row2k Features
ACRA Enters a New Era, Part 1: The Formation of ACRA
May 2, 2023
Gregg Hartsuff

Cheering crowds at the 2016 ACRA

A story about the significance of Rutgers and George Washington University being at the 2022 National Championship as ACRA enters a new era after the Covid-19 pandemic. This is a three-part essay on how we have arrived at this point, and where it might be going.

PART 1: RUTGERS ROLE IN ACRA's FORMATION

Last May, on the bike path along the course in Oak Ridge, TN, I noticed a scene I hadn't observed in 15 years: Steve "Pops" Wagner, the longtime coach of Rutgers, riding his bike, as he followed his crew racing in the national championship regatta. There he was, wearing his familiar bucket hat and red polo, with a smile on his face, enjoying conversation and happy to be there. This time the national championship was the ACRA National Championship instead of the IRA (Intercollegiate Rowing Association) where I had last seen him riding his bike while watching his crews race at the national championship. It was his team's first appearance - and the last major collegiate club program to commit to competing at ACRA - since club teams were excluded from IRA competition and we formed our own association in 2007.

Rutgers at the 2022 ACRA
Rutgers at the 2022 ACRA

From 1996 through 2008 I took my team to the IRA. Until the end of 2008 it was a common occurrence to ride with Pops along the banks of the Cooper River in Camden. We have continued to correspond as he attempts to acclimate to club sport status and the stark differences between how collegiate club sport and varsity teams are administered and supported. I had been trying to get him to bring the Scarlet Knights to ACRA since its formation, but it wasn't until 2022 that he brought them. The rationale for deciding to wait that long was complicated.

In discussions with other coaches at this year's ACRA very few were aware of Rutgers' role in ACRA's formation, and the significance of them being there for the first time. Few current ACRA coaches were coaching at the time of the ACRA-IRA 2008 split. Many weren't even athletes at the time. In fact, only a handful of current IRA coaches were coaching then, so many coaches do not realize the importance of Rutgers being at the 2022 ACRA.

This has compelled me to provide a portion of that history; ACRA's relationship to the IRA; and how Rutgers ties into ACRA's formation, which is now the largest U.S. collegiate regatta in terms of entries and competitors. With Rutgers' inaugural appearance, coupled with George Washington's inaugural appearance at ACRA after being dropped as a varsity sport the previous year, on our 15th anniversary we added two noteworthy varsity-turned-club programs - each having taken different paths to get there.

George Washington at the 2022 ACRA
George Washington at the 2022 ACRA

THE INTERCOLLEGIATE ROWING ASSOCIATION (IRA) AND THE CINCINNATI REGATTA

To learn ACRA's history, it is helpful to know the history of the IRA. The IRA was formed in 1895 by three schools (Columbia, Cornell, and Penn) and two more (Navy and Syracuse) joined shortly after and these five founding institutions, identified as the steward schools, basically made the decisions for the regatta over 110 years. The IRA was a direct successor to the first intercollegiate athletic association in the U.S - the Rowing Association of American Colleges - that was formed in 1870 and in 1894 disbanded.

Typically, Harvard and Yale had their storied annual race the week after the IRA was held, and until 2003 they were never regulars at the IRA, prioritizing training for their dual race in order to win the oldest rivalry in U.S. intercollegiate athletics. However, the IRA stewards did invite other programs to compete, including West Coast powerhouses Cal and Washington. Other Eastern Sprint schools usually attended annually as well. Consequently, the IRA slowly grew in competition without Harvard and Yale, and it was a meeting of the East and West for about a century. That said, as Harvard and Yale weren't there, to most people the IRA wasn't considered THE national championship.

After years of trying and failing to get Harvard and Yale to attend the IRA, in 1982 a collegiate national championship was formed for both men's and women's varsity eights and held annually in mid-June - after the Harvard-Yale race - at East Fork Park in Cincinnati on Harsha Lake. As the Cincinnati Regatta evolved through the 1980s different renditions of the invitees occurred. By the end those attending would be the winner of Pac-10s; the winner of Eastern Sprints; the winner of the IRA; and three other invited at-large crews. Generally, the latter were selected Pac-10 and Eastern Sprints' medalists, which always included the winner of the Harvard-Yale race or both if they had both medaled at Eastern Sprints. The Cincinnati Regatta settled any debate on who the national champion was in the varsity eight.

