If you have been coaching crew for more years than you care to remember and you have tried almost everything else and you have a chance at last to take your boys to the Olympics, what do you do? The same old weight lifting? The same old early-morning calisthenics? The same old grueling rows on the river? Not if you are Joe Burk, you don't. The courtly coach of the University of Pennsylvania now builds crews by shuffling a deck of cards—and proof that his game pays off was provided last week by the fact that Penn's eights made a clean sweep of Onondaga Lake at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships outside Syracuse, N.Y.
For Penn's defending champion varsity there was more at stake than merely another IRA victory. This time, Burk told his oarsmen, success could mean a bonus trip to Long Beach, Calif. in July to fight for an Olympic berth against—among other crews—Harvard. Harvard is the only college that has beaten the Quakers this year, and there was not a Penn rower who didn't want another crack at the Crimson.
During this season of 1968 all intercollegiate rowing has been geared to Olympic standards. The course over which 500 oarsmen from 20 schools were to row at Syracuse was changed from the former three-mile pull to the 2,000-meter Olympic sprint distance, and the regatta was all gussied up with Olympic-type trial heats and repechages. All three Penn crews won their first heats with ease on Thursday even though bucking a headwind that corrugated the lake's surface. In view of Penn's record, obviously it was in the cards—Joe Burk's cards.
Joe's cards are no gimmick. They work like this: every potential Penn crewman has a card with his name printed on it. Each day before practice Burk, who looks as much like a gambler as Billy Graham, shuffles the deck and deals. First he picks four starboard oarsmen, then four port, then a coxswain. This crew goes into a boat, and the game proceeds until all shells are filled.
The drawing over, the crews go out and row races against each other until they bust their chops, because, as every Penn crewman knows, a win is worth three points on his record, a second place two and a third one. Two or three days before each intercollegiate event Burk counts up the totals to discover who will man his competing boats.
"I like the card method," Burk explains, "because it keeps everyone working with the hope that he'll make it up to the varsity boat. Day after day we row, until the consistently good ones come to the top like cream." At the IRA Regatta, the Penn cream was obviously as rich and thick as butter.
On Friday, for the first time in its history, the IRA staged repechages, or second-chance races, for the crews that lost out on Thursday. So, while the victorious Quakers spent their time in further practice, those they had beaten raced again, this time on waters where conditions were near perfect. The losers became winners in such style that the lake record for 2,000 meters was smashed not once, but four times.
One mad dash by Princeton automatically established it as the crew with the best chance, if any, of catching Penn on Saturday. Washington's Huskies—victors in the Western Sprints—could not be discounted. Neither could Northeastern, a dark horse that lowered its time over the course by five seconds after Coach Ernie Arlett seated a new, heavier stroke in the varsity boat only a few days prior to the IRA
By Saturday, as Harvard prepared to thrash Yale in their annual meeting on the Thames River, 250 miles away in New London, Conn., racing conditions at Syracuse had changed from ideal to awful. Friday's sun had given way to clouds, rain and another headwind. The Penn freshmen opened the day with a win, going away at a rapid pace from Princeton's frosh. Then Penn's J.V. beat Orange Coast, a two-year junior college from California that produces better crews than 90% of the four-year schools. It was a close finish, which surprised nearly everyone but Orange Coast. At long last the Penn varsity rowed out to deliver the ritual slaughter.
Before the race began Burk declared that he hoped his boys would not get off to too quick a start. "Generally, we go faster than we should in the first 500 meters," he said. "Rowers are way behind runners in that respect. We don't pace well. Our last quarter is frequently by far our slowest, whereas a runner paces himself much better and finishes faster. Maybe it's because crews face backward and so are able to see what the competition's doing."