Early Saturday morning, dark forebodings fluttered into Steve Gladstone's brain like crows landing on a wire. Gladstone is the crew coach at Brown, and his heavyweight eight was the hottest shell at the Cincinnati Regatta, the collegiate nationals. Earlier this season Brown had won the Eastern Sprints and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta, which is something like winning the first few games of the World Series. No crew had won both the sprints and the IRA in 24 years.
"I woke up with a feeling of malaise from the tip of my toes to the top of my head," Gladstone moaned before the race. "I envisioned every possible coaching nightmare: cracked oars, jump-slides, broken riggers...."
Well, not every one. What he didn't foresee was Harvard's contempt. Contempt was a kind of engine that propelled the Crimson crew. "We're the most contemptuous crew out there today," said Harvard captain Steve Wayne. "We have a ruthless contempt for the opposition. It's very important to have contempt when you're ahead, and settling into your basic cadence."
"Contempt is like hatred, only worse," added crewmate Rich Kennelly. "You're saying the other team is just too low to come back." Brown may not have been too low, but that afternoon on the 2,000-meter Harsha Lake course, the Bruin eight lost to the Crimson by a scant five feet after a throbbing duel. Harvard's victory earned it the right to represent the United States next month at the World University Games in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, with a stop-off at Henley.
The man who instilled that quality of supreme confidence in the Crimson crew is coach Harry Parker. He's the laconic, somewhat aloof demigod of college crew, someone who owns one of those rare mouths—to borrow a phrase from Brown alumnus S.J. Perelman—in which butter has never melted. Perhaps because he's a distant, detached man, certain mystical properties have been ascribed to him. "The Charles River can be solid ice," says Dan Bakinowski, president of the U.S. Rowing Association, "and Harry will look at it and say, 'The river will be open in three days.' And it will!"
The Parker mystique began when he became Harvard's varsity coach in 1963. His crews were immediately dominant in a way that no college may ever be again. From 1964 through '68, Harvard was undefeated. Parker's current varsity eight, stocked with talent from last year's undefeated freshman and junior varsity squads, looked as strong as the Crimson crews that had won the Cincinnati Regatta in 1983 and '85.
The '87 crew is so cocky that it has named itself the Sultans of Swing. Swing, for oarsmen, is a kind of nirvana achieved when the stroke is so rhythmically perfect that the shell practically hydroplanes.
The Sultans swung into the season by winning the San Diego Crew Classic on April 4 and then by thrashing Brown in a dual meet a week later. But by May they were puddling along, finishing behind Penn and Navy in the three-school Adams Cup and coming in a disheartening fourth in the Eastern Sprints at Worcester, Mass., on May 10. Whenever the Crimson eight stroked into a headwind, they won. Whenever they were pushed along by a tail wind, they lost.
So Parker decided to bring the crew out of its shell, so to speak. He changed the rigging. He replaced three varsity rowers with three from the jayvee. He drilled the crew to newer and faster cadences. Parker launched his new varsity less than a week before Harvard's annual four-mile race against Yale on June 6. The Crimson swamped the Elis by eight lengths.
Harvard came to Cincinnati dragging along Bruno, a tattered old teddy bear named after Brown's offical mascot. The Crimson had taunted the Bruins with Bruno all during the '86 campaign. "We used to tie him to the back of whatever vehicle we were in," says Wayne. "By the time we got to last year's Cincinnati Regatta, Bruno was pretty mutilated. He had no footpads, no nose, no ears. His entire face had been rubbed off."