Nearly one hundred years after the establishment of the rowing program at Rutgers, a demand emerged for the organization of a lightweight rowing program. When Rutgers crew was first re-established in 1933, Athletic Director George Little had expressed interest in establishing a JV heavyweight boat, a freshman heavyweight boat, and eventually a lightweight program. The first two were soon established. However, it took until the fall of 1939 to establish a lightweight crew at Rutgers.
By 1939, many of the Ivy League crews had a lightweight rowing programs. The sport allowed average sized athletes a chance to compete against rowers of similar size. As lightweight rowing became increasingly popular by the late 1930s, students at Rutgers demanded that the university establish a team as well. The athletic department agreed. However, the lightweight crew would not have varsity status, so it remained a club sport. During the fall of 1939, Rutgers decided to form a lightweight crew club.
Rutgers first lightweight crew practice was held on November 1, 1939 in the gymnasium located in the College Avenue gym. The gym had several early indoor rowing machines. More than 20 lightweight rowers showed up for the first day of practice. The lightweights soon began rowing. They rowers practiced in the gig for several days to learn the stroke and eventually progressed to a regular racing shell. However, they only practiced for about two weeks before they had to stop because of winter. Since the crew got a late start during the fall and many of the rowers had no previous rowing experience, there was little chance of the lightweights being competitive in the spring of 1940.
The spring 1940 season was difficult for the Rutgers lightweights. While over 20 men had reported during the fall, by late April, only ten rowers remained. Of these, only the rower sitting in the stroke seat, Howard Woodward, had any previous rowing experience. In addition, the lightweights practiced with the varsity and JV heavyweight boats. The heavyweights had priority over the lightweights for use of the boats. Because of this, the coaching that they received from Coach Logg was limited. Moreover, with equipment scarce, the lightweights were given the oldest shells and oars. While it was difficult to schedule lightweight boat races, Coach Logg managed to schedule two races for the lightweights. The first race was held on April 27 against the Princeton JV lightweight crew. The Princeton lightweight program had begun in the early 1920s. By the time Rutgers’ lightweights faced Princeton, Princeton’s program had nearly twenty years under its belt, varsity status and modern equipment. Princeton beat Rutgers off of the start and continued to move away, ultimately beating Rutgers by five lengths.
The second race in mid-May pitted Rutgers against two prep schools: Hun and Lawrenceville. While the oarsmen from these schools were younger than the Rutgers rowers, they had much more experience. Notwithstanding this, intense practice and a lineup adjustment resulted in a Rutgers win. The wins against Hun and Lawrenceville were the first victories for the lightweight squad. However, although a lightweight division had been added to the EARC Sprints Championship in 1939, Rutgers’ lightweights were not prepared for such competition. So, the season closed with the win against the prep schools.
During the 1941 spring season, the Rutgers lightweights still had “club” status as a result, when they practiced with the heavyweight crews they still hd to use old equipment and received little coaching attention coaching attention. To remedy the problem, the lightweight team began practicing at 6:30am. By doing this, they were able to use the newer rowing equipment and received exclusive instruction from Coach Logg.
Despite their efforts, the 1941 lightweight season proved to be a long one. The campus newspaper reported that the Rutgers lightweight crew faced the toughest schedule “of any Rutgers crew regardless of poundage.” The crew opened their season against Penn followed by Columbia, Princeton, and Cornell. The schedule seemed too ambitious for such a young crew. During each race of the 1941 season, the Rutgers lightweights got off to an excellent start. However, as the race wore on, Rutgers opponents settled rowed more smoothly and walked back through them. Discouraged by this , there was no lightweight rowing at Rutgers in 1942. However, the lightweights returned in the spring of 1943.
The lightweights faced a difficult schedule again in 1943. They opened the season against Princeton and Columbia. The race was on the Raritan. Princeton jumped out to an early lead and kept going, Rutgers and Columbia battled each other for second with Rutgers eventually pulling away for a two length win. It marked the Rutgers lightweight victory against a college crew. The next two races, against Penn and Cornell, resulted in Rutgers losses. However, the Scarlet crew managed to arrange another duel meet with Princeton. This time the race was on Lake Carnegie. Rutgers took an early lead, Princeton, possibly thinking that Rutgers would fall apart as they had earlier in the season did not respond. Rutgers continued to pull away. By the 1500-meter mark, Rutgers had increased their lead to two lengths. When the coxswain called “weigh ‘nuff” Rutgers believed that they had won the race by slightly more than two boat lengths. The coxswain the realized that he had made a mistake: he had stopped the boat 50 meters short of the finish line. Panicked, the coxswain order the oarsmen to row and they disjointedly lurched across the line to secure the win over Princeton. This win, their second of the season, came against a Princeton crew that had twice before been crowned national lightweight champion. For the Rutgers lightweights, it was an amazing victory to end their season. From 1944 to 1963, Rutgers lightweight crew went through a strange times. During the years between 1944 and 1951, there is no evidence that the Rutgers fielded a lightweight crew. There was a lightweight crew fielded in 1951 but it seems that another lightweight team was not fielded until 1958 and yet again, there was no mention of a lightweight crew until 1963. During the 1951 and 1958 seasons, the results were generally disappointing.
