Ernst, the longtime Husky crew coach, was fired on the day before Thanksgiving. No matter how confrontational he got at the end, UW administration should have found a way to give him a face-saving way out.
This whole unseemly Bob Ernst situation at the University of Washington gives me a headache, and a heartache. I can only imagine how those intimately involved must feel.
The headache comes from trying to figure out the culprits, and assign culpability, in the he-said, she-said drama that led Ernst, the longtime Husky crew coach, to get the unceremonious boot on the day before Thanksgiving.
As I read Geoff Baker’s intricate account of Ernst’s downfall, and in my own digging, I find myself going back and forth in the blame-assessment department. Acknowledging that there almost certainly are details that haven’t come to light, and nuances that are subject to interpretation, I can only conclude that every party — UW administration, the women rowers, and certainly Ernst himself — had missteps.
But I can’t help but conclude this, as well: Each corner of that triangle no doubt genuinely thinks they were doing the right thing. No matter how much people want to assign definitive blame — just read the comments section — life is more complicated, and shaded, than that. The gray area in this dispute could fill Lake Washington.
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Which is where the heartache part comes in. Regardless of the role Ernst played in his own demise — and it certainly appears there was stubbornness and resistance to change on his part that exacerbated the internal conflict in the program — Ernst deserved a better sendoff.
After 42 years, Ernst should have left UW with a ceremony extolling his vast contributions to the Husky program. He should have had a bronze likeness of himself installed in the crew house, along with other Husky rowing legends like Dick Erickson, Hiram Conibear, George Pocock and Al Ulbrickson. He should have been able to return to the crew house whenever he wanted and serve out his retirement in the role of UW crew ambassador emeritus. It’s the role he was born to fill, and spent a lifetime preparing for.
Now that won’t happen, at least anytime soon. Time has a way of healing all wounds, but these wounds are deep. He’ll be unable to even visit the very site on the shores of Lake Washington where he invested most of his adult life. Some people now will even view Ernst as a rowing pariah.
“He certainly won’t be (a pariah) to most of the people in the program,’’ Jan Harville said. “People are in shock, because it’s not the way you want to see an illustrious, great career end.”
Harville was the highly successful Husky women’s crew coach from 1987, when Ernst left to take over the men’s job from the retiring Erickson, until she stepped down in 2003 — a move that paved the way for Ernst to return to the women’s program in 2008. Harville was Ernst’s assistant for seven years and was coached by him on the U.S. Olympic team.
While acknowledging she doesn’t know the intricacies of the dispute, Harville said, “It just doesn’t seem a very fair way to handle a great career. It seems they (administration) should have been a little more patient in trying to resolve things.”
That’s my ultimate takeaway as well. Surely, Ernst needed to bend to the times. The same my-way-or-the-highway approach that flourished in another day and age doesn’t always fly now. There is no reason to belittle or pressure young women, no matter how competitive the rowing environment. Ernst no doubt would consider it “tough love,” and perhaps the women were being overly sensitive. But Pete Carroll has thrived in a traditionally autocratic sport through a positive coaching style.
Maybe the two sides had irreconcilable differences. But Ernst had earned a chance to go out gracefully. No matter how confrontational he got at the end, as all sides dug in, UW administration should have found a way to give him a face-saving way out.
I hope people at least remember just what a seminal figure Ernst has been in UW rowing — an icon, in Harville’s words. That goes well beyond all the titles he won in all realms of rowing — men’s, women’s and Olympics.
Ernst really did mold lives, hundreds of them, in a positive way throughout most of his career, and he’s getting the testimonials to prove it. Along with Erickson, he was a pioneer in providing equal opportunity to women rowers when that was far from the norm.
In watching Ernst run the awards presentation at the past few Windermere Cups, involving elite international crews, I saw the love and passion he has for the sport. It courses through his veins.
Now Ernst will have to get his rowing fix from afar. I’d wager that despite all the unpleasantness of the past few months, that’s his greatest punishment.