The 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Part 2

The RowingRelated Top 30 (Photo: Al Ubrickson, courtesy of the Ulbrickson Family Collection)

It's time for the second part of our 3-part series on the best of the best in the rowing coaching ranks. Selecting and ranking these outstanding examples of leadership in the launch is no small task, and, as we said last week, it's not a perfect system—yet. But the hope is that the following may serve to educate and spark discussion, as both an appreciation of history and of the coaching craft.

Also note: As we stated in Part 1 of this series, there are few women in this list, but that is a reflection of a general 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.

20. Al Ulbrickson

The man, the myth, the legend, who guided The Boys in the Boat to Olympic glory in Berlin at the 1936 Games. Ulbrickson was a special kind of talent, in that he understood—and used to the fullest extent—the wisdom and value of those around him to produce results. His collaboration with famous boatbuilder (and rowing guru) George Pocock was extraordinarily fruitful, and (thanks in part to Daniel James Brown), Ulbrickson's accomplishments have perhaps never been more appreciated by not just the rowing community, but the general public.

Having taken over a successful Husky program from Rusty Callow in 1927 (at the tender age of 24), Ulbrickson quickly learned that he had his hands full dealing with another former Husky, Ky Ebright, who had assumed the title of head coach with California Men's Crew (and guided them to Olympic gold in 1928—of that, more below).

While it was Ebright and Cal who claimed gold a second time in 1932 at the Los Angeles Games, Ulbrickson's Huskies wrote one of the most compelling sports stories of the 20th century. From Eric Cohen of

"Historically speaking, the 1936 Washington crew would have been memorable without the Olympic victory. By sweeping the Hudson for the first time, the crew established itself as the deepest to date;  with the varsity coming from lengths back in the last half mile, it established itself as one of the strongest. 
"But with the almost surreal Olympic victory in pre-war Germany, the crew became legendary. And although the story itself seems to have a life of it's own—every perspective is different, and the years blur some of the details—the fact remains that this is the first Husky eight-oared crew to complete their season as undefeated National Champions—and—World and Olympic champions. And forever will they hold that honor."

It's not all about that historic season, however. In the words of rowing historian Lenville O'Donnell of

"One other notable thing about his career was that he swept the river (all 3 races) at the IRA's four times (1936, 1937, 1948 and 1950) before any other school accomplished the feat (Navy, under Callow, in 1952). He did coach the 1948 Olympic Champion 4+, even though he didn't go to London (he didn't want to be Ebright's 'assistant' coach)."

Watch the full PBS special, 'The Boys of '36,' here.  

19. Bob Ernst

Yes, another Husky. But not just another Husky. Bob Ernst arrived at Washington in 1974, starting off as assistant coach to Dick Erickson, before taking the reins of the women's program in 1980. Between 1980 and 1987, the Washington women won no fewer than six national championships—and, in the midst of that run, Ernst also guided the U.S. women's eight to a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

(The '87 Washington women's team swept the varsity eight, junior varsity eight, and varsity four at nationals—a feat not accomplished at the national championships again until last season, when—who else—the Huskies did it under new head coach Yaz Farooq, exactly 30 years on from the first time.)

Following the 1987 season, Ernst took over the Washington men's program from Erickson, and proceeded to win the IRA national championships twice (1997, 2007). From

"In 1997, Ernst led the Huskies to a sweep of the International Rowing Association championships, winning the V8, 2V8 and freshmen eight races. It was the first time since 1950 that the Huskies had garnered such a collection of medals."

But it also extended beyond the water for Ernst, who went a long way toward building the strong (tempted to say intense—in a good way) alumni culture surrounding the program. From three-time Olympian Megan Kalmoe's blog:

"I know for a fact that the Washington alums on the national team receive more regular contact and support from our alma mater than any other group of alums at the training center. Period. And that community and connection is something you can’t replace or replicate with anything else. Bob knew that."

While his departure from Washington after 41 years amid somewhat unclear circumstances, first reported here on RR, left a lot of questions unanswered, his place among the pantheon of Husky coaches—and indeed the best rowing coaches in the world, is certain. 

18. Steve Fairbairn

Without a doubt, Steve Fairbairn is among the most influential rowing coaches in the history of our sport. Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1862, Fairbairn discovered rowing at Geelong Grammar School, and was captivated by it. After moving to England for university (Jesus College, Cambridge), he went on to row in the Boat Race four times (1882, 1883, 1886, 1887), winning for the Light Blues in the latter two races. (Fairbairn also rowed in crews that won the Wyfold, Stewards', and Grand Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta.)