The 1951 lightweight crew organized by coach, Al Borghard competed in three races and but lost each race. However, the Targum took special note of the race between Rutgers and the Princeton freshman lightweight crew. During the first 1,200 meters, Rutgers was trailing Princeton by half a boat length. With 1,300-1,400 meters to go, Rutgers caught the Princeton boat. Momentarily, Rutgers gained the lead. However, the move was not sustainable and Princeton sprinted back in the last two hundred meters for the win. The Targum observed the valiant effort by Rutgers: “Lacking the experience and excellent training facilities of the Nassau oarsmen, the Rutgers 150-pounders showed plenty of fight never falling more than half a length behind the Tigers.”
The 1958 and 1963 squads had similar seasons. Coaching the crew during 1958 was former Rutgers rower Leo Carling. The lightweights raced George Washington High School and the Princeton freshman lightweight rowers. While Rutgers lost both of these contests, the Scarlet crew still managed a respectable showing in both races, losing by less than two lengths in both contests. During the fall of 1958 Coach Carling issued a call for lightweight oarsmen to report to the gym for tryouts. However, not enough Rutgers men answered the call and Rutgers lightweight rowing again became dormant until 1963. The crew that emerged in 1963 raced in three contests and had an excellent showing against Yale. Although Yale won, Rutgers lost by a surprising small margin.
Inconsistency plagued the Rutgers lightweight crew from 1939 to1963. The team needed men, money and a dedicated coach. Robert Croes coxed the 1963 lightweights. He realized that giving the lightweight program varsity status would allow the program to secure necessary funding. With the money, proper equipment could be bought and a coach could be paid a decent salary. Students would also be encouraged to participate on the lightweight varsity squad instead of a lightweight club. To do this, Croes bypassed the athletic department and pleaded his case to the president of Rutgers University, Mason Gross.
Mason Gross and the Establishment of the Rutgers Varsity Lightweight Crew Team
According to Coach Bill Leavitt, Robert Croes convinced President Gross to attend a fraternity diner. During the dinner party, Croes talked to Gross almost all night about lightweight crew at Rutgers. Gross had been a rower himself. In 1930, Gross was a student at Jesus College, Cambridge University. During his four years there, he was a member of the crew. In 1934, Gross helped coach his college at Cambridge and even edited a book on the various coaching methods and rowing styles. Upon graduation from Cambridge, he studied at Harvard and in 1938, Harvard awarded him a Doctorate in Philosophy. Gross then taught philosophy at Columbia University. During World War II, Gross served in the Army Intelligence Corps. He later joined Rutgers’ faculty. Gross served as provost from 1949 to 1959 and, in 1959, Gross became president. While at Rutgers, he often spoke fondly of his years rowing at Cambridge and why he thought crew was important in his undergraduate experience:
My college has a long tradition of excellence in sports, and particularly in crew. I rowed throughout my four years, in singles, pairs, fours, and eights, six days a week year round, in intercollegiate competition, and at regattas all over England. It was for me a tremendously exciting and important part of those undergraduate years. We took ourselves desperately seriously, and really tried to achieve excellence. The rivalries were of long standing and bitter, and therefore intensely stimulating. We did in fact learn a great deal about moral fiber and stamina, about leadership and friendship. We were intensely loyal, and had a tremendous amount of fun.
It was not uncommon to see Gross out in the coach’s launch observing a practice with one of the coaches. During home races, he could almost always be found on the banks of the river cheering for Rutgers. Whenever Gross spoke at a particular engagement, he would set aside some of the money raised for Rutgers crew. He helped send Price and Logg to the Olympic Trials in 1952. However, perhaps the most lasting effect he had on Rutgers Crew concerned the lightweight program.
After talking to Croes for much of the night in 1963, Gross headed to the athletic department the next morning. When he arrived he directed athletic director Albert Twitchell to establish the lightweight crew as a varsity sport. However, the budget for the athletic department was already stretched thin. Money was needed for sports such as football and baseball. The demand from Gross came much to Twitchell’s chagrin. But, the order came directly from the university president. Twitchell complied. A headline from the April 2, 1964 Targum read, “150-lb. Crew Now Varsity.”
