training and rowing styles.
But Washington would be well represented at the 1960 Olympics. The LWRC would win the majority of the other trials, including (Washington athletes in parentheses): the straight pair (Ted Frost ’54 and Bob Rogers ’55), coxed four (Chuck Alm ’58, Lou Gellerman ’58 (alt.)), and straight four (John Sayre ’58). Although Frost, Rogers and Alm would finish out of the medals, Sayre, along with teammates Rusty Wailes, Dan Ayrault and Ted Nash, won gold medals for their Olympic victory in Rome. See Jamco Times for a re-creation of this race at JAMCO 1960 Olympic M4- Finals.
The class of ’63, left to right: Leroy Jones, Chuck Holtz, John Campbell, Fred Pflugrath, Neal Liden, Bob Sylvester, Lloyd Herman, Doug Herring, and Chuck Wetzel, cox. Tyee Photo.
(1) The History of Intercollegiate Rowing at the University of Washington through 1963, Al Ulbrickson Jr.
A returning nucleus of California oarsmen came north in May to race the Huskies on the three mile Seward Park course. The Husky JV’s met their match in the Bears, losing by about a length, but the freshmen prevailed in their two mile event in a terrific race, winning by about a quarter length. The varsity race went out under excellent conditions with a trailing wind, and the speed of both crews shattered the Seward Park record as the experienced California crew pulled away to win by about a length in 14:00. The course record underscored the talent in both of these crews.
A week later the team visited Stanford at Redwood City, winning all three 2000 meter events by safe margins. The crew returned home for the Western Sprints, to be held on Lake Washington for the first time. They were joined by eight other college programs, including OSU, Stanford, California, USC, Long Beach State, Orange Coast College, UCLA, and UBC.
The Huskies would ultimately win the freshmen event, but dropped the JV event to California by about a length. The stunner came in the varsity race: there was confusion at the start, California briefly stopping after apparently hearing the starter stop the race. However, all of the other crews did not stop and the race proceeded with the Huskies, after losing to Cal two weeks earlier, stroking a clean race and edging the Bears at the line by about three feet to win the event. It was an almost identical outcome as the sprint race the year before, with the participants finishing this time in reverse order.
Cal came into the IRA’s having spent the next few weeks “constantly reminded how they had let it get away up north”, according to Jim Lemmon, Cal’s coach. (1) In the varsity event, Cal and Cornell just pulled away from the pack, the two engaged in a dual to the death, exchanging moves, never separated by more than a half-length, with Cal prevailing in the end. Washington, losing sight of these two crews early, finished fourth multiple lengths behind the winner. The JV’s also finished fourth, but Bissett’s freshmen, boating one of the stronger classes to come along in years, brought home the Steward’s Cup for the first time since 1953 and finished the season as undefeated national champions.
The 1961 Freshmen National Champions.
The Western Sprints renamed the team trophy in 1961 in honor of Ky Ebright, the legendary California coach who retired, along with Al Ulbrickson at Washington, in 1959. Apparently the individual medals (in this case, a tie bar for the winners of the varsity event) were not done in time, so they were sent – almost a year later – to the victorious Washington team.
Enclosed with the tie bar was this letter from Ebright, which generally explains the tardiness of the award. Further down however, Ebright includes this: “You can be proud of winning this and other races and proud, like I am, of being a member of the great family of University of Washington oarsman.” That of course is a reference to his tenure as varsity coxswain under Hiram Conibear at Washington from 1916-17, but particularly noteworthy from a man who spent four decades at the helm of Washington’s western rival, California. The bonds of rowing run deep, and this letter mostly serves as a reminder of those bonds – and of the class act that was Ky Ebright. John Wilcox scrapbook.
(1) The Log of Rowing at the University of California, 1870-1987; Jim Lemmon; pg. 52.
The varsity squad entered the 1962 racing season young, deep, and confident. In an early regatta, the team swept OSU, winning the 2000m varsity event by over twenty-five seconds.
The first big test came on the Estuary, with the JV’s and freshmen both winning handily. In the varsity event, the Bears were quick off the line, with California pulling out to a substantial lead. But with a mile left, Washington began to move back and, rowing through the Bears, won the race going away by open water to complete the sweep.
