When Bob Ernst was ousted from UW last year, his assistant took the opportunity of a lifetime. Now Bullis, Washington’s interim women’s rowing coach, has lofty competitive -- and compassionate -- goals.
Talk about big coaching shoes to fill. In college rowing, Bob Ernst’s footprint is Sasquatchian.
In 41 years at Washington, Ernst coached eight national-championship crews — six women’s (1981-85 and ’87) and two men’s (1997, 2007). In 1984, he coached the U.S. women’s eight-oared crew to an Olympic gold medal. For 29 years he helped shape the Windermere Cup into a Seattle civic institution.
Determined to restore the women’s program to national prominence, Ernst resumed coaching UW’s women in 2008. Last June, the Huskies placed fourth at the NCAA championships, their best finish in seven seasons. Later that month Ernst was inducted into the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame.
Then, whoosh, he was gone, abruptly dismissed in late November after rowers complained to the UW athletic department that they were not having a “positive experience.”
Windermere Cup 2016
The sudden change left UW administrators scrambling. They handed the women’s coaching job, on an interim basis, to a 32-year-old Seattle native, Conor Bullis, whom Ernst had hired in the fall of 2011 to be his first assistant and lead recruiter.
Bullis’ only head-coaching experience came at Lakeside School, where in a season-and-a-half he revived interest in the sport and grew the boys’ roster from eight to 42. Like everyone else, Bullis never anticipated such a gear-grinding change at UW, one of the nation’s premier rowing schools.
“No one expected this to happen,” he said. “No one planned for it. No one wanted it to be this way.
“Bob is a legend here,” Bullis said. “I’m amazed at what he’s done with the program and all he’s built. Everything here is connected to Bob. So I’m honored. I’ve always been honored to be his assistant and learn from him, and I learned a ton from him in the last four years, stuff that I’ll never forget, things that I’m using now trying to fill his shoes, which is impossible.”
Bullis, a 2001 Garfield grad, grew up in the Mount Baker neighborhood and rowed at Oregon State, becoming the captain his senior year. He served a year as an OSU assistant, then in 2006 moved back to Seattle to be an adult coach at Lake Washington Rowing Club.
In the summer of 2007, at a marine supply store, he thought he recognized Michael Callahan, who was preparing for his first season as UW head men’s coach.
“I said, ‘Hey, are you Michael Callahan?’ ” Bullis recalled.
“He said, ‘Are you Conor Bullis?’ He asked if I was interested in coaching at UW, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So he brought me over as a freshman intern.”
Bullis spent two years in that role, then nearly two more as coach at Lakeside before Ernst hired him in the fall of 2011. This year’s UW seniors were his first recruits.
On Saturday he is in Redwood City, Calif., to be part of the annual UW-Cal dual, one of the historic head-to-head races in college rowing.
The UW men, the defending national champions and ranked No. 2 in the country, will face California (No. 4) for the 105th time since 1903. Last year, Cal snapped an eight-race UW win streak on Seattle’s Montlake Cut. UW leads the series 73-30-1.
The women’s varsity eights have been competing since 1977. Overall, UW leads Cal 23-16 but has won only once (2013) in the past 12 years. The Huskies were ranked No. 7 this week; Cal topped the NCAA ratings after defeating then-No. 1 Brown last week.
A big race, no question, though Bullis chiefly views it as just one more progression in a season-long story arc designed to crescendo at the NCAA championships in June. UW last won a women’s title in 2001.
“We were fourth in the NCAA last year as a team,” he said. “The 2V boat was third, the varsity four was fifth and the varsity eighth was sixth, so we’re not far away. The urgency is high. There’s a lot of talent here, and my goal is to direct it and push for faster speeds.”
Pushing hard, in fact.
“One thing I’ve done a little differently than Bob is continuing to train a little bit longer into the spring season so the volume is still relatively high, and we’re not going to let off until we get closer to our final races,” he said. “That’s where it really counts. The goal is to go fastest in our last race.”
Bullis is using head-to-head, intrasquad competitions to keep practices intense and squeeze more speed out of his rowers.
And, now months after UW’s coaching turnover, Bullis said he feels accepted by those rowers.
“I haven’t had anyone give me a hard time,” he said. “For me, it’s an open-door policy. Come on in, let’s talk, let’s over-communicate. I’ve communicated more than I ever have.”
Dani Olson, a fifth-year senior serving as women’s captain for a second straight year, says Bullis has made an obvious effort to be open with his athletes. In January, he even distributed a coaches-evaluation form.
“Conor told us the majority of the feedback was, ‘I’m too nice,’ ” Olson recalled. “It’s true. He really wants to communicate. He really wants to let you know that he cares for you and wants to know what your personal life is like and what your rowing life is like so he can better coach you individually. That level of attentiveness to detail and to the athletes is amazing, and that’s bringing our program ahead.
“Not everyone is the same. You can’t coach me like you would coach another girl on the team,” said Olson, a member of the Army National Guard. “I like to be yelled at, and I like it strict. But another girl would probably appreciate just asking questions. ‘How are you feeling?’ A little coaxing. He’s really good at that. He wears a lot of hats.”
Bullis would love to close the season with a championship and maybe get “interim” dropped from his title.
“This is my shot,” he said. “How many coaches can take over a program that was fourth in the country last year, where you get the opportunity to take a program at this height and try and push it up to the next level?
“I’m doing everything I can, trying to fill (Ernst’s) shoes, which is impossible. I will never be able to do that, unless I’m here for 42 years.”