Unlike his retired father, the new men's rowing coach at Washington works on top of water, not under it. Michael Callahan is the son of...

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Unlike his retired father, the new men’s rowing coach at Washington works on top of water, not under it.

Michael Callahan is the son of a former nuclear submarine captain, Paul Callahan, who is coming to Seattle from Virginia to watch his son’s Huskies compete Saturday in the Windermere Cup against Navy and Poland’s under-23 crew.

The Huskies are defending national champions and Callahan, 34, has kept them undefeated and ranked No. 1 despite replacing five rowers from last year’s title boat.

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Callahan is a former Huskies rower who was promoted from frosh to head coach last summer after Eleanor McElvaine was fired as women’s coach. Bob Ernst, the crew program coordinator who was coaching the men, opted to return to coaching the women, which he had done from 1980 to 1987.

Ernst’s decision was a shocker, and he prefaced the you-are-promoted news to Callahan by saying, “Hold on to your jock strap.”

Callahan is the ninth men’s head coach in Huskies history. Over the decades, rowing has been Washington’s most successful sport, with 12 men’s varsity-eight national titles and 11 women’s championships. The Huskies have one of the nation’s top rowing facilities and an influential and generous crew alumni group. Callahan is well aware that mediocrity isn’t tolerated.

The new head coach comes across as personable. Rowers say he is a taskmaster and a stickler for proper technique but that he knows when to lighten up and when to be stern.

“He can tell when it’s time to flick a switch,” said varsity stroke Will Crothers.

Callahan said his rowers “are fun to be with,” “have good chemistry” and “like to be coached.”

“About half these guys play guitar or piano,” he boasted. “It’s amazing.”

Callahan has impressive rowing credentials. He was a spare on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, rowed on crews that have medaled in world championships and has coached the national U-23 team. He lettered three years at Washington and was stroke and captain in 1996 as a senior.

He majored in history and likes to bike, hike and run marathons. He has lived eight places, including the Kitsap Peninsula when he was in seventh and eighth grades, as a Navy brat. He comes from a family of high achievers.

Callahan was hired after a couple of top candidates Ernst won’t name said they didn’t want to move at this time.

“The conclusion I came to is that the next best candidate that I knew of in the world that I wanted to coach at Washington was Michael Callahan,” Ernst said. “And it didn’t make any sense to ask him to coach the women’s team. He had recruited all the guys, he had coached all the guys and I knew that he would be really good.”

Ernst, 63, said there was another reason for the selection.

“I’m not going to coach here forever,” he said. “I think that in any successful organization you always have to be looking for your replacement.”

Callahan is off to an impressive start, with quality wins in the San Diego Crew Classic and over rival California last Saturday at Redwood Shores.

Ex-Husky Dave Covey (’67) watched the race with former teammates from the same bridge that Callahan used as a viewpoint.

“He was so calm,” Covey said. “He and Bob Ernst were standing next to each other, just being so clinical and making calm observations during the race. When it was over, Callahan jumped on a bicycle and rode off to be with his guys.”

Callahan describes his position as “a people job” and said he asked his submarine-captain father for advice when he was in his first year as frosh coach and one particular rower was exasperating him.

His father’s advice was to loosen up.

“My dad said, ‘He’s not driving a $3 billion submarine with 100-plus warheads on it.’ It’s OK.”

Craig Smith: 206-464-8279 or csmith@seattletimes.com