After additional 2000m wins over UBC and UCLA, the varsity and JV traveled to Long Beach for the Western Sprints. The JV’s won by open water, and the varsity by about a length over second place UBC, with Cal finishing third in both races.
The crews headed to Syracuse undefeated, but the results would be frustratingly typical. The freshmen placed second to an always tough Cornell squad (Cornell had finished second to the Huskies in 1961). The JV’s stroked a strong race, charging into the last half mile of their three-mile event firmly in the lead, but in a nightmare revisited like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, the seven-oar passed out from the heat and the crew limped home with seven men rowing, in fourth place. The varsity stroked a tough race but could not overcome the stifling conditions or the power of Cornell, finishing two lengths back in second.
By virtue of the second place IRA finish, the varsity was invited to Philadelphia to race the Leningrad Trud Club, along with other top crews from the United States, on July 4. In the 2000 meter event, the Huskies finished fourth, with the Russians winning the event on American waters on Independence Day – exacting a certain amount of revenge for the loss in Moscow four years earlier.
Grant Allen remembers: When we went off the line in Philadelphia my stop watch read 50 strokes per minute. We were almost putting the oars back into the same puddles. To avoid a collision when the Russians cut our bow at the turn in the river I had to alter course to miss them. It was definitely a disappointing day, losing. Although it was fun seeing 50,000 people line the course. Because Philadelphia didn’t race, the UW was accepted as the ‘home’ crew. Even though we lost the Russian coxswain still gave me his shirt.
Dick Erickson, head coach at MIT and a recent graduate at Harvard (receiving his MA in Education), holding the left ankle of the “Rheingold Girl”. From Ted McCagg: “I rowed with Dick while he was back in Cambridge, in a four out of the Union Boat Club. Rheingold Beer had an election each year for ‘Miss Rheingold’. Their ad said it was the nation’s second largest election. We took Miss Rheingold out for a row. She was the coxswain, obviously, and one lovely but tough broad! They wanted to pay us for the pictures they were shooting. We were all so worried that we might lose our amateur standing by being paid that we finally suggested they donate some beer to the Club. We were very careful NOT to drink any of it. A different era than today.” In the picture are Ted, Dick, the Rev. Joe Brown (Harvard Lightweight coach at the time), and an unknown.
After sweeping the coast in 1962, the men were eager to get back on the water and continue the western dominance of the prior year. Workouts on the lake became more interesting as construction crews worked toward completion of the new Evergreen Point floating bridge, to this day the world’s longest floating bridge. The bridge would open to traffic in the summer of 1963, and provide an ideal 2000-meter cover from the winds and chop of Lake Washington for generations of crewmen to come.
But the men of 1963 would still be forced to hunt down the good water. By the first race of the season, now typically a 2000m dual with OSU, they proved they had found enough through the early months of the year to soundly defeat the Beavers in all three races.
California came north, and the Dual continued the sixties tradition of being a fiercely contested race between two very talented crews. Although the freshmen race was not close, with Washington powering to an open water victory, the JV race went down to the wire, Cal pulling out early in the first mile, holding onto the lead, then seeing it disappear in the last half mile, the Huskies closing the gap to win by a deck at the end, coxswain Dale Lonheim frantically ringing a cow bell in the last thirty strokes to urge his team on.
The varsity event was similar but the outcome unique – in fact so unique it has never been repeated. The crews were off the line together, but like the JV race, Cal moved out to a solid lead through two miles. In the final mile, Washington began to slowly cut into the lead, until coming down the last 200 meters, the crews were neck and neck, crossing the finish line in a blur together. There were three judges on the barge: one said Washington won, one said Cal had won, and after some heated deliberation, the third judge voted it a tie. After three miles of racing, the varsity race went into the books as a draw.
One week later the crews met again on Stanford’s Redwood City course for the Western Sprints and a chance to settle the bitter Dual results. The freshmen did not make the trip, but the JV and varsity both prevailed, in heated contests, over runner-up California by about a deck in their respective events. These terrific races helped settle the west coast championship, but certainly these crews proved to be almost perfectly matched this year.