Around campus, the lightweight crew earned the nickname “Mason’s crew.” For the lightweight oarsmen, the name was an honor, since Gross was the father of the program. While at Rutgers, Gross always looked after the lightweight crew. Gross was so committed to the lightweight program that he purchased the first lightweight eight with his own money. Through Mason Gross’ interest, vision, and generosity, the lightweight varsity program at Rutgers University was born in 1964.
Rutgers Lightweight Rowing 1965-2000
From 1964 to 1968, the lightweight team’s success was limited. In the EARC League races, the crew usually found itself finishing close to the bottom of the pack. However, each year, the Rutgers varsity lightweight eight was, according to the oarsmen, faster than the shell the previous spring. Entering the 1969 spring racing season, the lightweight oarsmen were excited. They found themselves with 21 men on the varsity team that year. In addition, there was now enough freshman lightweight rowers for a first and second freshman boat. Another reason that the crew was eager was their new coach, Fred Simonson. Simonson had worked the varsity and freshman rowers harder during the fall and winter than any other previous Rutgers lightweight coach had.
The schedule that Rutgers raced that season was tough. During the course of the 1969 season, the Rutgers varsity eight would find itself on the losing end of the races against Pennsylvania, Yale, and Navy. The sole victory for the Scarlet crew was its defeat of Georgetown. In addition, a week before the EARC League championship, the stroke man of the Rutgers boat, Bruce Campbell, landed in intensive care at Saint Peters hospital for three days. Entering this competition, things looked dim for the Rutgers varsity lightweight crew. They entered the contest a heavy underdog.
In the morning heats, Rutgers raced Harvard, M.I.T., Navy, and Columbia. To be one of the top three boats, Rutgers would have to do its best race of the season. Harvard and M.I.T. were regarded as two of the top three lightweight boats in the country. Navy had already beaten Rutgers earlier in the year. It appeared as if those three boats would have no problem advancing to the Grand Final, while Rutgers and Columbia raced for fourth place. However, at the start of the race, something unexpected happened. Rutgers jumped ahead of everyone at the start. Stunned at first, the other crews eventually settled into their rhythm and gradually walked back through the Rutgers boat. However, finding themselves in fourth place half way through the race, Rutgers bumped their rating up from a 34 to a 40 and sprinted for thirty strokes through the 1,000 meter mark. The move devastated the Navy crew and Rutgers came even with M.I.T. Entering the last 500 meters, Rutgers and MIT were desperately fighting each other for second place. In the last 200 meters, the Scarlet crew again surged and opened up several seats on M.I.T. By the time Rutgers rowers had crossed the finish line, they were a quarter of a length ahead of M.I.T., finishing in second place. The unseeded Rutgers crew had knocked Columbia and Navy out of the Grand Final and bested M.I.T. in the final leg. The 1969 Rutgers lightweight crew, which had won only one race all season, now found themselves in the Grand Final.
In the late 1960s, the Eastern Sprints was the largest one-day rowing regatta in the world. “The afternoon finals took place before a huge crowd of over twenty thousand people who covered the shore line and a beer can cluttered hill in the background.” At the start of the final, the other boats jumped ahead of Rutgers. With 500 meters down, Rutgers found themselves down one length to the fifth-placed Princeton crew. Just before the 1,000 meter mark, the Scarlet crew sprinted for 30 stokes, just as they had done in the heat. The move was just as effective. The Rutgers boat passed Princeton and pulled within a few seats of Yale and Penn. With 800 meters to go stroke, Bruce Campbell, brought the rating from a 37 to a 39. The increase in rate moved Rutgers through both Yale and Penn. In the last 400 meters, the rate was raised yet a third time to 42. Rutgers was quickly closing on M.I.T. and Harvard. The twenty-thousand crowd went wild as Rutgers continued to charge forward. Harvard, M.I.T., and Rutgers were now within four seats of one another. As they crossed the finish line, all 24 oarsmen from each team collapsed over their oars. No one knew who had won. Minutes later, the photo finish would indicate that Harvard had won. Finishing in second place was M.I.T. One-tenth of a second behind the M.I.T. crew was Rutgers. With the guttiest performance of the regatta, the unseeded Scarlet crew had defied all odds and won a bronze medal at the Eastern Sprints. When asked about the Scarlet crew, Harvard coach Steve Gladstone simply remarked, “Rutgers has served notice that it has arrived.”
Coach Ted Bonanno and the Rutgers Lightweight Crews of 1973-1975
After the success at the 1969 Sprints, the lightweight team struggled from 1970 to 1972. Their coach, Mike Moran had been an excellent oarsmen and was well liked by all of the lightweight rowers.
