USRowing Coaching Changes: Discussion and Analysis
As I'm sure you all know, there was some big news for those of us stateside last week. That's right, USRowing announced that it would be taking on none other than Washington frosh coach Luke McGee to take over the responsibilities of coaching the U.S. men's eight and U23 men's eight, while current lightweight coach Bryan Volpenhein will take on the additional duty of coaching the men's heavyweight four. Oh, and we elected a president.
Getting right down to it, there are some reasons to like this move, and some major questions regarding the timing and the new roles that these two coaches will take on as we begin a new quadrennium. First, let's look on the bright side.
Personally, I was excited to hear that Luke McGee would be taking on a role with the U.S. national team, particularly after we named him as one of our top candidates (along with our top pick, Tom Bohrer, and California's Dave O'Neill) in our piece calling out USRowing for not being aggressive enough in recruiting top collegiate coaches for national team positions. McGee has a very strong track record at the college level, helping to build Washington from a perennial powerhouse into a true dynasty over the past several seasons, culminating in a sweep of the IRA last June (and a new course record in the frosh eight, among other events). He then went on to lead the U.S. under-23 men's eight to a gold medal in Trakai, with a lineup that included several Washington Huskies whom McGee himself had helped to develop. The atmosphere and intensity that surrounds the Conibear Shellhouse under the current regime is unparalleled, and McGee shares a bit about that in the upcoming feature I've written for the next issue of Rowing Magazine. The long and the short of it is, Mike Callahan and McGee have created a culture where everyone's efforts are appreciated, as the will of the entire team is focused on one goal, such that the athletes in the third varsity eight feel equally valued for the pressure that they put on the top two crews as the squad strives for yet another Ten Eyck trophy this season.
If McGee can accomplish anything close to this within the first two seasons in Princeton (which is to become the home of the men's senior and under-23 eights once again), then we could be well positioned for Rio. McGee can make use of his existing relationships with college coaches and athletes to build a bridge to the under-23 national team (something that he stressed would be a top priority in our interview), and make for more personal investment on the part of both the coaches and the athletes in the college system by giving each of them a sense of ownership, recognizing hard work and appreciating support. The location in Princeton also means that McGee will have the chance to work in close proximity to Tom Terhaar, who, perhaps better than any other coach in the U.S. at this time, knows how to create a culture of competition and success that is sustainable—simply looking at the long list of athletes who have contributed to the seven-straight seasons of victories in the women's eight is proof enough of that. Finally, McGee was a senior national team member, and making the U.S. system competitive on the world stage will have a strong personal tie for him that might not have been the present had USRowing hired an international coach.
As for Bryan Volpenhein, he has anchored the program in Oklahoma City since 2011, and it appears clear that the financial and social backing of the sport in OKC is not going anywhere anytime soon. USRowing, therefore, must have a training center there, and, given Volpenhein's familiarity with the place, it seems almost natural that he be asked to continue there in a more prominent role following the departure of McLaren. He accomplished a goal of getting the men's lightweight four to the Olympic Games last summer, where they performed well in one of the most competitive fields at the Olympic Regatta. Also, Volpenhein and McGee are former teammates with the U.S. national squad—perhaps this will benefit them in terms of communication and creating a positive working environment.
Okay, so now that we've examined the positives, it's time to turn our eyes to the possible negative outcomes of this move. First, McGee has a great track record with Brown and Washington, but the kind of system he will be dealing with at USRowing is much more complex, and the competition much more fierce. It is going to take some time to adapt—the question is, how much time? Secondly, there is the question of elevating Volpenhein to coach of the bronze medal-winning crew at the 2012 Olympic Games. While I've heard many voices backing Volp's coaching chops (particularly those of his athletes—a good sign, one would think), the trouble is, his coaching resume is very short at this point. This doesn't mean he can't get the job done—he did well to get the lightweight men's four to the Games, as I've already discussed—but it means that the jury is still out regarding future prospects (i.e., nobody really knows). Furthermore, how will selection function, with athletes spread out as they will be across two or three cities (and time zones) in the men's heavyweight sweep group? Will CRC continue to have a central role with the national team post-Speed Order? The most recent communication from USRowing seems to indicate that it will–does this mean involvement from both Bernhard Stomporowski and Mike Teti? Given such complexity, Curtis Jordan's role becomes truly pivotal. Fortunately, he brings a great deal of knowledge and experience, in the U.S. and abroad, to the table.
Can the new-look U.S. system, as yet not clearly defined, take flight before spring and the first wave of international competition?