Once home, Leanderson, fed up with the results at previous IRAs, was determined to do something about it. He ordered and received rubberized nylon jackets for the men to wear in an attempt to replicate the humid conditions of Lake Onondaga. Once on, the jackets did a good job, in the warmth of May and June, to create the stifling conditions expected on Lake Onondaga.
It was a great idea, except the weather, on June 15th in Syracuse, was in fact very similar to a cool June day in Seattle – sixty-seven degrees and a brisk headwind. Furthermore, due to the length of the school year, the team flew to Syracuse only three days before their races, some men even taking finals under the watchful eyes of the coaches. (1) Ulbrickson p 191 The freshmen had a good race, leading by open water midway, but caught a crab with about twenty strokes left and fell to Navy for second in a finish measured in feet. The JV team also finished second to the midshipmen. The varsity though just could never get their bearings, crabbed hard to Starboard at the start and dropped to a disappointing seventh in a fifteen boat field (one race, fifteen boats across, winner take all), the worst defeat there since 1952. Jerry Johnson, varsity stroke, said after the race “We never got set, never got going, and never got unwound. We’re a better crew than that.”
The year would end with the resignation of freshmen coach John Bissett to assume the head coaching position at UCLA. Dick Erickson, visiting from his home in Boston that summer, heard of the vacancy and discussed it with Leanderson. Although settled in Boston, Erickson could not resist the opportunity to coach his alma mater, and with his young family moved back to Seattle to assume the duties as freshmen coach at Washington in the fall of 1963.
Practice on Portage Bay, with a brand new 520 Bridge in the background. Tyee Photo.
A seagull’s eye view of the team. As noted before, the Montlake garbage dump was located adjacent to the crewhouse for many years, and Jon Rider, class of ’63, made this observation in the 1996 Columns Magazine “Hundreds of seagulls were always at the dump. One spring day, I was out in a shell with a teammate when a seagull overhead peeled off from the rest of the flock and launched at us. It was like watching a bomb come at us, with no place to go.” The missile hit his teammate, and Rider laughed so hard he dropped his oar in the water. Tyee Photo.
Beginning in the late fifties, there had been rumblings from upper campus about the Pocock shop at the shellhouse. A private company on public property, the University was growing increasingly uncomfortable with this arrangement, and other private enterprises, on campus. Although Curly Harris had again stepped in on behalf of the team, he could only postpone the inevitable, and by 1962 the order had come down that the Pococks would need to move. For the crew and the Pocock family, and particularly George, this would be painful; for fifty years this man, inextricably linked to Washington Rowing, had been building shells next to the young men that would row them. There is the sense that both drew inspiration from the other; that indefinable synergy, built between the Pocock shop and the life of the crewhouse, disappeared once the shop was empty.
Postponed for another year, by December of 1963 the Pococks would move to a converted warehouse on the north shore of Lake Union, directly below the I-5 bridge. A good-sized shop on the water, shells could be launched carefully from the adjacent park. It was, given the circumstances, a good solution to an unfortunate event that underscored the changes taking place on campus and in intercollegiate athletics. But on the bright side, certainly George would have agreed it beat the (sometimes) floating shop in the middle of Coal Harbor in 1911!
Being an Olympic year, the collegiate rowing community agreed that all races, throughout the season, would be at the 2000-meter distance. This allowed teams to focus all training on the increasingly popular sprint race, greatly reducing the chaotic week-to-week sprint to distance training scramble of previous years.
Leanderson had a deep and experienced squad returning this year and, after success at some early season racing, the team left for the Dual on the Estuary in May. The JV’s and freshmen both stroked to victory, but the varsity was defeated by a resurgent Cal squad implementing a high-stroke rate strategy, never dropping below a thirty-eight over the 2000 meter distance. This was the first Cal Dual rowed at 2000 meters, and clearly the Bear’s strategy paid off, winning by almost a length of open water.