Coach Ted Bonanno took over in the fall of 1972. Bonanno had a different approach to coaching. He was less their friend and more an authority figure. Down at the boathouse, Bonanno was strictly business. He had a swagger about him that made the Rutgers oarsmen believe that they could and should win. When the newspapers asked him about his crew or other crews, he often answered with confident, almost cocky, responses. He demanded much from his rowers and ultimately raised their expected level of performance. His priority was ensuring that his rowers were in top physical shape. Technical prowess was secondary to him. The training philosophy adopted by Coach Bonanno was summed up by one former Rutgers lightweight as, “we will beat you out of conditioning if not form.” The training the crew got reflected this.
During the fall, Coach Bonanno incorporated various methods of training. Along with rowing, the oarsmen would compete in 3-5 mile runs. The rowers were also required to lift weights and run stadium steps (usually 60-80 sets).
Shortly after the new year, while other students continued to enjoy their break, the lightweight rowers returned to New Brunswick to continue their training. Training moved to the tanks. The large indoor rowing tanks in a former army warehouse. The warehouse was poorly lit and filthy. Most of the weight training was done with buckets of cement with handles for bench stepping or buckets of cement with a pipe in-between to create home-made barbells. There was a lot of circuit training (with weights) and long rows in the dead water tanks.” Long runs were also regularly incorporated into the workouts. The goal was to complete a nine mile run in under 60 minutes. Sometimes the monotony of winter training was broken up with a game of football or rugby in the snow. While all of the rowers did not necessarily like or agree with this new coaching style, they all respected Bonanno. By the time that the winter months were over, the rowers were in the best shape of their lives.
During the spring, the training did not become any easier. Before the start of the season, Bonanno required his rowers to practice twice a day. They arrived at 6 a.m. and practiced until 7:30 a.m. The crew resumed practice at 5 p.m. and rowed until 6:30 p.m. On the water, the lightweight rowers did many short pieces, roughly 500-1,500 meters at their race pace. In addition, the rowers were required to do one piece a week on an old style rowing machine. The extremely hard work that the Rutgers lightweight rowers put into their training soon became evident during the spring racing seasons between 1973 and 1975.
Bonnano’s 1973 crew achieved the first winning season in Rutgers lightweight crew history. That same year, Rutgers, which had finished eighth the year before, made it into the Grand Final and finished fifth at the Eastern Sprints. Building on the vast improvements made from 1972 to 1973, the lightweights looked forward to an even more successful season in ‘74.
The 1974 lightweight racing schedule was one of the most difficult in the league. The season opened with a duel race against Penn. In 1973, Rutgers claimed that Penn had intentionally swung their boat into the Rutgers lane. The wake caused by the Penn boat rocked the Rutgers boat, causing the Scarlet crew to lose. Many of the Rutgers oarsmen had been brooding about the loss for a year and could not wait to get on the water against the Quakers. Bonanno was quoted in the Targum as saying that the Rutgers lightweight crew were, “really gunning for Penn. They would like to beat Penn more than anyone else.” On race day, Rutgers defeated Penn by almost 2 seconds. The following week pitted Rutgers against Harvard and Columbia. Columbia lacked a strong crew that year. However, many predicted that Harvard was the fastest boat in the league. In the prior eight years, the Crimson had lost only twice. While Rutgers defeated Columbia by a length and a half, Harvard beat the Scarlet crew by almost the same margin. The third week witnessed Rutgers take on two strong lightweight crews: Princeton and Cornell. When the race started, Rutgers and Cornell bolted off the line. At the 1,000 meter mark, both boats were nearly even with Cornell trailing. Suddenly, a cross wind hit the three boats. Princeton handled the sudden gust well. Rutgers did not. Rutgers’ stroke rating dropped 3 beats and Princeton gradually walked away with a two-second victory. Despite losing twice in the past two races, when the national lightweight rankings came out on April 26, the Rutgers lightweights found themselves in third place behind just Harvard and Princeton. The next week found Rutgers in Derby, Connecticut, racing Dartmouth and Yale. Neither boat proved to be a real challenge. Entering their last regular season race, Rutgers found themselves with an impressive 5-2 record. The final race of the season against Columbia and Georgetown served, as Coach Bonanno put it, as a “tune up” for the Sprints. A slightly different rig on the boat was tried along with a altered lineup. The Rutgers crew trained hard right up to race day and defeated Columbia and Georgetown. Entering the Sprints, the Rutgers lightweights believed that they should win a medal and possibly win the regatta.
