For an intro to the series, see Editors Note: row2k Series on the Intersection of U.S. Men's Collegiate and Elite Rowing.
The 2006 Rutgers University decision that state budget cuts, increased spending for the football program, and gender equity issues would effectively end one of the country's oldest and most storied varsity rowing programs had coaches and rowers in other schools around the country wondering if their programs would be next.
"What happened with the program at Rutgers was terrible," said Northeastern University men's head coach, John Pojednic. "It was absolutely devastating when we heard what happened. We were all worried that other people might follow suit.
"We had leadership in place here at the time that didn't value men's rowing the way they do now. And there was some sniffing around at the opportunity of, 'Hey, these guys could still row with the IRA, and can still row boats, but we don't have to have them be a varsity program.'"
It didn't happen.
There was – and to some extent there remains – a perception that men's rowing would fall victim to large colleges struggling to get oversized athletic budgets under control while adhering to the pressures that Title IX presented to create collegiate opportunities for women.
Certainly the Rutgers situation along with other pressures had a major impact on men's rowing in the US, resulting ultimately in the elimination of men's collegiate club programs from eligibility for the IRA Championship, and subsequently in the establishment of American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA), the association that governs and runs the championship for collegiate club programs.
But the feared retreat to club status did not become a trend for existing men's teams. It is inarguable that the club vs. varsity issue along with Title IX requirements has created negative pressure on programs seeking new varsity status, and may remain a concern for some varsity programs – but it was not the beginning of the end for men's collegiate rowing as a sport of opportunity for young American rowers.
In fact, for Northeastern, the pendulum of fate swung in the opposite direction. The university cut the 74-year-old men's football program in 2009, and Pojednic suddenly found himself in the recruiting game.
John Pojednic talks to his crew
"When I started at Northeastern, and probably up until only about five or six years ago, we were primarily a program where we built our roster through walk-ons, meaning guys who have never really performed." He had done some off-campus searching, but not the kind most often associated with offering financial aid and academic admission assistance that comes with high-level recruiting.
"I used to call it 'encouraging' instead of recruiting," he said. "We used to encourage guys to come here and row, but there wasn't a whole lot we could do for them admissions- or financial aid- wise."
"But then we institutionally stopped playing football. We had 60 to 70 scholarships on a Division I football team, the university decided we are not going in this direction anymore, and along with that came a reallocation of resources."
Continuing Perception and Reality
The one common holdover that remains today relating to the issue of Title IX and men's rowing is the idea that as women's opportunities grew, men's shrank, and that collegiate men's rowing could not continue to provide high school or junior male athletes the chance to be a collegiate athlete at the levels it had historically – and that as a result, it could not be a sustainable elite U.S. feeder system the way women's rowing could.
There is no argument that the wide availability of scholarships and financial assistance available to women as a direct result of Title IX and the addition of rowing as an NCAA sport makes the decision to row in college generally much easier for women than for men.
There are a limited number of schools that offer scholarships for men's rowing, including the University of California, Stanford University, University of Washington, Boston University and Northeastern. Ivy League schools do not offer scholarships, but recruits are often offered financial assistance grants.
Nationwide, the total number of scholarships available to men is lower than the number of scholarships available to women in the Pac-12 alone.
Having financial help to attend school at a time when college tuition can top more than $60,000 a year could be said to make pursuing rowing a risk for young male students with standout athletic talent.
But in interviews with multiple varsity and college club coaches, the perception that opportunity does not exist and college cannot be an elite proving ground meets resistance; they insist that collegiate and development opportunities exist in the U.S., by the thousands.
Where and what kind of program these opportunities are to be found comes down to athletes and parents deciding what the best possible situation is for their sons and answering these questions: Do they have the potential to support an education through rowing? Is sports a determining factor in academic choice, or is choosing the right balance the answer?
"You have to do your homework," Pojednic said. "And you've got to ask what kind of experience do I want to have as a college rower? How important is being recruited? How important is being on a varsity-status program?
"And what's it going to look like when I identify a school I want to go to and I find out how much that school costs? What might the opportunities be for me to be able to choose that school as an affordable option? Because I think at any college, the athletes and coaches want the same thing, and the parents want the same thing for them. They're looking for an opportunity to get a great degree and row at the highest level that they can, without it becoming a back-breaking amount of distress financially.
"I think from there, the student athlete has to decide what kind of program he wants to go to, and figure out if that school is a good fit for him, and figure out what the opportunities might look like there."
By The Numbers
Between ARCA and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA), the parent organization for schools that row with varsity status, there are an estimated 191 programs available to young men in the U.S.