But only weeks later, the Western Sprints saw a very different Washington varsity. Leanderson moved five men from the JV into the varsity boat, and it showed. This time the varsity, although on the losing end, came within a half-length of the Bears. The JV’s did not suffer from the change either, cruising to a half-length win even after blowing into a buoy mid-race. The freshmen were not represented. In a harbinger of things to come, the Western Sprints were held on a typically wind-blown Mission Bay course in San Diego – the first rowing event of that scale in San Diego and welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd.
On to the IRA June 19th and 20th, where for the first time the regatta would hold heats and qualify crews into a six boat final. All three Husky crews advanced to the finals, where the freshmen would finish fourth. “We didn’t have any shipwrecks on the boat… we died in the last 500 meters” croaked a disappointed first year freshmen coach, Dick Erickson.
California, still rowing the high, shorter strokes that had led them to victory on the coast, won the varsity event, with Washington finishing one and a half lengths behind in second. The Washington JV’s, unseeded in their event (i.e. underdogs), powered to an early lead and were never headed to win the Kennedy Cup for the first time since 1956. By virtue of these performances and the fourth place finish of the freshmen, Fil Leanderson took home the IRA Ten Eyck trophy for the second time in his career.
The Olympic trials were held at Pelham NY on the Orchard Beach Lagoon, and the varsity, as runner-up at the IRA, would be considered a strong contender. But although advancing into a semi-final, the crew finished behind California and Yale to be eliminated. Cal, considered the favorite going in, was subsequently defeated by the Vesper Boat Club and Harvard in the final (Yale finished fourth), Vesper winning the right to go to the Olympics. On an October night in Tokyo, this experienced crew would win the gold medal over the famed German Ratzeburg Club. Jamco Times has a reproduction and more information on this race at: JAMCO 1964 Olympic M8+ Finals.
1964 is a representative year of the rapid changes taking place in rowing during this time. Karl Adams, the physics teacher and coach of Ratzeburg, had been experimenting for a decade in various rowing styles and strategies, implementing harder, cross-training regimens, bucket (i.e. asymmetrical) rigging, and advocating higher stroked races for the 2000-meter distance, winning the 1960 Olympics and stunning the rowing world. By 1964, Harry Parker at Harvard in particular, and now California – and to a degree Washington – had adopted some of these techniques, witnessed by the “high and hard” strategy of the Cal crew at the IRA. As important were the technological changes; this would be the first year that California, following the Harry Parker lead (originally used by the Germans), used tulip blades (or “scoops”) in place of the traditional Pocock sweeps. (1) Pocock would begin developing similar oars to replace sweep blades in the months to come.
All four crews in the final of the ’64 trials were using scoops, and Vesper was rowing an Italian (Donoratico) shell. Harry Parker was ordering Stampfli Shells from Europe. The Pocock dynasty and design was beginning to see a new, albeit small, part of the market turning to re-engineered, experimental equipment. Some of it worked, some of it (like an aluminum boat) did not. But it was happening.
And then there was the shift to club crew racing at the trials. LWRC once again would enter and win the straight four trial in 1964 (bronze at the Olympics – no Washington grads). The victorious Vesper eight was a strong crew filled with elite oarsmen from around the country, and included a 46 year-old, three-time Hungarian Olympian defector as coxswain, a stroke from Cornell, a couple of Yale men, the Amlong brothers (a championship caliber pair with twelve years’ experience), and a 35 year-old father of six – with nineteen years of rowing behind him. Deep and experienced, and stroking with the same precision and style of Ratzeburg, this crew was as polished as they come. “This will be the end of college eights from America in the Olympics” predicted MIT coach Jack Frailey (2). Although one Olympics off in his prediction, the writing was on the wall, and he, and everyone else there, knew it.
The victorious JV’s in front of the Syracuse boat bays, left to right: Dick Shindler, Ken Ness, Jim Gavin, Alden Hanson, Dick Moen, Rick Clothier (cox), Bill McConacle, Jon Runstad, Jerry Johnson. Tyee Photo.
1) The Log of Rowing at the University of California, 1870-1987; Jim Lemmon; pg. 56. (2) Boston Sunday Herald, 7/12/64, pC5.
