The UW men’s rowing team was unable to extend its unprecedented streak of five straight national titles. So what went wrong this season, and how do the Huskies look for the season?
The longest championship winning streak in men’s collegiate rowing history — Washington’s five straight national titles (2011-15) — ended June 5 when the UW varsity eight finished fourth at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J.
For head coach Michael Callahan, who has collected six titles in nine seasons at UW, the outcome was not a shocker — the Huskies, with just two varsity returnees from the 2015 championship crew, faced a slew of tough competitors — but it was still a glum moment.
“Our students work really hard,” Callahan said. “When they came off the water, it was hard to take.”
Callahan, 42, reflected on Sunday’s race and pondered the future of one of UW’s most successful sports programs (18 national titles since 1923).
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Q: California finished nearly six seconds ahead of UW in Sunday’s grand final to win the national title. When the teams raced April 25, the Huskies lost by just a half-second. Was Sunday an off day?
Callahan: “Teams are so competitive now, if you’re a couple of fractions off, you’re not going to be in the fight. Maybe we weren’t as consistent this year.
“On our best days we could go toe-to-toe with California. If we weren’t quite on, we couldn’t do that. The range of our ability was bigger this year. I think everyone believes we could have rowed faster than we did. It just didn’t happen.”
Q: You mentioned Sunday that college rowing’s competitive landscape is evolving and UW must also evolve. Can you explain that?
Callahan: “Four years ago the freshman rule was changed so freshmen can row up (into varsity boats). So you can recruit students to come and row in your top boat their first year.
“We’ve been very traditional. We’ve kept our students in the freshman eight their freshman year to help them develop. When people ask how good our incoming freshmen are, we’ve always said, ‘We’ll tell you when they’re seniors.’ …
“Once that freshman rule changed, one program after another has adapted to that model.” (Just six schools fielded freshman eights at this year’s IRAs, down from the customary 18 to 24. UW won the race for a fifth straight year.)
“We tried to hold off because we felt that the freshman model was so important to our program. Now we have to evaluate that very hard.”
Q: This year you were missing a varsity returner to a back injury, and two varsity athletes to the U.S. Olympic tryouts. Did that have an effect?
Callahan: “A lot of people come up with excuses. I don’t like to do that. I like to come up with reasons and then evaluate how we can get better and move forward. That’s my mindset right now.
“A lot of things can go one way or the other. That’s sports. It was hard for us to absorb missing people. But all the other teams were really, really good.”
Q: You lose only two seniors from this year’s boat. How does the future look?
Callahan: “This year’s varsity was a whole new group, so maybe we’re in a good spot for the next couple of years.
“Maybe this year is just a culmination of being off 1 percent here and there. There were some technical pieces that we didn’t get as far as we wanted to. I think we were a very strong boat, but we weren’t able to get the traction on the water that we’ve gotten in other years.
“Maybe that’s the fault of the coaches. I wasn’t able to get them one more step ahead and we were one click away. If I had got that one thing, four other things would have gotten better.
“At one point this season I was telling a student that this (a mix of wins and losses) is what rowing actually is. You come here, and there are all these successes. That’s not what most people experience in rowing.
“Rowing is about challenge and resiliency, being tough and being smart. It goes back to all the basics. … Things go in waves, in cycles. This is just another one, another challenge, another evolution, and we’re going forward.”
• Conor Bullis, named interim women’s head coach last November after the abrupt dismissal of long-time coach Bob Ernst, interviewed for the job on a long-term basis on June 3 when, during a nine-hour span, he met with more than a half-dozen UW administrators, including new athletic director Jennifer Cohen, and even a panel of 12 women rowers.
“It was a good opportunity for me to meet everybody who I already knew, just in a different context,” said Bullis, who directed the UW women to a fifth-place finish at this year’s NCAA championships. The school will consider other candidates and aims to announce a hire by the end of the month.