When the University of Oklahoma approved women's rowing as a Varsity sport two years ago, they went looking for a head coach who had already proven they could build a winner. They found Leeanne Crain. Crain had most recently spent four years coaching at Central Florida where she quickly built the program into a contender, leading the Knights to their first ever NCAA bid in 2007.
Crain's Sooners have now just completed their first season of competition, and row2k has the exclusive on some of the challenges of starting a Division I program from scratch.
row2k: You left UCF after four successful years to start the program up at Oklahoma. What interested you in the position and why did you ultimately decide to take the job?
Leeanne Crain: Oklahoma is one of the premiere athletic programs in the country. The commitment to excellence is apparent in everything they do to create an experience that is second to none for their student-athletes. From facilities to academic support, sports medicine, equipment, the list goes on and on. It was clear to me that all the elements were being put into place to build a championship level program at a great academic institution. That made the decision easy for me.
row2k: What was your first day like in Norman?
Leeanne Crain: Unbelievable. I was impressed by the fact that nearly everyone I encountered – on and off campus, knew something about rowing and that we were the newest sport at OU. Norman’s population is right around 100,000 and everyone in the community is an OU fan. There is a great sense of pride in being an Oklahoma Sooner. The fans want to come out and support the rowing team just as they do for football and basketball. I even had someone ask about tail-gating at home regattas. I had to laugh, but I think it’s a great idea.
row2k: What were some of the major hurdles you had to get over before you held your first actual practice?
Leeanne Crain: Acquiring all the new equipment and scheduling delivery before the start of the school year was a challenge. We had to purchase an entire fleet of boats, oars, ergs, launches, truck and trailer. It’s a rare opportunity to start a program from scratch, and one forgets how equipment-intensive our sport is until you have to purchase everything and you’ve got nothing. I’ve been coaching for so long that I’ve begun to take certain things for granted, just expecting items like megaphones, speed coaches, and bow lights to be on the shelf at the boathouse.
row2k: How did you handle starting a season with zero athletes and how difficult is it to create a positive team culture with little to no experienced athletes?
Leeanne Crain: It wasn’t as difficult as I anticipated. There is so much school spirit at OU and everyone wants to be involved at some level with athletics, either as an athlete or as a fan. So, like every other program in the country, we set out on campus to find tall, athletic looking women to fill our novice roster. Once we had our roster set, creating a positive team culture was easy. We only had a few student-athletes with any prior rowing experience, so virtually everyone was starting at the same point.
The few kids who transferred in with college experience obviously believed in me and my coaching staff, so they served as great role models for our inexperienced athletes. We made it pretty clear from the beginning that we were a competitive Division I program and that we were only interested in coaching those who shared our vision of building a national caliber program. The student-athletes who finished out the year came to recognize that they were part of something very special. Years from now when they return to OU, they will see their names up on the boathouse wall and know that they helped to lay the foundation for the program. That’s something they can always be proud of.
row2k: What was the makeup of this year's team?
Leeanne Crain: We had 4 rowers and a coxswain transfer in at the beginning of the fall semester. Only one received a full release, so four of them sat out during the 08-09 season. They were able to practice but not compete. We had several athletes try out from the club team, but only three ended up on our final roster. Everyone else was a true novice with very little or no prior experience. We raced a varsity four comprised of our one eligible transfer, the three former OU club members, and a freshman coxswain. We were also able to field two novice eights.
row2k: What were the goals you wanted to accomplish in your first season?
Leeanne Crain: More than anything, I wanted to set the bar high and that meant getting out and racing. The first race I put on the schedule was South/Centrals. For us, that’s our season-ending championship. I knew we wouldn’t be ready to field a full team and probably not ready to compete at that level, but it was important to have it on our race calendar. Selections to the NCAA Championship come out of that regatta for the south and central region teams, so we’ve got to be fast there eventually. I felt it was important for our first class to see the level of competition at that venue to have a real understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish from a competitive standpoint.
row2k: Your Varsity Four and Novice 8 each won at the Big 12 Championship. How important was it to have that success in your first year?
Leeanne Crain: Well, I guess you can’t underestimate the importance of making some sort of a mark in your first season of competition. I was pleased with the fact that we walked away with two victories at Big XII’s. Texas, Kansas, and Kansas State are great programs in their own right, and it was a huge accomplishment for us to leave the championship with two wins.
row2k: In five years, where do you hope to see the Oklahoma program on the national stage?
Leeanne Crain: I would hope that in five years, we will be in a position to be competitive with the fastest programs in the country. That certainly seems like a tall order now, but if we do everything right, it should be a goal that’s within reach.