By the fall of 1964 construction had begun on an addition to the shellhouse that would add dormitory space for close to eighty men (the two story west wing and additional rooms on the original building). This improvement was planned as space for the football team in the fall, with the rowing team housed in winter and spring quarters, but by the 70’s the crewhouse held only the crew team. The Varsity Boat Club of ’65 would be the first to move out of their surplus bunk beds in the boat bays and on the porch, and into real rooms with desks, built in cabinets, and twin bunks.
California came to Seattle for the Dual on the Seward Park course on May 8th. In the two-mile freshmen event, California won by over two lengths, and in the three-mile JV event by over three lengths. Although leading for much of the race, the varsity lost a man to exhaustion and could not hold off the Bears in the last quarter mile, Cal finishing a length and a half ahead of the Huskies to complete the first sweep by California on Lake Washington in the sixty-year history of the Dual.
Needless to say the climate at the crewhouse was anything but pleasant in the two weeks gearing up for the Western Sprints. In a warm up, the crew faced off with a good UBC crew and beat them by two-tenths of a second in a ferocious race on the Seward Park 2000 meter course, re-gaining some important confidence.
The Sprints were held in the same place – Seward Park – a week later. In a remarkable turnaround and a credit to Leanderson and his team’s perseverance, the freshmen, JV’s, and varsity all would win. Two weeks after being swept by Cal, the JV’s and freshmen both won by at least a length, the varsity fighting down the course with UBC and winning this time by nine-tenths of a second, California coming third. The men, so rocked just two weeks previous, hoisted the broom up the Shellhouse flagpole in celebration. John Vynne, the JV stroke, said about the days leading into the race “There has been a lot better attitude…everyone really wanted this one.”
Back to conditioning for distance – and the heat – the men embarked on a three week schedule of endurance training for the IRA. On June 19th the Huskies finished third in the frosh event, fourth in the JV event, and third in the varsity race. The varsity race – back to lining up fifteen crews across for one race – saw Washington advance after a poor start from twelfth place to third, methodically rowing through almost every crew except for Navy – the eventual winner – and Cornell. “They didn’t fold” said Leanderson “there are some fighters in there.”
The defining moment for this team was to come back from a devastating sweep versus Cal to a sweep of their own at the Sprints. The JV and freshmen wins at this event underscored the depth of determination in this squad, and re-established Washington as the predominant team on the west coast.
Class Day 1965, with the sophomores winning the featured event. Tyee Photo.
The west coast was now widely represented with rowing teams, with six schools in the PAC-8 boating teams (only Oregon and Washington State did not) and a broad group of junior colleges and smaller state colleges participating.
For the first time since inception, the Unclassified’s – a group of men not rowing in in their chosen “Class” boats – won the 1966 class day over the Sophomores and Juniors. The race, sponsored by the Seattle Times since 1930, was renamed the George Varnell Trophy in honor of the dean of West Coast writers this year.
By the time the Dual arrived, the men were in prime condition and it showed. On the Estuary, the team exacted revenge for the sweep on their home course a year earlier with a sweep of their own at Cal. And they did so with some authority, winning by over four lengths in the JV and frosh events, and by over three lengths in the three-mile varsity event.
On May 21 the varsity and JV traveled to Vallejo, California, at the east end of San Francisco Bay. Come race day, the regatta had all the makings of previous events on the Bay, with fierce winds and the water to go with it. The JV’s rowed a strong race, winning by a length over Orange Coast College. But by the last race of the day, the stake boats, reminiscent of Marietta, had blown away. The waves were rebounding off the seawall next to the course creating a chaos of chop, and the men were soaked before the race even began. Once underway it was a water fight, with Washington prevailing into the headwind and the white-capped seas in 6:51, about a length ahead of Stanford and a trailing Cal. That time still remains the slowest winning varsity time in the history of the event – not something to brag about, but noteworthy in that it underscores the horrendous conditions in that race.
The crew then traveled to Syracuse with three undefeated crews and the confidence that went with it. The day before the men went out for a time trial and were flying, with Leanderson cutting it off early. The traditional coaches poll before the race had Washington favored to win the JV and varsity events. They were ready.
