Though the importance of crew at Harvard, Penn or any other such school cannot be overstated—rowing is at once a manly sport and a mannerly one—at the U.S. Naval Academy it has an added virtue. It teaches sailors how to row a boat. When Navy crews get clobbered, as has happened all too often during the last decade, the Academy suffers a special humiliation. It is a special pleasure, then, to find that Navy's heavyweight eight has a pretty good chance to win the big event of the intercollegiate season, this week's IRA on Lake Onondaga at Syracuse, N.Y.
If the Middies do win, the credit goes to a tough, old-line coach named Carl Ullrich. A man with 30-caliber eyes, short hair and a capacity for hard work, Ullrich is admired at the Academy for just those attributes. He was the personal choice of Navy's athletic director, Captain John Coppedge, who took over at Annapolis three years ago and polled every knowledgeable rowing man on the East Coast before making his decision. "There was," says Ullrich, "no suggestion from the athletic department that we were going to have to fight for our lives to get what we needed. Captain Coppedge said he wanted us to recruit and to win."
At the time of Ullrich's appointment Navy was in a slump. Rusty Callow's invincible crews of the early 1950s were just a memory. Harvard and Penn had emerged as the boats to beat, year in, year out. From the early summer of 1966 to the spring of 1970 Navy did not win a single race for heavyweight eights.
Ullrich had rowed for Cornell, where he took a degree in mechanical engineering, and served briefly at Ithaca as an assistant rowing coach. From there he moved on to become head coach at Columbia, and to discover that crew was only a semiserious sport in Manhattan. Boston University called on him to do something with the water-logged Terriers, who bit him back. He found that oarsmen were as hard to come by as support for rowing, which was minimal. Being casual does not suit Ullrich, who as a Marine commanded a rifle platoon in the Korean war. With valor. And apparently with humanity. It is said that his battalion commander told him one day, " Ullrich, you'd better get out of the Marine Corps. You get too fond of your men."
So there he was for Coppedge to grab—a hard hat with a heart—and though he puts the Middies through very rigorous drills, they seem to want to win for him. His first indication of success came last year when his freshman eight beat the varsity. Ullrich began this season with nine sophomores in his first two eights, and 3� boatloads of freshmen who will be pressing for varsity seats before too long.
After a winter of heavy conditioning, the Middies looked confidently to an opening race with Princeton—too confidently. "I hate to say it," recalls the coxswain, Frank Culbertson, "but there was a little bit of complacency in the boat." Says Ullrich: "I don't think there is any question that losing to Princeton helped us. Everybody got a little mad. I know I did."
That was Navy's last collegiate defeat. Yale was beaten, then Cornell, and then came the chance to face the best, Harvard and Penn, in the Adams Cup, which was rowed on the Academy's home water, the Severn, in May. Ullrich was somewhat tense. "T thought we had it made on Monday," he says. "On Wednesday I lay awake all night because we had a lousy workout. By then I knew we had screwed it up, and I had to do something, somehow, to unscrew it." His solution was to get kites for his varsity oarsmen and tell them to go fly 'em. They did, and kites, conditioning, discipline and the rest added up to victory. Navy tucked Harvard and Penn astern at the start of the Adams Cup and kept them there all the way. The brigade of midshipmen responded by hoisting the oarsmen on their chairs at dinner and parading them around Bancroft Hall, a salute ordinarily reserved for winning football teams.
The rowing committee made Navy the favorite in its next big regatta, the Eastern Sprints, but not Ullrich's rival coaches. A poll revealed that more than half believed the Middies would not win. "I realized," says Ullrich, "that we had to be stronger, tougher, faster." They were. They won.
In oarsmen's lingo, the way a man's blade bites into the water is his "catch." Some boats have a fast catch, others a slow catch. Navy's eight is the deliberate kind. "They have mastered the hard part of rowing, the catch," Ullrich says. "They are getting hold of the water efficiently. They are using their strength economically. They are rowing together, sharply and cleanly."
Navy is not a big boat, averaging just 187 pounds from bow to stroke, but, as Harvard's Harry Parker says, a man's weight is not as important as how he "pulls water." At the moment Navy is pulling plenty and, after the years of drought, must be considered co-favorite with Washington's Huskies to win the IRA.