TITLE IX ENFORCEMENT AND NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP FORMATION

We are all familiar with Title IX and its impact on the sport. Not everyone realizes the process of getting to where we are now. Title IX dramatically changed how our sport functions on the collegiate level, and circuitously instigated the formation of ACRA because when the NCAA held a women's championship the Cincinnati Regatta dissolved.

Alterations in women's intercollegiate athletics didn't happen immediately after the storied Yale women's rowers' 1976 protest of their institution's failure to adequately comply with the 1972 law. Real reform materialized at a glacial pace initially. In 1992, during my first year of coaching at Michigan, the Brown women's rowing team filed and won a lawsuit regarding Title IX violations. That was the real catalyst for modification in women's rowing, leading to the early version of the NCAA Championship, you are seeing today. It was in response to the Brown lawsuit that many big state universities scrambled to achieve gender equity and balance huge football team rosters and budgets by converting women's club rowing teams to varsity sports. or in many cases starting varsity teams from scratch. Through the 1990s dozens of women's teams were added to the varsity ranks. This similarly served as a catalyst to form an NCAA championship, the first of which was held in 1997, and launched a common situation you now see at many big state universities: a well-funded women's varsity team and a much less supported men's club team.

In 1996 I was a young, ambitious coach at Michigan. As was the case for many non-Eastern Sprints/Pac-10 teams, in 1995-1996 our seasons typically ended after either the Dad Vail, or the still-young NIRC (which went through several name changes since it formed in 1993). Encouraged by Wisconsin's legendary and retiring coach Randy Jablonic, I took a few small boats to the 1996 IRA. That was the same year Michigan's women's team became a varsity sport, and our coed club transitioned to a men's team. I loved the atmosphere at the IRA and being able to compete against the best (minus Harvard and Yale at that time).

Two weeks after the 1996 IRA I attended the final Cincinnati Regatta as an observer, as well as to attend the coaches' meeting when it was decided to terminate the national championship at the Cincinnati Regatta because the following year would be the inaugural NCAA championship for the women. I remember the men's coaching committee chair Scott Armstrong of Dartmouth remarking at that meeting that the dissolution of the Cincinnati Regatta probably would draw the men's teams to the IRA to settle the national championship, and Harvard and Yale would have to decide if they wanted to compete.

IRA BECOMES MEN'S NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Scott Armstrong was correct: Indeed, the IRA was where men's teams, as well as Lightweight men's and women's varsity eights, turned to as their national championships. Seven years later Harvard and Yale permanently pledged their allegiance. With our Michigan women's team splitting off as a varsity sport I latched onto this opportunity with my team and built it around a culture of competing with the best over the next decade. Our specific internal measure as a program centered on the IRA Ten Eyck Trophy (Men's Team Points). The Ten Eyck placement was the goal on which my team's success was built, as the standards were high and the athletes pushed hard for success, and every athlete had a way to contribute with a purpose.

I started taking the entire team there, a full 5-6 weeks beyond the end of our school year in late April. My varsity eight made the petite finals half of the years we competed, and in 2002 we finished as high as sixth place in the Ten Eyck. Our points that year were bolstered by our freshman eight (arguably the second most competitive event at the time) who won the silver medal.

Seeing my team's growth and results improve, through the late 1990s and early 2000s other clubs followed suit, as well as smaller varsity programs from the Dad Vail, WIRA and NIRC championships. As a result, the IRA Regatta gradually grew. Harvard and Yale, who were missing out on recruits to teams vying for a national championship, finally began attending in 2003, which made the IRA the unquestioned national championship. Entry to the IRA gradually became selective as increasingly more events became oversubscribed. It was causing a bit of unrest that just five schools were getting to determine the rules, format, and selection to the regatta.

To be fair to the five steward schools, they never really asked for the IRA to become the national championship. Progressively it took on that role after the Cincinnati Regatta ceased to crown a national champion due to the NCAA beginning a championship; club teams seizing the opportunity to compete against the best; lightweight programs desire to crown a national champion; and Harvard and Yale finally committing to competing there. Through the growth, the stewards were under fire about their governance role and pressure came to open the association to have input from non-steward programs.