At the 1974 Eastern Sprints, the Rutgers varsity crew, as expected, advanced to the Grand Final without much trouble. The next closest boat was Princeton, which had finished a length down. In addition to varsity boat making the Grand Final, the JV and freshmen lightweight boats also made it to their respective Grand Finals. With Rutgers placing all three boats in the Grand Final, Rutgers had a chance to win the overall points trophy in the lightweight division: the Jope Cup.
In the Grand Final, the Rutgers lightweight freshmen boat finished animpressive second place. The JV boat finished sixth. The varsity boat ended its season in fourth place. However, the success of the Rutgers lightweights as a whole earned them a second place finish in the Jope Cup standings behind Harvard. While the varsity boat did not finish as anticipated, Rutgers’ lightweight program had improved to second best in the nation.
Rutgers lightweights entered the ’74-75 season with great expectations. These expectations were fulfilled, in part, with a second place finish at the Head of the Charles. Success at the Charles energized the crew for winter training. When the spring racing season arrived, expectations were high.
Unfortunately however, the 1975 spring season opened on a disappointing note. The first race of the year was against Penn. A strong tail wind prevailed on race day. Penn rowed a much higher rating and easily won. Despite the slow start, the oarsmen were not discouraged. The second race was against Navy and Princeton. Stroked by Kevin Dempsey, the Rutgers boat came off the line at a 42, then settled to a high 39. By the 1,000 meter mark, Princeton had faded and it became a two-boat race. With 500 meters to go, Rutgers led by only 3 seats. As the crews approached the finish line and entered their sprint, Navy faltered. Rutgers increased its lead to nearly a length to take the win. Rutgers defeated Princeton a second time that season by over two lengths and Cornell by three. Nationally, the Rutgers lightweights were ranked third behind only Harvard and Penn. In the final two weeks of the season, the lightweights cruised past Yale, Dartmouth and Columbia. Going into the Sprints, the Rutgers varsity was ranked third, the JV were ranked second and the freshmen fourth. The team, believed that they could make another run at the Jope Cup.
The Sprints were held on May 12, 1975. Each of the three Rutgers lightweight boats made the final without trouble. However, in the freshman race, Rutgers finished a disappointing sixth. The JV boat fared better, landing a second place finish to Harvard by only .3 seconds. In the varsity race, Rutgers came off of the starting line at a good pace and remained with the field for the first half of the race. However, at the 1,000 meter mark, the boat sputtered. The top four crews raced ahead, leaving Rutgers to fend off M.I.T. and salvage a fifth place finish. Overall, the team finished fourth in the Jope Cup standings. Compared to most other Rutgers crews, this would have been considered a successful year. However, the 1975 crew had worked so hard and achieved so much success during the regular season that the fifth place finish was a severe disappointment. Coach Bonanno left the Rutgers that summer and the program floundered again until 1982.
1982-1984, Gross is Gone, Kill the Program
Mason Gross stepped down as Rutgers’ President in 1971. He passed away in 1977. During the late 1970s and the early 1980s, various academic departments, programs, and athletic teams were reduced. Some entire programs were eliminated. In 1981, the athletic department determined to elimate lightweight crew. Rutgers’ heavyweight, Charlie Butt, was hired on an interim basis to wind the program down. There would be no freshmen lightweight crew and the balance of the lightweight program would die a natural death through attrition and graduation. The lightweight alumni were outraged. While nothing could be done to save the freshman class of 1981, an alumni organization was formed to attempt to save the program. By 1982, enough money was raised to keep the program alive. However, the lightweight program was missing the 1981 class. The program suffered. As few as 9 oarmen rowed on the varsity team during the 1982 racing season. This all changed by the fall of 1983. Charlie and wild-man, golf team expatriate, Mike Morrison embarked on an on-campus recruiting campaign that would have put any dot.com guerella marketing campaign to shame. Every bulletin board, dining hall, bus, bus stop, campus post office, library carrol, bathroom, study hall and dorm was plastered with flyers: “Join Rutgers Crew, Get in the Best Shape of Your Life”, “Learn how to Row, Call Rutgers’ Boathouse” etc. In addition to this, any underclassman with a pulse was assaulted by current oarsmen who dragged them to the boathouse to learn how to row. These efforts created a tremendous crew “buzz” among the 1983 freshmen. This buzz was amplified by incoming experienced oarsmen such as Max Borghard, Dan Griffiths, Jim Crowe and St. Joe’s Prep standout, Chris Morris. These efforts resulted in approximately 135 men showing up to “learn to row”. Freshmen heavyweight coach, Larry Connell and freshmen lightweight coach, Scott McKee had to sort, train and teach these young men.
