The Cal crew had started to pull away last Saturday in the final of the men's varsity eights at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships, the jewel of college rowing. Along the banks of the Cooper River in Cherry Hill, N.J., two Bears coaches, two Cal crew alumni and one oarsman's father urged the team on from a moving van. "Keep pulling!" shouted a voice.
"Four seats ahead!" yelled another.
"No, six! Open water! Yes, all alone!"
From the front seat Steve Gladstone, the van's quietest passenger, was taking in his eighth career IRA Challenge Cup title—the most of any coach in the past 85 years—with deceptive calm. "It isn't really a move." he said stoically of Cal's widening lead. "It's just efficiency."
After the riders left the van to celebrate Cal's five-second victory over second-place Brown, Gladstone stayed behind and stared through the trees at the river. He crossed himself and walked inconspicuously around the lake to meet his crew. "I don't want anyone to dunk me in the water," said Gladstone, 59. "I just want to soak it in from a distance." After such a race the victorious crew, in a rite of celebration and revenge, usually tosses the man who has drilled, scolded and prodded them into the drink, but Gladstone stayed dry. Legends soak at their own discretion.
The class of '00 crew is Gladstone's masterwork. Three rowers from last season's undefeated Cal eight deferred school this year to train for the Olympics. Three others graduated. Gladstone's 2000 crew, coxswain excepted, featured two rowers from each of the four class years and averaged only 188.6 pounds, compared to Brown's 209.4. In April, Gladstone boldly replaced the strongest man in the boat, 6'7", 225-pound sophomore Zach Salwasser, with freshman Filip Filipic, a Serb whom Gladstone considered more compatible with the rest of the crew. Last winter Salwasser's time for 6,000 meters on the stationary ergometer, the modern measure for individual rowing strength and endurance, was 18 minutes, 39 seconds. Filipic's erg score was an ordinary 19:40.
"Steve is winning with good singles hitters," says Craig Amerkhanian, the team's ace recruiter and the coach of Cal's freshmen, who also won a national tide on Saturday. "It's in the details. He's half an hour early for everything. He's a step ahead of everyone." Before the varsity final, Gladstone had addressed members of the junior varsity squad, who had finished fourth two hours earlier, prepping them for their next race—which was nine months away.
More than most coaches, Gladstone evaluates by feel, sometimes starting his stopwatch and not looking at it. "Precision is intuitive," he says. "I see it when I wake up in the middle of the night. I never sleep straight through. I'm drawn to the movement, not the quantifiable pieces. When a racing shell is moving fast through the water, it is an art form. Most material work lasts forever. The work we do here is ephemeral, transitory. You'll see it today and never again."
Gladstone picked up his work habits—and certainly his commanding voice—from his father, Henry Gladstone, a radio newsman in New York who was one of the first to do daily business reports. "Dad had total contempt for modern television reporters, nice-looking men whom people would find simpatico," Steve says. "He was a real reporter who loved and respected his work. He allowed us to do different things, to 'follow your bliss,' as he'd say."
Steve was an average rower at Syracuse and skipped his senior year, 1963-64, to live in Paris. There he married a Frenchwoman with whom he had two sons: Ethan, now 36, a graphic designer, and Wendell, 28, a sculptor. But Steve's bliss was rowing. He coached Princeton's freshman heavyweights from 1966 to '68, then led Harvard's varsity lightweights to four straight unbeaten seasons, from '69 to '72, and spent nine years as Cal's varsity heavyweights coach in his first stint in Berkeley.