RR Interview: UVA Men's Head Coach Frank Biller

The UVA Men's Varsity VIII training on home water
Frank Biller has been involved in the sport of rowing as an athlete, businessman, and coach, with great success in all three aspects. His current project is coaching the University of Virginia Men's Rowing team -- a club program that has posted better and better results, both on the erg and on the water, since he took over the squad in 2009. Last Autumn, the UVA men placed fourth at the Head of the Charles in the Men's Collegiate Eights division, behind only varsity programs, and most recently the UVA men put on a show at the Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints, with the exclamation point coming from Matt Miller, who took first place at the event in a time of 5:54.7 -- a time that would have earned him a bronze medal at Crash-B's a month later. Here, RR asks Frank about his background and experience, coaching in club sports, the approach that he brings to UVA, and their outlook for Spring 2011, which includes a trip to Henley this July.

RR: You have experienced several different rowing cultures during your career in the sport—as a native of Switzerland, what adjustments did you make when you took on a coaching role in the United States? How does your experience of different approaches to the sport inform your coaching today?

FB: I’ve been involved in rowing since 1988, both coaching and competing. When I arrived in Philadelphia for graduate school, I rowed at Fairmount. I was recruited aggressively by Mike McKenna —varsity coach for Mount St. Joseph’s—to help out. Being in graduate school, I had spare time. Coaching high school girls was an interesting experience. I learned that my accent alone could be very effective! I did not make any conscious adjustments, though. I just kept learning. I have always been a student of the sport.

When I worked for Nielsen-Kellerman, I focused almost exclusively on the physics of the sport: how to measure speed, biomechanics, etc. That’s when Volker Nolte took me under his wing and we became close friends. He is my most important mentor. He taught me to constantly analyze and test, to try out new stuff. Whenever I get wings, he brings me down to earth with his German realism.

Science plays a very important role in our program at Virginia, and we apply it daily. We strive to apply the best practices from each system and culture. In addition I bring in ideas from the military, as well as from the business world, that are applicable to rowing.

One of my most defining coaching experiences was helping coach the first Paralympic rowing team in Beijing and helping with the two-year build-up beforehand. The medals were nice, but the price I paid was huge. It didn’t occur to me until later how much I got out of it. It put everything into perspective. It was by far the most difficult and most demanding coaching I had ever done. I wouldn’t be who I am today without that experience.

UVA VIIIs training on Rivanna Course
RR: The landscape of men's rowing in the United States has changed, and the club model is becoming an increasingly important paradigm. How have you set about creating a culture of success in a club system?

FB: I think the basics of successful coaching are the same whether you work with Olympians or novice walk-ons in a small club. The rowing stroke is the rowing stroke—simple and fluid. And people are people—there is always drama. The key is to get each athlete to reach his potential, which requires a lot of work and care from the coaches. If the athletes are intrinsically motivated, then the culture of success will happen by itself. We see ourselves as mentors to the athletes, but it’s their job to realize their potential.

One might think that creating a culture of success is more challenging in a club system than in a varsity program. But anyone who shows up every weekday at 6 AM is sufficiently motivated. The rest is up to the coaching staff—and they are key. You get what you pay for. We got an outstanding novice coach in Erich Shuler, and an experienced assistant coach in Mike Blanchette. The three of us have been around the block and complement each other in many ways.

But two much-more-important elements are organization and structure! In order for a club to be really successful, it should never be run solely by the students! Student-athletes should play an important role in training and competition decisions, and they should fill managerial positions. The board of directors, however, has to be in charge of strategy, as well as of financial and hiring decisions.

Varsity programs are guided by athletic departments, usually in a more bureaucratic than dynamic way. Clubs can tap into great resources too. Here at Virginia, for example, the board consists mostly of alums, most of whom are successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, and professionals who bring a lot of knowledge, as well as high expectations, to the table. In addition we include people with academic and rowing backgrounds from the local community. This structure attracts donations. But make no mistake, as the “CEO,” I’ll be fired not long after missing goals and targets—unlike many varsity coaches. And I love that aspect. It makes this a real job!

RR: In a recent article about Gregg Hartsuff and the Michigan men's rowing team, the reporter perpetuates the common misconception that success in a club program will lead to the club being 'reinstated' as a varsity sport at the university. In some of your published writings, you mention that the goal has nothing to do with varsity or club status -- the goal is simply to compete at the highest level possible. While this is a strong mantra, how can club programs go about building a tradition of success that is not wholly dependent on the head coach's talent?