On the club side, ACRA has been growing steadily, and is currently trying to get an accurate count of club programs. Last year there were 64 teams at the ACRA national championships. There are 51-member IRA schools, and a total of 80 schools that have varsity level programs. Twenty-four of those programs competed in the 2016 IRA Championship.
If each program fielded just one Freshman eight, one JV eight, and one Varsity eight, that would equal more than 5,000 seats for high school athletes to fill. And most programs have many more crews than just three eights.
Club or Varsity
The overwhelming difference between club and varsity programs is financial and institutional support. Certainly not all varsity programs have scholarships or financial aid packages to spread around, but at least students don't have to worry about paying for coaching, buying equipment, travel, spring break training, regatta entry fees, and more; most or all of these expenses are the direct responsibility of many collegiate club athletes. Some of the costs are covered by events like ergathons, tshirt sales, renting out the team to do yard work, and more, adding to the overall load borne by the student-athletes.
Additionally, most (not all) varsity programs can offer admissions help for students in competitive academic environments. And most varsity programs combine a solid education in an area of choice while also promising a competitive schedule.
Skip Kielt, the assistant and recruiting coach at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said he believes opportunities in U.S. men's collegiate rowing are increasing, not declining. He knows the issues up close; he was a varsity lightweight at Rutgers when the university ceased being a varsity program.
Hobart, while it does not offer financial help, does have a competitive IRA schedule combined with the reputation of being a quality private university, and that is an attractive situation for enough potential athletes to keep Kielt busy.
"I do a ton of recruiting," he said. "The pool of athletes we are drawing from is anywhere from 200 to 250 identified athletes every year who are either contacting us or we're contacting them, usually through email.
"Then we'll go and kind of parse it down, make our calls after July 1st to the prospects, and then bring in about 40 athletes on an official visit in the fall," he said. "It's pretty extensive in terms of how we're engaging with the junior athletes."
Club programs generally do not recruit, nor do they offer financial aid. In fact, rowing for a club programs typically adds to the cost of college, with expenses that can climb into five figures over four years. But they do offer a variety of competitive levels across the board, from casual to highly competitive.
Purdue racing at the 2016 ARCA Championships
Purdue head coach Dave Kucik knows both the club and varsity side of the college scene; Kucik attended Marietta College and then the Naval Academy, and won championships at IRA, Eastern Sprints, and the Dad Vail Regatta as an athlete.
After serving in the Navy, Kucik coached the freshman squad at the University of Wisconsin, and then was the head coach at Cornell University. He left Cornell to return to the Midwest to live near his aging parents and was offered the position of men's head coach at Purdue.
For Kucik, collegiate club rowing is the best of both worlds. He is working at a university that has a successful competitive program with institutional support in the form of paid coaching, something that provides both expertise and sustainability.
(It is worth noting that the organization structure among men's club programs varies considerably; while some universities pay coaches directly under the auspices of their rec or other programs, many of men's club coaches are paid directly by the students, while others are paid by some combination of both (e.g., students pay dues to a recognized managing alumni group, which then pays the coach). Still others are run and coached wholly by volunteers.)
"We know we have kids coming to Purdue because of the rowing program, but also mainly because we've got a good engineering school or a good technology school or a good science school, and they're picking a college because of the academics first.
Dave Kucik at the Dad Vail Championship
"Because we've got a good rowing program, they want to be involved with that because that's a big part of their history."
Kucik said that every fall, Purdue has a freshman class of between 180 to 200 students (men and women) coming to the program. Many, he said, are excellent athletes and some have the potential to move through to the elite level if they chose.
"On average, (of that freshman class) ten percent of those have rowing experience." He said. "We try to tap the good athletes to choose Purdue for the academics, and get them involved in the program and retain them. We don't go off campus to do the physical recruiting thing. We don't make the kind of phone calls to programs to do that.
But, Kucik said that athletes who are being recruited at other universities sometimes do find a home at Purdue, with students on the roster that decided they were not "necessarily geared" for the level of a top IRA school who chose Purdue instead.
"We've had some great guys come through the program, not necessarily with rowing experience, but just good athletic background that you could easily look at and go, 'Oh that's an athlete.'
"And then, if you turn around 90 degrees and you look at the other end of our pool here, you could say those aren't really athletes. They aren't, but they have a commitment, a work ethic, a competitiveness to want to learn the sport. And if you have those three traits here, whether it's top end of the athletics spectrum or the other end, I say you've got a place to hang your hat, and we'll figure out a way to give those people the experience."
"When I came on board back in '95, I didn't know what I was going to do with the club program," he recalls. "I had no idea what I got into until I saw what the athletes really did to make this program work, and it's been phenomenal. This is where I was meant to be."
