The 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Part 1

The RowingRelated Top 30 (Photo: 1899 Cornell Rowing Team)

ROWING is a sport heavily steeped in history. It can boast some of the longest running traditions in contemporary sport, from the Doggett’s Coat & Badge, to Henley Royal Regatta, to the Boat Races of both the Oxford and Cambridge variety as well as that between Harvard and Yale. Learning from the best has always been one of our top priorities here on RR, and so here we look back at our picks for the Top 30 Rowing Coaches of All Time, in hopes of both appreciating those that have gone before as well as the excellence of our contemporaries.

As with all ranking systems, it's not perfect, but it's a start—and the hope is that it will generate discussion not only about the past, but also about the future of our sport as we move further into the 21st century.

Also note: There are regrettably few women in this list, but that is a reflection of a general, historical and present underrepresentation of women in the head coaching ranks in our sport—and indeed (as has been well documented) a growing number of NCAA sports in the United States.

30. Charles Courtney

Cornell Rowing head coach Charles Courtney (whose tenure at the program lasted from 1883 until his death in 1920) defined success in university rowing at the end of the 19th and into the beginning of the 20th century, when the eight-oared university crew was the gold standard for speed at the elite level. What Courtney achieved with Cornell has never been equalled: His crews won the varsity eight race at the national championships* in 14 of 24 years (never finishing lower than third place overall), and Cornell swept the national championships seven times during that span.

Courtney was also an undefeated amateur sculler, and had a checkered career as a professional rower (yes, that was a thing) before moving on to coaching. There's a great Wikipedia entry about him here—he was truly one of the more fascinating characters in the history of our sport.

His crews won the varsity eight race at the national championships* in 14 of 24 years (never finishing lower than third place overall), and Cornell swept the national championships seven times during that span. 

*The national championships changed over the course of Courtney's career—from 1883 until 1894 Cornell competed at the Rowing Association of American Colleges in a 4-mile race; the Intercollegiate Rowing Association was formed in 1895, keeping the 4-mile format with races held in Poughkeepsie (with the exception of a 3-mile race at Lake Saratoga in 1898, and a 2-mile race at Lake Cayuga in 1920). View more historical race data.

29. Charley Butt

Current Bolles-Parker Head Coach for Harvard Men's Heavyweight Crew, Charley Butt, has a career that has included success across every level and category, from college lightweight and heavyweight rowing to the Olympics. Butt has been a member of no fewer than four U.S. Olympic Team coaching staffs, including helping guide Radcliffe alumna Michelle Guerette to a silver medal in Beijing.

He also coached the pair in 1996, the pair and lightweight double in Athens, and more recently, Butt coached lightweight single sculler Andrew Campbell to a gold at the U23 world championships.

As a college coach, Butt's Harvard lightweights were perennial contenders for the Eastern Sprints (15 wins in roughly 30 seasons at the helm) and IRA crowns, including back-to-back IRA titles in 2012 and 2013.

Read more about Charley Butt.

28. Jan Harville

Jan Harville is a trailblazer, an Olympian, and one of the most influential coaches in the history of one of the most influential programs in the world, Washington Rowing. After starting her rowing career at the University of Washington, Harville went on to compete for the U.S. at the international level, first being selected to the 1980 Olympic Team, and then again at the 1984 Olympic Games, where she raced in the women’s coxed four, taking fourth overall. After her career as an athlete was finished, she returned to Seattle and served as a member of the Washington Huskies coaching staff for some 23 years. From the press release when she retired from her position at the University of Washington:

"Harville's teams claimed Washington's only NCAA championships in any sport, winning national team titles in 1997, 1998 and 2001. The Huskies placed among the top three at the championship regatta every year since the NCAA began sponsoring women's rowing in 1997, including a third-place performance this season."

Given her extraordinarily successful tenure at Washington (which saw 11 of her crews win national titles over her 16 years as head coach), Harville was named the Women’s Rowing Coach of the Century by the Pac-12 Conference in 2016.