Charlie Butt had grown up surrounded by rowing. Charlie’s father was the coach at Washington and Lee High School and he had fostered may other Washington-area high school crew programs. Charlie was a heavyweight rower at Rutgers and was a leader of the 1982 heavyweight crew that took the silver medal at the 1982 Eastern Sprints. Rutgers’ best finishing crew ever.
When Charlie took over the lightweight program, he found it in disaray. The ranks were thin, the oarsmen were inexperienced, and most were in poor shape. The work ethic fostered by Bonanno in the 1970s had evaporated. Charlie was dedicated to the program though. He researched training, rigging, and nutrition. The oarsmen responded favorably to his coaching style and were working out hard. Charlie convinced the oarsmen to believe in themselves and believe that they could win.
The training done during the fall and the winter of 1983 was similar to the work done during the Bonnano years. Coach Butt’s crews trained hard in the winter and spring and then tapered just before the Sprints. They were in peak physical condition. By the spring of 1984 the Rutgers varsity lighweights were once again in excellent shape and ready to compete with the best crews in the nation.
Entering the 1984 Eastern Sprints, Rutgers, Yale, and Princeton each had only one loss. Rutgers cruised to the Final. At the start of the final, two man, Mike Smith, jumped the slide and his seat jammed beneath him. Coxswain, Tim Giordano, raised his hand to indicate an equipment failure and stopped the race. During the restart, the Rutgers boat came off the line poorly. However, as the race unfolded, Rutgers walked through two boats and were approaching the leaders (Yale and Princeton). With 500 meters to go, Rutgers, Yale, and Princeton were even. In the last twenty stroaks, the boats were in an all out sprint, Princeton crossed the line first and Yale barely nipped Rutgers for second.
1985-1987: “Go for the Win”
Coach Butt left Rutgers after his successful successful two-year stay. Unfortunately, when Butt left, many of the oarsmen who rowed under him left the program as well. Standouts like Mike Morrison, Bill Borghard, Jim Bonner, Mike Smith and Jim Breagy were lost to graduation. The Rutgers’ lightweight pattern was fixed: while never resigning themselves to mediocrity, the crews vacillated between success and failure. When Scott McKee, the 1983-1984 freshmen coach, stepped up to the varsity lightweight position, the crew failed to make the 1985 sprints final. However, the crew came back in the afternoon and salvaged some pride by winning the petite final.
Although the 1984-1985 crew had a certain amount of drive and talent, it was clear that they could not expect to compete successfully against oarsmen with years of experience on them. They had to find a way to get the experience in an accellerated manner. To do this, during the summer of 1985, the core of the lightweight team followed 1984 graduate, Mike Morrison, to Philadelphia and the Vesper Boat Club where Morrison was training for the lightweight national team. At Vesper, they rowed with oarsmen from throughout the country and were coached by Dan Hingley, Bruce Konopka, John Bannan and others. They watched in awe as national team and olympic team hopefuls vied for seats under the eyes of Ted Nash or Kris Korsinowski. In September, these lightweights returned to New Brunswick fit, confident and much better rowers.
The 1985 Head of the Charles foreshadowed a successful spring. Chris Morris, the borrowed heavyweight coxswain, charted a course to a fifth place medal. In the first two races of the spring season, Rutgers defeated Penn and Columbia. In the third week Rutgers raced Princeton and Cornell. Rutgers and Princeton came off the line clean. By 500 meters down, it was a two-boat race between Rutgers and Princeton. With 600 meters to go, the lead changed seven times. With 500 meters left, Princeton had taken a 5-seat lead. With 400 meters to go, both crews were sprinted. Rutgers crept slowly back on the defending Sprints champions. With 100 meters to go, Rutgers was only one seat down and gaining. As the boats crossed the finish line, the Rutgers fans shouted “Rutgers” and the Princeton fans shouted “Princeton”. The judges however announced that Rutgers had won.
The Yale-Dartmouth race on the Raritan proceeded much like the Princeton-Cornell race. However, in the last twenty strokes, as Rutgers walked back on Yale, the Rutgers’ boat left the finish targets and followed the bend in the river to port. Yale held the target to win by one seat. At the 1986 Sprints, the varsity lightweights finished third behind first place Princeton and second place Yale.
Although the graduation of Tom West was a tremendous loss, the crew looked ahead to the 1986-1987 season and the return of most of its oarsmen. The crew took nothing for granted however and again, many of the men returned to Vesper in the summer of 1986.
In the fall of 1986, the lightweight varsity crew consisted of nearly four eights. Again the crew looked to the Head of the Charles as a barometer of its progress. Chris Morris, having outgrown coxing turned the reigns over to Cathy Cunningham. Cathy coxed a flawless race to place Rutgers third overall and first among college lighweight varsity boats. The Canadian national team had won and a Vesper boat, heavy with national team members, took second.
