Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to USRowing – Coaching Matters

USRowing and Rowing Canada Aviron are at a turning point, with both programs in search of coaching and leadership following the Olympic Games. While RCA's issues are more to do with the polarizing effect of Mike Spracklen, USRowing has only itself to blame. In USRowing's case, there appears to be a continuing shift in favor of bureaucracy and away from what makes boats go fast. This is especially troubling considering the comparatively limited budget of USRowing in the international rowing sphere.

As most in the rowing community expected, USRowing parted ways with Tim McLaren immediately following the 2012 Olympics. Let's face it – bronze medal at the Games aside (the product of the head coach becoming the men's four coach), it was not a successful Olympic cycle. However, instead of making a new men's head coach priority Number One, USRowing hired Curtis Jordan as the new high performance director. The problem is, USRowing already had a high performance director, Matt Imes, who has not left the organization – now, Imes is listed as the 'Associate Director of High Performance' on the USRowing website. What does that mean? What it sounds like is that USRowing has created yet another bureaucratic position, likely to the tune of $100,000+, and not hired a coach. You know, that guy (or gal) who works with athletes and boats?

Sound familiar? That's because USRowing did (almost) the same thing in 2010, moving Kris Korzeniowski into a bureaucratic position and away from coaching the national team. As far as an explanation, USRowing has been typically cryptic (i.e., USRowing has simply not addressed Imes' new position in any way). How crafty! Maybe no one will notice!

That being said, USRowing is unlikely to reverse course. Despite the unaddressed financial implications of the move, the situation can still, possibly, work out for the best. It keys entirely on one thing – hiring the right candidate for the men's head coaching position – and, fortunately, that candidate is out there.

Top Pick: Tom Bohrer
Tom Bohrer is an outstanding coach, with a fantastic athletic background that includes an Olympic silver medal in the coxless four. He has a proven track record of developing talent, and has taken a stagnant Boston University program into a position of national prominence during his tenure there. He would have the immediate respect of the athletes in the USRowing community, and he understands the nature of rowing in the United States – he will not spend the next four years trying to make this into a European/Australian system, and instead will know just how to take advantage of the existing situation. The bottom line is, Bohrer would be a great hire.

Dave O'Neill
As the head coach of the California women's rowing team, O'Neill has had tremendous success, from recruiting to developing top-end speed. Just looking at the list of athletes from O'Neill's program at the 2012 Olympic Games will give you a glimpse into just how competitive the Cal Bears are, as well as an idea of the kind of culture O'Neill knows how to create. Also, O'Neill has a club background, and knows exactly how to make the most of available resources to field the most competitive team possible. And, he has international coaching experience, having worked with Julie Nichols (a Cal alum) and Kristin Hedstrom during the last Olympic cycle.

Luke McGee
As Washington men's head coach Mike Callahan knows and appreciates, Luke McGee is arguably the best assistant coach in the United States, helping Callahan and the UW Huskies to a record six straight Ten Eyck trophies, not to mention his work as coach of the victorious U.S. men's eight at the 2012 under-23 world championships earlier this year. Again, McGee knows how to build a successful culture, and, like Bohrer, has international racing experience at the elite level. While some might argue that his youth would work against him (McGee is in his mid thirties), it didn't seem to hurt Mike Teti, who led the U.S. lightweight men's four to a bronze at the 1996 Olympic Games at age 40.

The first response from much of the rowing community to this post will be, understandably, 'fat chance. You're never going to convince those guys to leave top-flight collegiate programs to take over with USRowing.'

And that's the heart of the problem. Everyone on the above list is extremely competitive, and has a track record of success already at the collegiate level – indeed, at the elite level in some cases. Why wouldn't such driven competitors jump at the chance to lead the United States national team into Rio? The answer is that USRowing has made what should be the most coveted position in the United States into something to be avoided – which explains the rumors about USRowing's hunt for a head coach going outside the U.S. once again. The problem is not that we don't have many able candidates on home turf, it's that, in the past, USRowing has proven too unstable and too untrustworthy for any of the top U.S. coaches to take interest. With the exception, of course, of Mike Teti, who left unappreciated by USRowing top brass in 2008, only to return as a 'savior' in 2011-2012.

So, the way I see it, the job of USRowing's staff of high performance directors is to change all that, as soon as possible. The position of men's head coach for the United States national team should be the best position in the country. It should be easy to fill that position, because it should be the most attractive coaching position out there – not a worldwide scramble to try to find a foreign coach too unfamiliar with the program to know he nature of its advantages and shortcomings. This is not a xenophobic sentiment – despite his polarizing effect, Mike Spracklen is familiar with the U.S. system and could prove an effective choice – rather, it is a call for decisive action in transparent terms from USRowing.

There is no dearth of great coaching in the United States. If no one comes knocking, then you are the problem, and it's time to make some changes.

6 comments:

  1. We have had great coaches. One coach is very rarely going to produce more than 1 Olympic medal. Terhar had the strongest group of women in the world and produced 2. Spracklen: great coach= 1 medal. Tim Mclaren is a great coach and brought home 1 medal. Teti 1 medal. It's going to take a lot more than one coach to make a medal haul with camp boats. I agree that we've got a lot of great coaches but I think looking to 1 or 2 to fix the problem isn't going to work.

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    1. Hi RR,

      The point was not to indicate that the bronze medal at the Olympics was a poor result – it was a great achievement by a relatively untested group of athletes. The problem is, McLaren was hired as the head men's coach, and ended up coaching one boat - not really the same thing. It was the addition of Teti that made the program more competitive top to bottom. The next head coach needs to be able to handle multiple priorities within the existing U.S. system, the way that Terhaar does on the women's side.

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    2. My point wasn't to give any of the coaches a pass on producing one medal. And, coaching one boat to a medal seems to come up very short of our goals for a US coach. Point was, for one coach to produce one medal is a pretty high standard.
      I don't think it's a possibility to recreate what Terhar has on the women's side. And, hiring one head coach to do the job isn't likely to work out any better than the last couple cycles, whatever we pay them.
      And I agree, I've heard a lot of complaints about funding and money, but that hasn't seemed to slow down the addition of new positions.

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  2. They forgot to mention the gold in the women's 8+ when they called this year a "disappointing Olympic cycle". While any of the 3 mention above, as well as McLaren, would be great choices for heading the best rowing team our country has to offer, US Rowing should not be getting caught up in the numbers and start focusing on the results.

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    1. Hi Jeannette,

      Thanks for your comment. No, we didn't forget about the gold for the women's eight (nor the bronze for the women in the quad). The article pertains specifically to the men's national team. Tom Terhaar runs the women's team, and does an outstanding job - what we need is a parallel on the men's side.

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  3. For further background on this piece, please see the link below:

    http://www.rowingrelated.com/2012/09/op-ed-does-usrowing-need-high.html

    Thanks!

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