FB: Men’s rowing was never a varsity sport at Virginia, so there’s no reinstating to be done. At Virginia, the men’s team doesn’t spend one minute hoping that we’ll be granted varsity status. Our job is to create the best program we can.

Getting a good head coach is not a matter of status; it’s a matter of potential, infrastructure, and the overall bottom line that a program has to offer. The best thing a club can do is build a sound program so that even after a few not-so-successful years, the program isn’t broken. Then it’s easy to attract good coaches.

Over the years, Virginia has been able to attract good coaches. The best known, of course, is Kevin Sauer, who is like a godfather around here (although he will deny it). His work in creating today’s structure, in my view, has been the single most important factor in the program’s success. The synergy between the men’s and women’s teams is important to the coaches. And it’s simply fun to work together. It is no doubt beneficial for the women’s team to share the boathouse with a good men’s team. That’s why we refer to both teams as “Virginia Rowing.”

RR: One of the most important aspects of club rowing is for the current coaches, team members, and support staff to develop a connection with the alumni network. How have you facilitated ongoing alumni involvement, and what advice do you have for other club programs?

FB: We have a large alumni database. We have good communication with our alumni (and they with us). We host regular reunions and other events. It is important to demonstrate continuity of excellence. The collection and maintenance of alumni records is key for fundraising. Convince your school that donations will come, because the alumni fundraiser person will get excited about it. Donations will be credited to the alumnus but will be available to you. Everyone wins.

RR: Since taking over the University of Virginia's men's rowing team, you have made steady progress, and have done very well developing the physiology of your athletes. Recently, one of your athletes (Matt Miller) managed a 5:54.7 2k -- a score that would have taken 3rd place overall at the 2011 Crash-B Indoor Rowing World Championships. How do you balance your training plan in order to produce such outstanding results?

FB: It’s all about helping the athletes be the best they can be. They bring their intrinsic motivation, and our job as coaches is to mentor them. There is no silver bullet, just smart work and, of course, highly individualized training programs. The only comment I hear is that we don’t train particularly hard. There is nothing special about Matt Miller either (although he is a nice guy). He will graduate this spring, and others are lined up to take his spot.

The base work starts at the novice level and continues thereafter. Avoiding injuries is a key component. Rehabbing is not the solution; prehabbing is. We apply anything we can (land workouts, technique, biomechanics, rigging, etc.), and we are almost completely injury free. Lost training days are a significant threat to a successful training program. A good coach will know if an athlete’s injury is the result of his training program, and he’ll modify the program quickly.

UVA Second Varsity VIII
RR: Your Varsity 8 took fourth in the Collegiate Eights category at the Head of the Charles last October, and was the first-place club team in the event. What kind of performance were you looking for in Boston, and how did you feel about the result?

FB: The guys were disappointed. They wanted to be in the top three since we had bow number 6, preferably beating Williams and Trinity. They were held up by Bucknell — bow number 5 — pretty badly, but that’s part of racing on the Charles. An already good rivalry just got better!

RR: In addition to Matt Miller, you have a number of rowers who have developed good speed on the erg, including Alan Kush, Jon Furlong, and Steven Lee-Kramer (6:13.3, 6:17.3 and 6:18.0 respectively), who took 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in the Collegiate Division at the Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints. Is there a sense of urgency this year? What are you hoping to see in your first encounter with Michigan this April?

FB: We want to do well this spring, but there is no urgency for erg scores. They are just a by-product. Mid-Atlantics is a great showcase for us to the northern Virginia high school rowers. So instead of pulling a 2K at home, we took a short trip north.

In April it will be interesting to see how our boats fare against Michigan’s. The highlight is the “Battle of the People’s Eights,” as we call the 2Vs. Michigan’s 1V will be at the San Diego Crew Classic. Our 1V, of course, will have their hands full against Brock, Grand Valley, Michigan State, etc. These results won’t be any indication for the later spring, though.

RR: How do you feel about your team's commitment and progress thus far, and what are you looking to accomplish at ACRAs this May?

FB: The commitment is outstanding, and the progress is as planned. However, the cards will be dealt fresh every weekend. It’s the athletes’ decision what they want to accomplish at ACRA. I think they have it all in place to do very well, certainly better than last year. Gainesville is a championship-worthy location, and the weekend doesn’t conflict with graduation this year, so we will bring a large squad. It will be a big rowing party. But it’s the athletes’ thing. We coaches just drive the trailer and watch some rowing. After ACRA, we’ll get busy selecting the team for the Henley Royal Regatta.

Thanks very much to Coach Biller for taking the time. Photos courtesy of Frank Biller.

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