Like George Pocock, Fairbairn had both a deep technical appreciation for and understanding of the sport, coupled with a philosophical side—hence, "Fairbairnism." One of his most famous phrases, "mileage makes champions," is likely something that everyone has heard at one point or another in the course of a career in rowing. And, he also wrote The Oarsman's Song.

Fairbairn's career as a coach (which included stints at Jesus College, Cambridge University, Thames Rowing Club, and London Rowing Club) also came at a time of significant change for the sport, as sliding seats were still relatively new and the leg drive as yet not fully appreciated—Fairbairn not only taught his athletes to apply more leg power through the drive phase, but also built a training plan (even in the early 20th century) that might look familiar to a contemporary college rower. From a Row2k interview with rowing historian Peter Mallory (quoting Mallory here):

"In Chapter Nine of Some Secrets of Successful Rowing (1930), Steve described a fall and spring's worth of work for his Jesus College Crew. It is remarkably similar to a modern schedule, rowing six days a week, alternating days of hard work with days of drills. The minimum daily row would be six miles, with a steady progression to a couple of sessions per week of eleven miles for beginners by the third week of the First Term. By that time the upper boats would be going sixteen to eighteen miles on Saturdays. After that, increasing amounts of competitive work in preparation for the Fall Bumps, a series of intense sprints."

His combination of technological advancement, technical acumen, and appreciation for physiology made him, in many ways, among the first truly 'modern' coaches. And he is remembered every year in London at the Head of the River Race, which he founded in 1926. (There is also a stela of his profile on a monument along the Thames—also known as 'the Mile Post.')

17. Penny Chuter

While she enjoyed a successful international career as a sculler, Penny Chuter was not only a trailblazer in a rowing shell, but also in the coach's launch. This latter part began, in some ways, with a chance meeting with then Oxford head coach 'Jumbo' Edwards, whom she encountered when traveling to an international regatta in Macon, France in 1960 (where Chuter, aged 17, defeated the reigning champion in the single). From

"...[Chuter and Edwards] from then on maintained an ongoing correspondence with Jumbo about the mechanics and biomechanics of the stroke and rigging which were his special areas of expertise."

After retiring from her athletic career in 1964, Chuter returned to rowing in 1972, and was appointed the third National Coach of the Amateur Rowing Association. She coached the GB women's national team at the 1974 and 1975 World Championships, as well as the Olympic Games in Montreal. Having gotten the women's program up and running (1976 marked the first year that women's rowing was included in the Olympics), Chuter then made what was at the time a truly remarkable switch—in 1978, she coached the men's pair of Jim Clark and John Roberts to a silver medal at the world championships at Lake Karapiro, New Zealand. 

Then, in 1981, she coached the British men's eight to a silver medal at the world championships.

In addition to her success coaching men at the elite level, Chuter also helped standardize the British rowing and sculling technique that is now so common today. An example of this is the idea of leading with the left hand in sculling—again quoting

"...Penny became Director of Coaching for all teams in 1982—the first woman to hold that position in any national rowing federation ... She was appointed Director of International Rowing in 1986, with responsibility for management and finance as well as the selection and all performance aspects of all squads..."

During her tenure as Director of Coaching, the GB men under Mike Spracklen won their first gold medal at the Olympics (in the men's coxed four—a crew that featured a young and very promising athlete named Steve Redgrave) in 36 years.

And, at the world level, Chuter played a key role in the moving women's international rowing's standard distance from 1,000 meters to 2,000 meters (the same distance as the men), lobbying FISA at the 1983 Coaches' Conference.

Hear Chuter's take on the development of the British national team in a video interview with Rebecca Caroe of Rowperfect UK from last October. 

16. Robin Williams

While perhaps best known as the coach of the GB women's pair of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning (and for good reason—they were the first-ever British women's crew to earn a gold medal at the Olympic Games), Williams' resume of success extends to the Boat Race, as well as lightweight international rowing.

Williams took over for Sean Bowden (another coach well deserving of a mention) at Cambridge in 1994, and proceeded to win the Boat Race seven times in eleven years (working with finishing coach Harry Mahon through much of that time—quite a star-studded coaching staff!). His British lightweight four were world champions in 2007, and placed fifth at the Olympics in Beijing.