No Shortage of U.S. Athletes Who Want to Row
Over the past 10 to 15 years, junior and high school programs have sprung up and watched their rosters balloon. Some of that growth is a direct result of the opportunities and attention Title IX brought to the table for women, which is thought to have expanded rowing opportunities for youth athletes overall, and some is a direct result of membership building by junior programs, and the overall growth of the sport.
(For a look at the growth in rowing as it has been tracked by USRowing go here.)
Across the country, in places both in and far removed from what have been thought of as the traditional rowing communities, programs have evolved as the sport grew and rowing venues were developed.
Good examples exist in many locations. On the Cooper River in Camden, New Jersey, a short drive from Philadelphia's Boathouse Row, a small handful of programs rowing from a fenced enclosure in 1999 now operate from a large, taxpayer-supported boathouse opened in 2001 that houses seven local rowing programs.
In the Southeast, the 2017 World Rowing Championships will be held in Sarasota, FL, and the growth and development of Nathan Benderson Park as a world class rowing venue has dovetailed with the explosion of youth programs in Florida.
In the fall of 2009, the year Casey Galvanek became head coach, Sarasota Crew had about 45 high school kids and 20 middle school students.
"We quickly changed the culture," Galvanek said. "We became a community-oriented program, and changed the focus from winning medals to making sure that there was individual improvement. And we slowly grew."
Today there are over 300 students rowing in the combined programs that include an elementary school program, middle school program and a scholastic/high school program.
Many of his athletes have earned opportunities to row in college, he said.
Across the country on the West Coast, competitive rowing programs have existed for more than 40 years. And over that time, the size of the programs have expanded at every level, and now feature middle and elementary programs.
Young men from across the Oakland Bay Area find their way into rowing as juniors, and some go onto the college level.
Oakland Strokes on the Youth Championship Podium
According to Oakland Strokes men's head coach Brian de Regt, the program draws from 25 different schools and of the 200 students who row in the program, half are boys.
"We're a big established program, and I think that takes care of itself to a degree in terms of the college recognition," de Regt said. "The parents know that it's not as old as, say, Kent School. You don't have 100-year history, but we do have a 40-year history, and there is definitely a degree of institutional knowledge on the parents' end where a new parent may be asking the novice coaches (about college opportunities).
"I think that the guys definitely get recruited," he said. "I would say it's certainly much more difficult for a guy to get a scholarship than a girl going to NCAA. But it's definitely on the parent's mind."
He said that the program is marketed as a way to introduce the sport to high school age athletes and as a way to "get the attention of really top flight academic institutions. If you're not academically eligible, it definitely won't get you in; it won't get you into the school that you couldn't get into."
But, he said, rowing can provide an edge for a student that is academically eligible at a competitive university seeking a diverse student body. "I think that rowing probably helps you."
Growth and Future Opportunities
Coaches at both the club and varsity levels believe that collegiate rowing is a sustainable and growing option for young men in the U.S.
The club level, without a need to draw from institutional sports budgets, will probably see the most growth overall, even if it means that the resulting educational costs will be increased by the pay-to-play nature of the programs.
While there is potential that IRA could see varsity level programs added, it won't happen on a large scale, not while rowing is operating without the NCAA, Pojednic feels. Adding rowing to the NCAA is what some believe is needed to develop the sport on the collegiate level.
"It would be great, first and foremost, if there was anything that could be done through the IRA's partnership with USRowing, or some potential partnership with the NCAA in the future, to actually get men's rowing to a point to where colleges are adding the sport as a varsity sport," Pojednic said.
"Because that's just one thing that isn't happening. There's a small number of schools that support it at the varsity level. There are cases here and there of a school elevating its club to varsity for this or that reason, but that's not a trend.
"If you walk into your run of the mill, big-time football athletic director's office at a school where they don't have men's rowing and never have, and talk to him about adding men's rowing, he's going to look at you like you've got two heads," he said.
"It's totally going to screw up his gender equity balance. Why would he invest money in a sport that is relatively expensive? It's not even going to give him points towards the athletic director's cup at the end of the year."
"So, I think when we look at opportunity in the future, we need to look at what we're going to do to try and create the situation where there are more universities supporting the sport. That would be very important to me." As for the club programs, University of Virginia men's club head coach believes the system will only grow. "The club system is thriving," Biller said. "The future of men's collegiate rowing is the club system. You're not going to have varsity status added from a club system. At Virginia, it is not going to happen. Ever. It's not even a matter of money. It's just not going to happen.
"But it's much easier to add in club programs than varsity programs, so the growth and the number of athletes being drawn to collegiate rowing is in club rowing," he said. "If I were rower from a small high school program, I would consider going to a club program where you can enjoy the independence of your actions.
"The athlete pool will continue to grow, and club rowing is getting a lot better."