She also led the U.S. women’s national team to international success, serving on head coach Hartmut Buschbacher’s staff and coaching the women’s quad at the Olympic Games in 1996, where they took eighth ahead of Australia and Romania. In 1998, Harville coached the U.S. women’s pair to bronze at the world championships, and her women’s four in 1999 earned another bronze in St. Catherines.

Read more about accomplishments via

27. Michael Callahan

The University of Washington men's program has long been among the best in the United States, and among the best university programs in the world. But that has never been more true than it has under the guidance of current head coach Michael Callahan. To quote from our own coverage of the 2015 IRA Regatta (just after the Huskies had won their fifth-straight national championship):

"Before the Huskies won in 2007, their last IRA title had come in 1997. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1970, and then 1950 to see the Huskies winning it all. Yes, men's head coach Mike Callahan took over a successful program when he returned to Conibear Shellhouse, but what he has done with it since then is truly remarkable. Hats off, Huskies."

That's not the whole story, either—under Callahan, the Washington Huskies came within a length of the British men's eight in the 2013 Grand Challenge Cup at Henley, having defeated the Polish Olympic Team men's eight en route to the final. (Had the GB crew not been so rapid, the Huskies, too, would have set a course record. GB would go on to win the world championship in that event later that year, and the Olympic Games three years later.)

At the international level, Callahan has coached with the USRowing U23 and senior teams, earning a world title in the BM8+ in 2008, and coaching the senior men's pair of Charlie Cole and Glenn Ochal to the A-final in Amsterdam in 2014. We hope to see that trend change soon.

26. Dave O'Neill

While he's currently building Texas Rowing into a national powerhouse, Dave O'Neill's coaching talent has seen him influence rowing at the club, varsity, and international levels over the course of his career. Having won back-to-back NCAA team championships with California in 2005 and 2006 (where he also won nine Pac-12 Conference titles in his final 11 years with the program), O'Neill helped the U23 women to gold in the eight in 2006, and gold in the quad in 2007. From our interview with O'Neill last spring:

"Rowing can change the world. Because what you learn in rowing in terms of goal-setting, collaboration, delayed gratification, dealing with failure, dealing with pain, compromise—all of those things happen in a team environment in the pursuit of being really good."

O'Neill also coached the U.S. lightweight women's double at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and returned to the U23 coaching ranks thereafter—his 2014 U.S. U23 women's team won gold in the eight, gold in the straight four, and silver in the pair. Since taking over Texas, he has already recorded the best-ever performance for the Longhorns program (fourth place overall as a team in 2017), and the program appears poised for more of the same this spring.

25. Allen Rosenberg

Inducted into the Rowing Hall of Fame in 1984, Allen Rosenberg had a successful career as a coxswain, but it wasn't until he switched seats into the coach's launch that he really hit his stride. Rosenberg led one of the most successful U.S. Olympic Rowing Teams in history at the Tokyo Olympic Games, capturing no less than four medals, including two golds in the eight and the pair with coxswain (coxed by Kent Mitchell), a silver in the double, and bronze in the straight four.

From The Washington Post's obituary for Rosenberg:

"In the 1960s and '70s, Mr. Rosenberg was called the 'genius on the water' for the way he revitalized the U.S. rowing program and introduced revolutionary changes in the sport’s training and techniques."

In that same article, rowing historian Peter Mallory is quoted as saying, "He is, by far, the most influential coach of the last 60 years." Not only is this because of his innovative approaches to technique and training, but also because his victory at U.S. Trials in advance of the 1964 Olympic Games effectively ended the long period where the top U.S. collegiate crew would be selected as the men's eight for the Olympics, heralding a new era where the camp system became the focus.

