At six in the morning, Lido Channel in Newport Harbor, 50 miles south of Los Angeles, is calm. Yachts and sailboats rock idly at their moorings in front of multimillion-dollar estates. Suddenly the tranquillity is disturbed by the agonized grunts of rowers. Up the channel come the Orange Coast College eight, out for their morning workout.
"This is the best time of day," says Dave Grant, who is pacing the crew in a motorized catamaran. "The water's smooth. There is nothing to distract the oarsmen. I have their full attention."
The 53-year-old Grant is the rowing coach at Orange Coast in Costa Mesa, Calif. He also happens to be the school's president. In the latter capacity he presides over a growing two-year community college of 25,000 students. In the former, he has, over the last 28 years, built a powerhouse rowing program out of next to nothing at all.
In California the Orange Coast Pirates are often called the Giant Killers. Grant's boats have an .800 record against freshman, jayvee and even varsity eights from top rowing schools like Harvard, Northeastern, Princeton and Washington. Pirate alumni have rowed on Olympic and national crews; Ted Swinford, 1978-81, and Teo Bielefeld, '85-87, were both on last year's U.S. team.
Orange Coast is the only community college regularly represented at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta. The Pirates have appeared eight times and won the freshman eights national championship in 1980. Orange Coast is the only U.S. community college ever to be invited to the Royal Henley Regatta in England; the Pirates have made that trip eight times as well. In 1985 the Pirates became the first U.S. college rowing crew to compete in China. "They perceived Orange Coast as a 'people's college,' " says Grant. "I suppose they thought it would be ideologically appropriate."
It is appropriate that an alumnus has brought all this glory to Orange Coast College. Grant is one of those exotics who actually were born and raised in Southern California. He remembers when "one of the islands near here was uninhabited. We'd row out to these deserted beaches to play pirates. We spent most of our childhoods in the water."
He spent much of his adolescence there, too, swimming for Newport High before enrolling at Orange Coast in 1956. Grant, who remains fit at 5'9" and 155 pounds, was a two-year oarsman for the Pirates. After that, he rowed recreationally at UCLA and at the University of Stockholm. He completed his education at Long Beach State, where he received his master's degree in history in 1964.
"The year before I finished my master's, I received a call from Dr. Basil Peterson, who was president of Orange Coast," says Grant. "He asked me to teach a few American History classes till I figured out what I really wanted to do. Once I arrived, he sat me in his office and said, 'Dave, when you have some spare moments, I'd like you to give a few pointers to the rowing team.' Dr. Peterson was a Mormon. He thought the coach was a bit of a tippler. So whether I liked it or not, I was the new coach.
"I really didn't know anything back then," says Grant with a chuckle. "I should get in touch with all the guys who rowed in those days, and apologize for what I did to them."
In 1967, after a few seasons of coaching by the seat of his pants, Grant wrote Harvard's famous coach, Harry Parker, and asked for pointers. Parker invited him to Massachusetts to watch the Crimson train. "I remember sitting around Harry's house one night and asking him about the finish of the stroke," says Grant. "He didn't say a word for about 10 minutes. I thought he was ignoring me. Finally he said, 'Dave, I don't understand it either. But you know when it's right.' The time I spent with Harry was a revelation. Not because of any one thing he said, but because I came to appreciate the beauty and intensity of rowing when it's done right. You can't try to intellectualize it. I began to understand that it is all in the eye."