Some believe that a chariot race is won not by the chariot but by the horses and that a crew race is won not by the boat but by the eight men pulling the sweeps. But there are those who believe yet another factor is involved after seeing Northeastern University's stunning upset of the East's superpowers, Harvard and Penn, last weekend at the Eastern Sprints on Lake Quinsigamond near Worcester, Mass. They give a lot of credit to Mrs. Ernie Arlett and her bag of English tricks.
Opening her pocketbook, the wife of Northeastern's coach reaches in and pulls out a moth-eaten champagne cork." 'Ere," says Mrs. Arlett. "This is my two-day champagne cork." She proceeds to explain its magic. As anyone knows, the cork must be lodged in a dirty sock for two days. It's unbeatable after that. She extracts another charm. This is special. It is a doll, about an inch high, very pink, very naked, very old. "This is Willie Waddell," she says. Waddell, named after the famous English soccer player, was her son's first plaything. Her son, like any stout Arlett should, rowed with Rutgers and now attends Tulane University. "You know," Mrs. Arlett adds, rummaging reflectively through other magic tickets and old badges, "Ernie says he wasn't nervous this morning. Well, he wanted to fold up his chair but he folded it this way and that, that way and this, and he just couldn't get it together." She demonstrated what she meant by folding the chair in a single swift movement.
Mrs. Arlett had the magic touch for sure, and all her Ernie had to do was stand by and watch as the first Northeastern crew ever to win the Sprints, one of rowing's noblest prizes, whipped top dogs Harvard and Penn and surprising, unseeded Brown. Ernie stood on this little island at the finishing line amid a mob of spectators. Alongside him was Freshman Coach Frank Barrett and across the wind-ruffled waters came the sharp cries of coxswains whipping on the heavyweight eights. They formed a shrill accompaniment for the public-address announcer who, from the start, filled the air with news of Harvard and Penn. It was " Harvard" this and "Penn" that and both rowing at "36." Only occasionally did word of Cornell or Brown sneak in. As far as Announcer Harry Gladstone was concerned, the Northeastern Huskies might as well have been rowing at home on the Charles River.
But who could blame Announcer Gladstone, for Northeastern was plugging along in fourth place at least a length behind leading Harvard. Then, suddenly, with perhaps 250 meters to go in the 2,000-meter course and while hugging the Shrewsbury shore across from Arlett's island, a Flying Dutchman shell appeared. Her crew wore Northeastern's black. With every stroke of the sweeps she seemed to lift clear of the water and gain a seat on Harvard, all amid a frenzy of action and sound. As Virgil wrote in the Aeneid,
Their bent arms churn the water into foam;
The sea gapes open by the oars up-torn;
With shouts and cheers of eager partisans
The woodlands ring, the sheltered beach rolls up
The sound, the hills re-echo with the din.
As the crowd edged closer down the shore an incredulous Barrett began to yell, "We're going to do it, we're going to do it, we're going to do it," at a disbelieving Ernie Arlett, who kept shouting, "It's too late, it's too late," in a chorus of his own. He had waited so long for a big win, now that it was within his grasp he could not believe it.
Northeastern flashed across the line followed by Brown, leaving wasted Harvard and Penn collapsed over their oars as they tried to fathom what had hit them. Said Harvard's Harry Parker, as unruffled in defeat as he is in victory: "My guys were aware of Northeastern right up there threatening but...." Penn, too, had its buts. Play and replay the finish to infinity and the fact that a shell could come from so far back so quickly against such outstanding competition would still seem unreal.
As Arlett gamboled toward the winner's dock to greet his crew and take the traditional dunking, the chairman of the Eastern Sprints seeding committee was beginning a celebration of his own. "The seeding committee is throwing a cocktail party immediately," declared Andy Geiger, Brown's athletic director. Why not? Ever since the embattled committee released its Sprints rankings, the flak had come in thick and fast. Now, perhaps, it would stop.
No one argued with the committee's pick of Harvard for No. 1. Mowing down the nation's top crews in its customary style all season long. Harvard had added gloss to the won-lost record of 37 and 4 run up by Parker, Harvard's Percy Haughton of rowing. Nobody griped about Cornell's fifth seeding, or MIT at six, either. What they did object to was Navy's No. 2 ranking, because it had been Whacked soundly in the Adams Cup two weeks ago. They also objected to Northeastern's ranking third. Nor did the Huskies agree with their seeding. They believed they should have been ranked first.
The knock against Northeastern was its schedule. It was considered far too easy. The Huskies had gone against patsies like Boston University. Moreover, all their races had been close and they had barely managed to edge MIT. While Northeastern had cracked the Charles River course record, it was said that was with benefit of a tailwind.