A two-month investigation by the UW athletic department and a stormy meeting with his women’s team ultimately resulted in the firing of Huskies rowing coach Bob Ernst.
A heated office argument with his standout coxswain the first day of September classes triggered events that resulted in last week’s firing of legendary Washington Huskies rowing coach Bob Ernst.
By the conclusion of the closed-door exchange between Ernst, 69, and rower Marlow Mizer, a junior — which occurred after the coach’s season-opening address to his women’s crew team — she was off the squad. Over the next two months, after an initial complaint by Mizer about Ernst’s coaching style, a University of Washington administrator interviewed about two dozen of the 62 women on the team’s fall roster, plus a handful of recent program graduates.
The athletes described Ernst’s harsh verbal treatment of his rowers and his disparaging comments about their weight and performance, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation. Rowers complained of pressure to skip classes to fill a weekly quota of time-trial workouts, of forced weigh-ins violating a new school policy, and of a climate of fear and non-communication fostered by their coach.
Bob Ernst file
College: Orange Coast College, where he played center on national JUCO champion football team); UC Irvine (1979), where he became head crew coach at 27. Masters of public administration from UW (1979)
UW crew: Hired as assistant coach in 1974. Became head women’s coach in 1980 and men’s head coach in 1987. Returned to oversee women’s program in 2008.
National: Won eight national titles: six with the women and two with the men.
Olympics: Coach U.S. women’s eight to gold medal
Other honors: Conference men’s coach of the year 11 times. U.S. national team coach 1976-1988. Inducted into national rowing Hall of Fame in 1994.
2014 salary: $157,607
Even then, after assistant athletic director Shondell Reed completed his investigation, the school appeared ready to allow Ernst to continue coaching if he heard his players out and agreed to change. But things fell apart after an emotional meeting between Ernst and his team on Nov. 20. At that meeting, attended by Reed, Ernst vehemently denied most accusations and then stormed out, threatening to retire.
When Ernst emailed his crew members two days later, unapologetically telling them he intended to stay on, the majority of the rowers gathered to discuss what to do next. Within 48 hours, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, athletic director Scott Woodward — fully apprised of the team’s concerns — summoned Ernst to his office and fired him.
According to two sources with knowledge of what happened, the reasoning behind the decision was simple: He’d lost the team.
But the fallout from Ernst’s dismissal in his 42nd season at UW has been anything but simple, raising questions about the line where tough-love coaching becomes abusive. And about whether modern-day athletes are too pampered and soft compared to their predecessors, in this case rendering obsolete the methods of an eight-time national champion coach.
Ernst’s allies say that his gruff, abrasive demeanor never sat well with Woodward and that the school looked for an excuse to get rid of him after relationships deteriorated over salary and other issues. But others say Ernst’s quips that “The team isn’t a democracy, it’s a dictatorship’’ were his own undoing and highlighted an inflexibility that made communicating with his athletes exceedingly difficult as the age gap between them grew.
Neither Ernst nor school officials would comment. Crew team members contacted by The Seattle Times indicated the school had told them not to speak to the media.
But eight people close to Ernst and the rowing program, including current and former team members, described a painful and tumultuous parting of ways. Even those critical of Ernst say he made immeasurable contributions to one of the nation’s elite rowing programs and could have been a tremendous team spokesman had things not ended the way they did.
The athletic department heard differing views about whether coxswain Mizer, a junior from Hailey, Idaho, had quit the team or been thrown off by Ernst after their office argument. A coxswain, an unofficial boat captain, sits at one end of the boat and controls its steering, speed and the rhythm of its rowers. Mizer’s role heading the 8-member varsity boat last spring had been an exceptional sophomore achievement.
Sources say she’d returned from summer national team tryouts — where she’d been exposed to different coaching styles — and quietly approached Ernst about softening his communication with athletes. Her suggestion wasn’t well received, and eye-witnesses say Mizer further irritated Ernst by glancing at her cellphone during the coach’s season-opening address to crew members moments prior to their office confrontation.
During the department’s subsequent investigation, Reed was told Ernst had members of the varsity eight boat in tears last May at the Pac-12 championships near Sacramento, Calif., after their third-place finish cost the Huskies the overall title. Ernst was said to have congratulated the rest of the team for their efforts while singling out the varsity eight for costing everyone else a conference title.