Then, in 2010, Stanning and Glover came together as a pair, winning the silver at worlds under Williams in that year (rather amazingly, Glover had only been rowing for roughly two years by that point), as well as in 2011, before winning Olympic gold on Dorney Lake. What followed the 2012 Games, though, was perhaps even more remarkable—while Stanning temporarily stepped away from rowing to serve in the British military in Afghanistan, Glover and new partner Polly Swann continued the golden run for the GB women's pair.

Swann and Glover won the world title in 2013, only to have Stanning return from military service the next year and win once again with Glover at the world championships in Amsterdam, where they set the World Best Time for the event (6:50.61) en route to victory (that honor has since been claimed by New Zealand's Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler, with a 6:49.08 in 2017).

From then on, the duo of Stanning and Glover recorded an unbeaten streak that extended through the Olympic Games in Rio—their second straight Olympic gold. From The Independent:

"Though they were the two pulling on the oars, there were three voices in that boat, the echo of coach Robin Williams ever present as they powered to a second successive Olympic gold in the women’s pairs, the first females in the annals of British sport to scale such a height. 
"Their dominance was absolute, after all this was their 39th outing unbeaten, again unprecedented."

Not only that, but, as the above article notes, Williams did this while battling bladder cancer, having been diagnosed with the disease in 2013.

15. Harry Parker

Harvard's Harry Parker is virtually synonymous with American rowing, both at the collegiate and international levels. Like many others, Parker enjoyed a successful career as an athlete before taking the reins at Harvard, finishing fifth in the single at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

His storied, 53-season career with the Crimson (51 of which were spent coaching the varsity) included eight 'official' national championships (as well as eight 'unofficial' national championships), and 22 undefeated seasons may never be equalled, let alone with a single program.

On the international stage, Parker coached U.S. crews at every Olympics from the 1964 Games in Tokyo, until the Los Angeles Games in 1984. In fact, it was Parker's Harvard crew that was the last ever college crew to represent the U.S. at the Olympics, placing sixth in 1968. From Harvard Magazine:

"Harry Parker epitomized the coach as teacher. He saw each of his rowers not just as an athlete but as a whole person, a person learning not just how to excel at a sport but how to live a life. Generations of Harvard students will forever remember his formative influence. He was a living legend at Harvard and in the world of rowing, and his legend will long endure." —Drew Faust, President of Harvard University

He was also instrumental in developing elite women's rowing in the United States—he was the first-ever U.S. women's national team coach, guiding the 1976 U.S. women's eight to a bronze medal at the Olympics in Montreal.

14. Harry Mahon

One of the most influential coaches to come out of one of the most important rowing nations in the world, New Zealand, Harry Mahon enjoyed success on the international stage everywhere he traveled through the course of his illustrious career.

Like his American counterpart, Mike Teti, Mahon had great success coaching the men's eight at the elite level, and his New Zealand team was also featured in a documentary in the buildup to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, having won back-to-back world championship titles in 1982 and 1983. (The film, Pieces of Eight, is fascinating—you can watch it (in six parts) on YouTube here.) And, like Teti's 2000 U.S. men's eight, the 1984 Games didn't quite go as planned—fortunately, in Mahon's case as well, it wasn't his last crack at it.

At the 1988 Olympics, Mahon coached crews from both New Zealand and Switzerland to podium finishes in Seoul, with the Swiss men's double taking a silver, and the Kiwi pair (different one) taking the bronze. And then, of course, there was Sydney. From

"Coming into Sydney 2000, Team GB had not toasted victory in the men’s eight since the Leander crew beat the fellow British boat from New College at Stockholm 1912."

The GB crew, stroked by Steve Trapmore, led from the start to claim the victory, and the race is a common reference point for excellent sweep rowing (you can watch it here).

Outside of the international level, Mahon also served as an advisor on both Sean Bowden's and Robin Williams' Cambridge coaching staffs, winning the Boat Race eight times, including a run of seven in a row from 1993-1999.

Read more about Harry Mahon here.

13. Mike Teti

Mike Teti is among the most well known, and important, coaches in Olympic history. A three-time Olympian as an athlete (bronze medal in the eight in 1988), Teti has a remarkable resume as a coach at every level, helping the U.S. men to win no less than 29 world championship and Olympic medals, including a gold in the men's eight in Athens (where the U.S. crew also set the Olympic Best Time in the heat: 5:19.85—a record that still stands).

