Spring is usually a time of uncertainty as college crews move out over the nation's lakes and rivers. But for years and years rowing fans could count on one vernal phenomenon that was as sure as robins, crocuses and the equinox itself. This was the fact that on any given race day, a boatload of young men wearing the light blue of Columbia University would splash across the finish line dead last. During 17 years of utter futility, the Columbia crew managed to come in first in only 11 of 73 major races. "We do not expect too much trouble from the Columbia boat," was the kindest thing a rival coach could say about the Lions before a race.
While 10 other crews rowed for their very lives in the IRA regatta four years ago, Columbia paddled up Onondaga Lake with the dedication of spooners canoeing in the moonlight. The Columbia rowers finally drifted so far behind the others that the referees' motor launch had to swerve wide and pass them in order to stay in sight of the pack. Most observers on the shore snickered audibly, but a lean, rugged ex-marine named Carl Ullrich saw nothing funny in the fiasco. "Columbia was making a farce of the race," said Ullrich, who was then Cornell's freshman coach. "It made me sick." A year later, to the surprise and distress of most of his friends, Ullrich took on the job of making a serious play out of this comedy of errors as coach at Columbia.
For three years, under Ullrich's coaching, Columbia crews followed form by winning not a single major race. No one, therefore, was quite prepared for the storm that has swept down off the Harlem River this spring. The Lions are still far from being the best college crew in the land. They took a bad beating in the eastern sprints two weeks ago, and they are still a long way short of the class displayed by Cornell and the visiting Germans from Ratzeburg. But so far this season, coxswains from Navy, Princeton, Penn, MIT and Rollins College have all had a good look at the faces of Columbia's rowers for the first time in their memories as the Lion shell pulled happily ahead.
What has happened? "It's a question," says Ullrich's old boss, Cornell Coach Stork Sanford, "of Carl Ullrich. Ullrich can't very well go around saying Columbia is a winner because of himself, but that's exactly why it's winning. He brings brains and a sound technical knowledge to Columbia, and that's something they haven't had around that boathouse of theirs in quite a while."
If Ullrich had followed his original inclination he never would have become the Columbia coach. "Don't take it," his friends beseeched him when Columbia offered him the job. "It's a coaches' graveyard." "Not one person advised me to go," says Ullrich, "and I was inclined to agree with them." As freshman coach at Cornell, he had, after all, a secure position from which each spring he could launch a flotilla of tall, broad-shouldered young men into the Cornell shells. Moreover, Ithaca was a good place to raise five active children. "Besides," Ullrich adds, "I remembered that launch passing the Columbia boat."
But, having turned down the Columbia job, Ullrich began to resent compliments on his wise decision. "The more people told him what a wise fellow he was," says Sanford, "the moodier he became." "I was just gutless," is the way Ullrich puts it. So he told Columbia he would take the job after all.
A few weeks later, 12 smiling and plump young men, anticipating pleasant hours on the water, stood in the Columbia boathouse waiting to greet their new coach. "Good grief," Ullrich remembers thinking, "I knew things were bad but I wasn't quite prepared for this." Taking a firm grip on himself, he told his rowers things were going to be different. "I am not used to losing and I am not about to acquire the habit here," he said. The 12 aspiring oarsmen winked at each other knowingly. Crew had always been a pleasant and casual way to win a varsity letter and they were quite prepared for what they thought was the traditional coaching spiel.
It was a surprised group of flabby young men, then, who soon after found the side door of their boathouse blocked by a device they were told was an isometric-exercise bar. "What's more, you will use it," Ullrich told his varsity candidates. The crewmen not only used the bar and spent long earnest hours in the rowing tank, they startled fellow students by running pell-mell around the outdoor track in the dead of winter. "That wasn't the ordinary procedure," said one Columbia professor in a monument of campus understatement.
Despite this un-Columbia approach to rowing, the crew that made up Ullrich's varsity shell were still of the old school. "They were losers," Ullrich recalls grimly. That spring Columbia entered five races, lost them all and finished 12th in a field of 12 at the IRA regatta. "There was no change in the Columbia rowing picture," observed a former stroke. He was only partially right. The smiling, genial, hail-fellow coach of other years was no longer waiting at the dock after each race to offer comfort and consolation. The crew was greeted instead by a tight-lipped driver who treated each loss as a personal affront. "The atmosphere was not one of levity," recalls one crewman.
The following spring the new coach informed all prospective rowing candidates that they were expected to "eat wisely, study hard—and row. Nothing else." Anyone who felt that such a Spartan regimen was too much to endure had better not report.