Reed also was told Ernst felt his team had a national title shot this season and was pushing rowers extra hard this fall. Time trials with two-person boats, which Ernst used to begin selecting his elite eight-member varsity squad, took on extra seriousness.
Ernst pushed team members to do two time trials per week instead of the usual one if they wanted serious consideration. Mornings typically offer the best water conditions for fast times, so some athletes felt compelled to skip classes to get their two sessions in.
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Also, pairs need to practice together to be most effective, so some spent several extra hours weekly on the water. What annoyed the rowers, sources say, is that Ernst considered those sessions voluntary and wouldn’t include them among the maximum 20 hours of weekly practice time allowed under NCAA rules.
Others described Ernst, conscious of keeping his boats light and fast, warning coxswains to stay below the NCAA minimum weight of 110 pounds or he wouldn’t let them race. He also weighed other team members, a routine practice in rowing but a violation of a new (2014) UW policy that allows only football, men’s basketball and baseball players to be weighed.
The no-weigh-in policy applies to non-coxswain male and female rowers alike, though it was implemented primarily to prevent body image stigmatizing for women. One current rower says Ernst made “cruel” comments such as “put your beast on a leash!” to rowers he felt were overweight.
“There’s no way somebody like that should have been in charge of impressionable 18- to-22-year-old women,’’ the rower said.
But one of Ernst’s most famous female rowers of all time, 1984 Olympic gold medalist Kristen Thorsness, said she appreciated the coach’s “direct, honest and open style” about weight, performance and other things.
“Was he hard on us? Absolutely, he was,” said Thorsness, a member of the Alaskan Sports Hall of Fame. “Does he rub some people the wrong way? Absolutely. But it’s all about helping the athletes find it within themselves to give their absolute best. The things he taught us helped so many rowers go on to be successful at other things in their lives.’’
She added that Ernst’s team last season had 12 Pac-12 Academic Award winners, seven National Scholar Athletes and an Academic All-American winner.
Another of Ernst’s former rowers, Al Erickson, son of late Huskies coaching legend Dick Erickson, said Woodward and Reed should never have allowed the rowers to take control like they did.
“I think Bob is a victim of some of the changing circumstances surrounding the coddled atmosphere some of these athletes have grown up under,’’ Erickson said.
Erickson is a member of the Huskies’ board of rowing stewards — the team’s alumni-based, de-facto fundraising arm — and a longtime friend of Ernst’s. He said Woodward should have approached stewards for help negotiating a more graceful exit.
Shortly after Woodward’s arrival in late 2008, Ernst stepped down as men’s rowing coach and took on the faltering women’s program. The move allowed Michael Callahan, Ernst’s fast-rising assistant, to become the men’s coach.
Callahan has now won five consecutive national titles and six in seven seasons. Public records show his salary jumped from $129,797 in 2010 to $237,919 by last year.
Ernst’s salary in that period went from $142,500 to $157,607, causing what sources say was friction with Woodward. While Ernst hasn’t recently been as successful as Callahan, his supporters say he deserved better given his legacy.
They say Ernst felt “ambushed” by Reed and Woodward ahead of his firing. Ernst initially had agreed to meet his rowers on the Saturday before Thanksgiving to air their differences.
But late Friday afternoon, Ernst was told his rowers had gathered at the shellhouse and were insisting they meet immediately. When he arrived, he found the majority of the team seated in a circle, with Reed also present.
Crew commodore (captain) Sophia Dalton, a senior from Seattle, began asking teammates how Ernst’s style affected them. The meeting began calmly but deteriorated as Ernst and others objected to criticisms.
An eyewitness said some younger crew members supporting Ernst, including his own daughter, were shouted down by juniors and seniors. Things grew emotional, even tearful, and ended with Ernst bolting from the room.
Within days, he was finished as coach.
One of the nation’s foremost rowing programs now must repair the damage minus its most recognizable figure. Assistant coach Connor Bullis has been put in charge for now.
No decision has been made yet about Mizer returning to the team. And nobody knows what Ernst’s next step will be.
The only thing certain is that the team’s efforts to distance itself from a legendary coach have made for waters as turbulent as any they’ve rowed for years.