Washington would surprise – just not in the right way. The freshmen, in their two miler, finished ninth out of twelve; a stunned JV finished a disappointing fourth. But the varsity race was the real shocker: out of fifteen teams, the favored Washington placed eleventh, finishing way behind Stanford and California. And there was no explanation for it either: the crew had a bad start, like 1965, but this time shortened up and could not get it back. The day was an unmitigated disaster, the freshmen and varsity finishes by far the worst placing of any Washington teams at the IRA.
The west coast was virtually non-existent in the entire event, Stanford at sixth place the best finish in the varsity. Couple that with the fact that Harvard had won the Eastern Sprints, and they weren’t even at the IRA. This was a tough one, and there were no easy ways to get around it.
The men out on the Lake, with Terry Efirt showing the finesse that put him in the varsity stroke seat. Tyee Photo.
The response to the IRA debacle of 1966 was an overwhelming effort on the part of alums and friends of Washington crew to rally around the team. In an impassioned letter to this community, the Stewards vowed that it “was time we… started lashing back” at the competition on both coasts.
To show his support of this effort, the athletic director at the time, Jim Owens, made the head coaching job a full-time position once again (it was made part-time after Ulbrickson retired in 1959). John White, the four oar of the 1936 Olympic crew, came north from his home in California to make an inspirational speech to all of the men at the VBC banquet. And, in an effort to avoid the vast gap of racing between the west coast schedule and the IRA, an east coast race was scheduled as a warm-up in early June with Wisconsin and Navy. With the wagons circled and the team revitalized, the season began in earnest in April.
California came north for the dual, and the Washington varsity poured it on over the three-mile Seward Park course to win by nineteen seconds going away. The freshmen also won, but the JV’s fell by ten seconds to the Bears. Bob Moch, varsity coxswain and son of the ’36 helmsman, said after the race “It’s good to have a win under our belts – we’ll work from here.”
The work was in preparation of the Western Sprints 2000 meter event a week later. And for the first time since Stanford had won the coast championship in 1915, another crew, outside of California or Washington, was favored. UCLA had already defeated California earlier, and Coach John Bissett had the Bruins in fine form. The varsity race was a good one, but UCLA prevailed by a length. The JV’s fell to sixth, losing to Stanford, Cal, and Orange Coast College among others.
The team left for the east coast early for the previously scheduled race on the Severn River with Navy and Wisconsin. The freshmen won their race, but the varsity and JV both fell in the ninety degree temperatures.
The IRA results a week later were anticlimactic, the varsity finishing seventh, the JV’s fifth, and the freshmen third on a dead calm day in Syracuse. Washington finished in front of UCLA, Stanford, and California in every race, a moral victory of sorts but further evidence of the decline of the west. 1967 also marked the last three-mile event at the IRA; after 1968, the IRA would permanently adopt the 2000 meter distance for all races.
Fil Leanderson knew, when he took the job, there was little room for error and little patience in losing among the Washington alums. And for the most part, his crews dominated the west coast and certainly had their moments at the IRA. But the 1966 public debacle after being so highly rated, coupled with the Sprints loss in 1967 and seventh at the IRA – particularly after such a broad rallying cry – was enough for everyone, including Leanderson. In the late summer of 1967, Dick Erickson was hired to replace Leanderson as the seventh head coach in the history of Washington Crew.
Class Day 1967, with the seniors victorious over the sophomores and, nearest to the camera, the stern of the frosh. It was during the 1967 campaign that the freshmen, for half a century referred to as “Igorotes,” saw the name change to “Nye Grunties”, shortened to the more endearing “Gruntie” as the years progressed. Although there are any number of theories out there regarding the name change – not the least of which was the societal change all around – members of the class of ’68 receive most of the credit for the evolvement. Apparently their diction when saying “Nye Gruntie” was particularly disdainful; it is not known if that was related in any way to the fact the frosh beat them on Class Day, ’67. Tyee Photo.
By 1968 the unrest on campus had turned into organized anti-war and civil rights protests. The campus was consumed with politics and cultural change.