That victory was made all the more momentous because it marked the first time since 1964 that a U.S. crew had won the men's eight at the Games.

(Also, lest we forget, Teti coached the only U.S. lightweight crew to medal at the Olympics—the men's lightweight four in Atlanta.)

At the U23 level, another of Mike Teti's crews held the World Best Time for six years: the U.S. BM8+'s gold medal performance in 2011 on the Bosbaan in 5:24.30 (this was edged by the Dutch men's eight in 2017, posting a 5:23.75). In his 10 years with the Golden Bears, Cal has won two IRA national championships—with Teti adding Olympic and national team coaching duties to his regular routine in 2012 and 2017. Before that, his frosh teams at Princeton won no less than five IRA championships. From

"Teti is the coach of the only men's eight in U.S. history to win three consecutive world championship titles (1997-99), a feat that earned him three consecutive USRowing National Coach of the Year honors."

Now, he's poised to take the reins of the U.S. men's squad once again.

12. Al Morrow

Legendary Canadian coach Al Morrow led the Canadian Olympic Team to unprecedented heights at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, where the duo of Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle won two gold medals—one in the pair, and one in the eight. In all, the Canadian women's team would come away with four medals (three of them gold, including the first-place finish in the four)—a remarkable result, made more remarkable given that, like McBean and Heddle, the athletes from the women's four had doubled up into the eight.

In light of the above, the 1992 Canadian women's Olympic squad may be the most complete from top to bottom in the history of our sport. From the Canadian Olympic Committee website:

"The women’s rowing team dominated, winning gold in three of the six events, as the pair (Marnie McBean, Kathleen Heddle) and the four (Kirsten Barnes, Brenda Taylor, Jessica Monroe, Kay Worthington) all won double gold when they joined the eight."

Not only that, but Morrow nearly repeated those results along with McBean and Heddle in Atlanta, where the duo (having switched from sweep to sculling) won gold in the double, and bronze in the quad.

Morrow's athletes have won at least 25 world and Olympic medals, and he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.

11. Carroll 'Ky' Ebright

While he's likely best known these days as the archrival to The Boys in the Boat, Ky Ebright (also a UW graduate and former assistant coach for the Huskies) remains one of the most successful Olympic rowing coaches ever. His record of coaching three men's eights to Olympic gold (1928, 1932, and 1948) has never been equalled (though in recent years Tom Terhaar has accomplished that feat, in consecutive Olympics, with the U.S. women's team—matching the streak by Romania from 1996-2004).

From an interview with Arthur M. Arlett published by the University of California, Berkeley Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Office (via 

"He guided the Bears to victory at Amsterdam in 1928, at Los Angeles in 1932, and at London in 1948. In those same years and also in 1934, 1935, 1939 and 1949 he coached California varsity crews to national (IRA) championships, while his junior varsities won corresponding honors in 1941, 1947, 1951 and 1959."

Not only did Ebright bring tremendous success to the Golden Bears, he also, in many ways, helped preserve competitive rowing on the West Coast, thanks to his reinvigorating the intense rivalry between Cal and Washington. Quoting Ky Ebright, from the same interview linked above:

"Well, in a way, you know, we were always taught by old Hiram Conibear to be loyal to our own institution, but we were taught also to be loyal to the sport of crew. And we [at Washington] were very interested in not having California succumb [as Stanford had recently done], you know, quit. Because if that had been true, then the closest crew competition would have been Wisconsin, a long ways away, and meant the possible death of rowing at Washington too." 

In the end, that legacy of being loyal to the sport of crew pushed Ebright to build Cal into the world beaters (literally) that they became in the late 1920s and early 1930s—the strength of that rivalry and push for excellence is still evident today. Before Yale won the 2017 IRA title (by just 0.069 of a second over Washington), you had to go back to 2008 to find the last time a program other than Cal or Washington had won—and, interestingly enough, that 2008 crew was from Wisconsin (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

And there you have it! Part 2 of our 3-part series on the Top 30 Rowing Coaches of All Time has been revealed. Keep it locked for Part 3, featuring Nos. 1-10 all time, coming up very soon here on RR. In the meantime, you can catch up on Part 1 of the series here

Now read: Part 1 of our Top 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Nos. 21-30 | Part 3: Nos. 1-10


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