24. Daniel Topolski

Never has there been more of a lightning rod in the launch, on the water, and in the commentary box than Daniel Topolski. A talented lightweight rower (he won a silver medal in the GB lightweight four at the world championships in 1975), he is much remembered for his epic 10-year run of victories as chief coach of Oxford in the Boat Race, from 1976-1985. To quote from a statement from Cambridge following Topolski's passing in 2015:

"In a 200 year old event where just to win a seat is a major sporting achievement, Dan is one of a very, very special few who have stamped their personality on the Race for a whole generation. By his achievements he has enriched our sport, our history and our contest. CUBC salutes the passing of a most talented and respected adversary."

Not only was he a coach of extreme talent, but his character, personality, range of interests and talents, and commitment to the sport helped define rowing for a whole generation, whether it was being coached by him, competing against him, reading True Blue (Topolski's version of the events that surrounding the 'Boat Race Mutiny' in 1987—a fascinating moment in rowing history that revolved in large part around current Wisconsin men's head coach Chris Clark), or listening to his voice on innumerable broadcasts of elite rowing (and the Boat Race, of course).

Topolski also coached the British women's national team from 1978-1980, including at the Moscow Olympics.

Read his obituary by celebrated rowing journalist Chris Dodd here.

23. Bent Fransson

2014 World Rowing Coach of the Year, Bent Fransson coached the formidable Danish lightweight men's four that came to epitomize excellence for many in the lightweight rowing community worldwide. (After all, they're the holders of the World and Olympic Best Time in the event—something that, in the latter case, is now forever, given that the lightweight men's four has been removed from the Olympic program.)

Another coach with an elite-level background in his own right, Fransson landing on the podium five times at the world championships, including a gold medal in the lightweight eight in 1981. As a coach, he guided the Danish lightweight four to gold in Beijing, bronze in London, and silver in Rio (he retired from coaching after the 2016 Games). Fransson's crews also won back-to-back world titles in the lightweight men's four in 2013 and 2014.

22. Ted Nash

There are few rowing coaches in the history of our sport with a legacy that compares to Ted Nash. Nash has been an instrumental member of the U.S. Olympic Team on a number of occasions (participating in the Olympics as an athlete or coach no less than 11 times), helped guide current Boston University men's head coach Tom Bohrer to two Olympic medals, and assisted with the gold medal-winning U.S. men's eight in 2004, alongside Mike Teti.

He also served as men's varsity head coach at Penn from 1969-1983, winning Eastern Sprints in 1976, and IRA titles in 1969 and 1972.

Nash commands the instant respect of his athletes, not only because of his athletic background as a two-time Olympic medalist (in Rome and Tokyo), but also because of his enthusiastic, helpful nature, as illustrated by the quote below from the USRowing archives, published on the occasion of his being awarded the USRowing Medal in 2013.

"Ted was always there to lend a hand or be helpful or supportive or to just be there to talk about some concept that Mike [Teti] was talking about in a totally different way and it made everything more accessible. And when you’re getting a pep talk from two guys with three Olympic medals, it is pretty motivating." —Pete Cipollone, 2004 Olympic gold medalist

Read the full USRowing piece on Ted Nash here.

21. Steve Gladstone

Steve Gladstone is one of the most successful and influential coaches in the history of rowing in the United States. His 12 IRA national championship victories in the varsity eight put him just two behind the all-time leader, Charles Courtney, in an era where the level of competition has never been higher. From the Yale Athletics website:

"Gladstone, the 2016 and 2017 EARC Coach of the Year, led the Elis to one of their best seasons ever in the Spring of 2017. Yale won its third straight Sprints title while earning the Rowe Cup, captured its first IRA National Championship and then won the top three races at the Yale-Harvard Regatta."

Having won six IRA championships with Cal (in two stints as head coach, the second of which saw him earn four-straight IRA crowns—a modern-era feat that was finally surpassed by Michael Callahan with Washington), and five times at Brown (where he recruited and developed athletes like Xeno Muller, Porter Collins, and many other internationals), his Yale Bulldogs won the varsity eight at IRAs for the first time in program history last spring, in very dramatic fashion.

Now read: Part 2 of our Top 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Nos. 11-20 | Part 3: Nos. 1-10


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