The men at the crewhouse, meanwhile, were consumed with thoughts of regaining the rowing dynasty built by their forefathers. Dick Erickson, with his new frosh coach and old teammate Lou Gellerman, brought along a passion for the sport that the men could feel. The coaches also implemented new training techniques including long distance running, weight training, and spring break spent on Lake Whatcom near Bellingham for a week-long, intense training camp. Another Olympic year, all races would be at 2000 meters, including the IRA, so training could focus on the sprint.
So it was with a certain amount of confidence and swagger that the varsity went to the Williamette to race Stanford and OSU and promptly laid an egg. Stanford had a strong start and just sat on the Huskies over the shortened up-current course, holding off their rival and finishing a half-second ahead. It was an inauspicious start for first year coach Dick Erickson, and “a long van ride home” said stroke Rick Cole.
After a week of re-evaluation but very few seat changes, the team began to put it in gear. They traveled south to the Estuary to face a Bear squad fighting the distractions of a campus in chaos, and Washington swept the regatta, with the only serious challenge coming in the JV event. UCLA also defeated the Bears in their dual race, so the showdown at the sprints would likely pit Washington versus UCLA again, with Stanford a darkhorse.
On May 18th the team hosted the Western Sprints on the Seward Park 2000m course. On a perfect day for rowing, the freshmen won their event, but the JV’s finished second behind a now firmly established Orange Coast squad (this OCC crew finished second at the IRA later in the year). In the final event, Erickson’s training regimen carried a strong and focused varsity team past the Bruins in the middle part of the race, and the crew finished a length ahead in a record time of 5:56.7.
Erickson took his men back to Syracuse early to once again face off against Wisconsin and Navy, defeating both crews in a warm-up to the IRA. Following that, in the heats leading up to the six boat IRA final, the varsity and freshmen advanced, but the JV’s did not. In the finals on June 15th, the freshmen would place fifth, but the varsity would surprise the pundits by finishing second to Pennsylvania.
By virtue of the second place finish the varsity was invited to the Olympic Trials at the Long Beach, California course in July, site of the 1932 Olympics and the 1933 National Championship victory by Washington. In the closest trials finish ever recorded – and a race still talked about today – Harvard defeated Pennsylvania by less than a foot, earning the right to represent the United States in Mexico City. Washington advanced to the final, finishing a close fourth behind third place Vesper.
But 1968 was hardly a disappointment. In fact, in one year the program had recovered from the depths of defeat to win the Western Sprints, finish second at the IRA and race at the Olympic trials.
Harvard would finish sixth at the Olympics, a worthy accomplishment behind West Germany, Australia, and the USSR, all highly trained, elite national teams. None of the US teams used Pocock equipment, a continuation of the trend away from these shells and toward European makers. The tradition of collegiate crews facing off to represent the country at the Olympics would end at Long Beach; by 1972, the national camp would select the athletes to represent the US in the eight oared event.
The VBC officers, left to right Rick Cole, Glen Bowser, Brad Thomas, Larry “Feed” Johnson, and Mike Buse. “Feed” got his nickname from the enormous amounts of food he could consume and maintain his weight. That could not be said about all of the residents of Conibear Shellhouse; Vic and Bonnie – the cooks in the kitchen hired by the VBC – are legendary among the men who lived there. Bonnie made the “best sticky rolls ever” said one. The men lived at the shellhouse from January 1 through the end of the school year, and some even stayed through the summer. The football team lived at Conibear in the fall. Tyee Photo.
1) Ready All! George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing, Gordon Newell, pg. 70.