With the exception of a one-seat loss to Yale, the 1987 lighweights won their regular season races. Notwithstanding the loss to Yale however, many considered Rutgers the favorite entering the Sprints. At the Sprints, Rutgers won its heat convincingly and moved to the final. In the final, Rutgers “spun its wheels” and lost seats off of the start but managed to hang on to third place. Cathy called the settle as planned but the rate that was supposed to shift to a 36 only shifted to a 39. Again Cathy called for a settling shift but shortly after the shift, the rating again rose to a 39. By the the thousand meter mark, Yale and Princeton had pulled away from the field and Harvard was walking on Rutgers. In the last thirty strokes however, Rutgers found swing for the first time in the race, too late to challenge Princeton or Yale but in time to hold off Harvard’s charge and salvage third place. Rutgers had come to win but was never really in the race. Third place was failure. Waiting on the water as Yale received gold and Princeton received silver magnified the pain. Neither the third bronze medal in four years nor the second place finish in the Jope cup standings was any comfort.
Coach McKee left Rutgers to coach Columbia. Upon McKee’s departure, the lightweight coach revolving door started swinging again and the program had five coaches over eight years. With the coach constantly changing, the rowers never settled into a program. Performance suffered. Then, during the 1998-1999 season, Rob Freidrich became the head lightweight coach. Rob had coached the freshmen lightweights during the 1997-1998 season and had been a standout lighweight oarsman at Rutgers. Fourteen experienced rowers returned in the fall of 1998. In addition, fourteen freshman rowers, whom Rob had coached the previous year, returned. Coach Friedrich had inherited a team full of size and talent . He showed that he could turn potential into results when the crew finished fourth at the Head of the Charles and third at the Princeton Chase. The crew entered winter training with a national championship in mind.
During the Spring 1999 season, the crew’s smooth and powerful rowing led to an impressive 5-3 record. Princeton, Harvard, and Yale continued to play the spoilers. They entered the Eastern Sprints ranked fourth. The JV boat also had a very successful season and entered the Sprints ranked third.
At the 1999 Eastern Sprints, Rutgers JV lightweight boat qualified for the final. In the final, the JV was in fourth place at the 1,000 meter mark. In the third 500, Rutgers took a powerful move, and walked through Columbia. In the last 500 they unleashed a sprint that pushed them past Harvard to capture the silver medal. Like the JV boat, the varsity qualified for the final. In the Final, Rutgers and the four other crews in the heat were all within a second and a half of one another coming through the 1,000 meter mark. During the third part of the race, Princeton took a powerful move and gained the lead. During the sprint, Columbia fell into second and Harvard held off Rutgers to take third. The forth place finish was disappointing but the season was not yet over. Since 1991, the IRA has hosted a lightweight national championship. Three weeks after the Sprints, Rutgers entered the IRA ranked fourth.
In their first IRA heat, Rutgers drew Harvard, Navy, Purdue, and California. Only the top two boats would advance to the Grand Final. Rutgers advanced, with Harvard, to the Final. The lightweight Grand Final at the 1999 IRA was the most anticipated race of the day. Along with Rutgers and Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, and Dartmouth would race in the Final. Off the start, Columbia quickly shot out with the lead. Through 500 meters, Columbia continued to hold the lead with Harvard in second, Yale in third, and the rest of the field nearly even. Halfway through the race, Columbia had fallen back into fifth place. The Harvard rowers found themselves in the lead with Yale in second and Dartmouth in third. Rutgers was in fourth place. The order remained the same until 300 meters to go. In the final 30 strokes Rutgers charged on the three crews ahead of them. Seat by seat, they walked through Dartmouth and Yale. Only Harvard finished ahead of them. Rutgers lightweights had finished second in the nation.
The 1999-2000 season was another excellent year for the Rutgers lightweights. During the fall the crew finished sixth at the Head of the Charles. However, their time was third among the college lightweight crews. (Three national team training camps sent boats which finished ahead of them.) Entering the winter the lightweights had their sights on the national championship again. Entering the spring, Rutgers lightweight varsity eight had one of the best 2,000 meter erg averages in the league.
The 2000 spring racing season was filled with ups and downs. Rutgers, as expected, won their first two races. In the third week, they raced Princeton and Cornell. Princeton had placed second at the Sprints the year before and was a talented crew. At the start, Princeton gained a two- seat lead while Rutgers and Cornell battled for second place. At the 1,000-meter mark, Rutgers dashed ahead of Princeton and did not stop. The second 1,000 meters was dominated by Rutgers. Rutgers’ ultimate margin over Princeton was six seconds. But the following week, Rutgers lost to Yale while beaing Dartmouth. After defeating M.I.T., the season ended with a victory over Georgetown while losing to Harvard in a tri-race.
