Each year the coaching carousel goes round-and-round, but it's not with every coaching change do we get as much interest and chatter as with Dave O'Neill's move to Texas. A coach with a long history of producing championship boats combined with a big school with a big athletic department, and a solid groundwork from previous coach Carie Gaves, who retired last summer.
How long does it take to transform a team? A few months? A few years? Does a new coach have to have their own recruited athletes to take a team from good to great?
At the San Diego Crew Classic, those questions were being asked and discussed as Texas won all of their heats, most notably in beating perennial Crew Classic champions USC in the Jessop-Whittier Cup race for lanes.
Today, the results spoke volumes to answer these questions – two wins in the 2V and the open events, a very close second place finish to USC in the Jessop-Whittier Cup, and a respectable 3rd in the varsity 4+.
O'Neill was pleased with the weekend's performance.
"We knew we could be good, but how good, and how well they handled the higher pressure, the higher stakes, the higher level was to be determined, and it went well," O'Neill said. "To trade pieces with USC, whose first 8+ is always one of the better ones in the country - that's good."
The move from Berkley, CA to Austin, TX – leaving a perennial national championship team for a building, growing one - has been a big change for O'Neill and his family, but he sees the change as a new, fun challenge.
"At Cal we had great success; we were top three in the country nine out of ten years, but there's always something bigger and better out there. Everything's bigger in Texas!" he said.
"The new challenge has reenergized me - it's fun and exciting."
With the support of the athletic department, O'Neill has been able to rebrand the team – he calls it Texas 2.0 - switching equipment so that they now row with different boats and oars, and even with new blade and uniform designs. These changes are a bit like painting the walls in a new house; it's not a total fixer-upper, but the freshening up goes a long way for team morale.
"The girls have been so open to it – there's been very little of 'this is how we do it at Texas,'" he said.
0'Neill seems unfazed by the pressure of turning the team into a powerhouse – he knows how to produce champions and he holds his athletes to high expectations. The Texas women are responding by racing fiercely and surprising many of their competitors. Casey Redman, a senior in the 2V that won their event at the Crew Classic, credited 0'Neill for preparing her crew to win.
"I feel like finally college rowing has paid off – it's a lot of work and a huge time commitment," she said. "Everyone is happy and looking forward to what we can do, and really thankful for a chance to do well."
This weekend's results were just a little glimpse of what we might see this season - it will be another few months before we'll know if Texas is heading to the NCAA Championships, but with O'Neill at the helm leading the hardworking Longhorns, they'll likely be there before too long.
"I was brought in [to Texas] with a purpose to make the team a big time strong perennial National Championship program," he said. "We're looking to be competitive, and I think I like to have high standards of what being competitive is. We're at a good start; we're trying to compress two years of experience into two months, and we have a long way to go."