“When Erickson became head coach, he also became crewhouse manager, which meant he was responsible for everything from making sure the rooms were rented to the inhabitants behavior. The latter often became a stretch, particularly when he arrived for work early one morning in the midst of a snowstorm. He looked over to where the present intramural building was under construction and saw a big front-loader tipped onto its side. “I thought ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve done it now’,” said Erickson, who noticed footprints from the overturned machine to the crewhouse. Erickson learned that there had been a snowball fight involving his oarsmen, some of whom were deployed tank-like in the big loader. He was told that coxswains had taken position in the loader’s bucket, from where they launched snowballs from a raised position. Erickson figured he would have to explain his oarsman’s actions once workmen discovered the condition of their loader. But the snow kept falling, work didn’t resume for several days and Erickson never was asked for an explanation.” Dick Rockne, The Seattle Times, 6/2/95, “Husky Fun House”
By now the counter-culture revolution was in full force across American campuses. At the center was Cal Berkeley, where for five years now the protests, disruption, and now violence were an almost daily occurrence. The entire athletic program there was on a steep decline, one from which they would not recover for a number of years.
By the fall of 1968, The University of Washington had seen the first fire-bombing of a building on campus (Clark Hall), and open civil disobedience and unrest was pervasive. It was a difficult time to wear a crew cut, or participate in organized sports at any level, with collegiate athletics seen in many circles as a negative reflection of established institutions.
So it was fortunate in that sense that the shellhouse was situated away from the center of campus. The men could focus on their studies and their sport without the distractions of upper campus. Erickson had introduced morning turnouts upon his arrival, with the men hitting the water at 7:00 a.m., and afternoon weight training or running filling the schedule. That schedule, coupled with the living situation and Erickson’s disciplined and engaging style, kept a sense of order at the crewhouse that was difficult to come by elsewhere.
California came north for the Dual but they were in bad shape and the results would reflect it. Washington won by eight lengths over the three mile Seward Park course, with the freshmen and JV’s also winning by multiple lengths. This would be the last time the Dual would be raced at the distance; in 1970, the race was permanently changed to 2000 meters for all events.
Bissett had his UCLA squad in fine form again as the team arrived in San Diego for the Sprints. The Bruins nipped the JV’s by a second in their race, but the Husky varsity powered through theirs to win by more than a length over the Bruins. The frosh also won by open water. California finished last in the varsity race and did not make the finals of the JV event.
The IRA Stewards had voted in the off-season to permanently change the distance of all IRA events to 2000 meters. On June 14th, after qualifying both the freshmen and the varsity into the finals (the JV’s did not make the trip), the varsity would finish third behind Pennsylvania and Dartmouth. But the race of the day was in the freshmen event: both Pennsylvania and Washington came storming down the last 300 meters neck and neck, and finished so close together that the officials had to wait to determine the winner via the photo finish. In a remarkable, unprecedented and unrepeated scenario at the IRA, the crews were crowned co-champions in a dead heat. Their time of 6:27.4 was less than a second off of the fastest time rowed that day in even the varsity event.
These results furthered the notion that 1968 was not a fluke, and proved that Erickson’s prediction at the beginning of the ’69 campaign that “we will compete with the best” was correct. With a slew of returning, experienced oarsmen, Erickson would take his men into the next decade with newfound confidence and the understanding that the program was, again, one of the fastest in the nation.
The 1969 varsity boat against the Evergreen Point Bridge, left to right: Mike Viereck, Brian Miller (wearing a 1968 Olympic trials shirt), Dave White, Glen Bowser, Rick Cole, Chad Rudolph, Brad Thomas, and Fred Mann. Tyee Photo.
Sources for the 60’s: University of Washington, The Tyee, 1961 -1970; VBC Log Book, 1962-1968, MSCUA; VBC Log Book, 1969-1973, MSCUA; The Log of Rowing at the University of California, 1870-1987, Jim Lemmon; Ready All! George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing, Gordon Newell; “Way Enough”, Recollections of a Life in Rowing; Stan Pocock; Masters Thesis: The History of Intercollegiate Rowing at the University of Washington through 1963, Al Ulbrickson Jr.; The Seattle Post Intelligencer, various articles (specifics available on request); The Seattle Times, various articles (specifics available on request); A Short History of American Rowing, Thomas Mendenhall; Files from the Dick Erickson attic; Interviews with John Wilcox, Bill Pitlick, Dave Covey, Dee Walker, Rick Cole, and Chuck Schluter, 1/03.
The history content on this website is copyrighted © 2001 – 2015 by Eric Cohen, ’82, Team Historian.