Both the Eastern Sprints and the IRA National championship were disapointing for the 2000 crew. They had some of the best erg times in the nation and good regular-season results. In the Sprints however, they finished a disapointing fifth. At the IRA, they finished fifth again. Coach Freidrich then left Rutgers to coach Navy for the 2001-2002 season. He was replaced during the fall of 2001 by Tom Hewitt. The crew under Hewitt upset several crews during the regular season and took sixth in the Sprint final. Coach Hewit then to coach Rutgers’ freshman heavyweight crew. In September of 2002, Paul Hammond was brought in at the last minuted to replace Hewitt. Rutgers lightweight program’s stumbling from coach to coach continued. Coach Hammond was different from many of the prior lightweight coaches however, although he had been a successful oarsman in the late 1980’s he was older when he started coaching, he was finishing a Ph.D. at Rutgers and was an instructor and administrator in Rutgers’ German department. He had also put down roots in the area. He owned a home in Highland Park where he lived with his wife and two young children. His wife had built a successful interior design practice. Although coach Hammond was was not an experienced coach, he knew that the Rutgers lightweights needed a program rather than a personality. He intended to stay until that program/system/structure had been built. The only team coach Hammond ever wanted to coach was Rutgers’ Lightweights. He asked his teammate from the ‘80’s, Fran McGovern, to assist him. Fran had been an assistant coach at the Hun School of Princeton for over five seasons.
Coach Hammond impelmented many of the approaches used by Bonnano, Butt and McKee. Outstanding physical fitness would be the foundation. Twenty-three lightweight varsity oarsmen showed up in the fall of 2002 the eight placed 17th at the Charles. By the spring 2003 Eastern Sprints, eight oarsmen remained. There had been no cuts. But, in the mean time, the oarsmen had rowed to the Parkway and back a number of times, had run stadium stairs, run miles on the roads and tow paths, pulled hours of ergs and lifted a lot of weight. Academic, weight and illness issues had also taken their toll. At the 2003 Eastern Sprints the lightweights took 10th place. This was failure but it was also a beginning.
In the fall 2003, coach Hammond picked up where he had left off. Fitness, self-confidence and competitiveness remained primary issues but he was also able to dedicate some time to technique and leadership issues. Unfortunately, two of the team’s strongest oarsmen were lost to academic issues and participation in junior year abroad. Nevertheless, the team improved significantly in fitness, technique, competitiveness, self-confidence and leadership.
At the 2003 Charles, the team took 21st place. At the 2004 Sprints, the team finshed 8th.
In the fall of 2004 coach Hammond stayed the course and the varsity placed a much improved 10th at the Head of the Charles. Winter training began. It was intense. Again, unfortunately, whether due to illness, injury or attitude, three of the crews’ top men were not able to fully partake of the winter training regimen. Because of this, they were not eligible for the varsity boat when the first race of the spring season came. Further, the stroke from the 2004 sprints boat did not row during the spring season because of personal and academic issues. Penn defeated the first boat handily in the first race. Coach Hammond explained that his program was not about going fast now or winning tomorrow but, instead, excellence: maximizing each oarsman’s potential in order to maximze the boat’s and the program’s potential. An oarsman who was not maximizing his potential did not belong in the first boat even if he was better than one of the men who had made the boat. Merely beating the next man on the team was accepting mediocrity, excellence was required. In fact, the vision for the program was that excellence would eventually be assumed, a given.
One seat that had received too little attention played a devastating role in a number of the spring 2005 races: the coxswain seat. Poor steering contributed to a number of Varsity and JV losses including the failure of the JV to make the Sprints final. Rutgers place 7th at the 2005 Sprints. The lightweights were disappointed but vowed to come back better and stronger and went off to various summer rowing programs.
Shortly after the IRA regatta however, Coach Wagner asked for Coach Hammond’s resignation. Coach Hammond refused the request. Coach Wagner then indicated that Coach Hammond’s contract would “not be renewed” essentially firing him. Coach Wagner indicated that Coach Hammond’s approach and the attitude that had developed among the lightweights created divisiveness within the boathouse that could not be tolerated. Coach Hammond wondered at such a conclusion given that a desire for excellence, self-confidence and competitiveness were what had develped in the lightweight athletes. Nevertheless, the lightweight program and the athletes were again thrown into turmoil upon the firing of Coach Hammond. During the summer, John Parker was hired to replace Coach Hammond and Gabe Winkler was hired to replace former freshmen coach, Mike Levitsky.