The coaches and ADs of the steward schools were unofficially known as "The Good Guys Committee." More than the ADs, it was the coaches of the steward schools who steered the regatta's conduct. As the regatta grew, and as a point of outreach, inclusion, and feedback, the Good Guys decided to extend two seats to be on this committee. One seat was to a representative from the west coast, and the other was to a coach from the Dad Vail/NIRC championships. With accumulated experience as a regatta organizer and leadership roles in both the Dad Vail and NIRC, I accepted the Dad Vail/NIRC seat offer, and for five years I worked on the regatta organization with Gary Caldwell and Clayton Chapman. I learned a lot from them, what worked and what didn't, and I incorporated this proficiency when forming ACRA by advocating for having a governance structure based on regional representation and everyone having an equal voice, as opposed to a "good ole boys" network that the IRA had at the time.

THE RUTGERS SITUATION

In the summer of 2006, the Rutgers athletic department announced that it would be cutting several sports due to budget constraints, and 2006-2007 would be their final season. Men's Rowing - the oldest sport at Rutgers - was one of those teams. In the discussions as to why the various sports were selected to be trimmed, Rutgers athletic officials noted that men's rowing was not an NCAA sport and the IRA allowed club teams to compete there. They stated that the Rutgers men's rowing team could continue to compete at the IRA as a club and that some club teams did quite well. This was cited as a reason for cutting their men's rowing team. In a few sentences one AD delegitimized men's rowing as a sport because club teams could compete alongside varsity teams for a national championship. This announcement created uncertainty among varsity men's rowing team coaches and administrators, fearing that their own athletic officials might make the same decision for their programs.

During the next year discussions between coaches and administrators of the five steward schools evolved. The basic sentiment was that they felt a need to save other varsity men's programs from Rutgers' fate. I was kept in the loop on the discussions via Dave Rieschman, a friend and the head coach of Syracuse, who was just beginning his tenure there and was the head of the coaches' committee at the time. The stewards' discussions through the summer and fall of 2007 led to changes in how the IRA would be conducted beyond the 2007-2008 season.

On November 28, 2007 the annual association meeting for the IRA was held at the University of Pennsylvania. After initial give-and-take talks, we took a planned break and Penn Assistant AD Mary DiStanislao informed the group that on the other side of the break only the coaches and administrators of the varsity teams would resume a meeting in the same space. The coaches of the club teams had space reserved in a library on the other side of the building. The exclusion from that conversation was literally the inception of the IRA/ACRA split.

After the intermission there were about 20 club coaches sitting in the library. It was a classic Ivy League library, that smelled of musty old books on superbly crafted wooden shelves surrounding the room. Only two of those coaches remain in coaching today. Besides me, the other was Pops Wagner. We all anticipated the likely outcome as the ax was being sharpened in the conference room on the other side of the building. While the varsity coaches and administrators were in there planning a future that we knew wouldn't include us, we started the conversation on the formation of ACRA.

Those of us who had become accustomed to concluding our season at the IRA saw the benefits to our programs of concentrating on a national championship and we wanted that to continue. Pops, new to collegiate club rowing, contributed to the dialogue as best as he could. A year earlier he would have been in the meeting across the building. But a lot had happened in the previous year, his team really being at the center of it all, and our planning was quite an adjustment as the issues before collegiate club teams can be very different.

Planning continued over conference calls in the following several weeks, and in early January of 2008 we made the official announcement of ACRA's formation. While the club coaches had an opportunity to "make a case" for continued IRA inclusion, ultimately later that winter the IRA stewards made it official that the spring of 2008 would be the last that club teams could compete at the IRA. Accordingly, 2008 was the only year where there were clubs at both ACRA and the IRA, with the first ACRA held the week prior to the IRA in Oklahoma City.

Late 2007 and early 2008 was a whirlwind of organization for the original ACRA Board, with weekly conference calls; forming a charter; setting up a governance structure; electing board members; and making plans. Still, with the generosity of the rowing community in Oklahoma City, it all came together nicely. Pops participated in the planning from the fringe and was supportive of ACRA, but wouldn't commit to Rutgers competing in the regatta.

In the years following he and Rutgers alumni made a few different attempts to have men's rowing reinstated as a varsity sport. There was a lot of politicking involved with that and not competing at ACRA was part of their strategy. Rutgers was allowed to continue to compete in the Eastern Sprints (but not the IRA) for a number of years, basically as a courtesy to Pops, and so that it could assist him in his effort to reinstate men's rowing as a varsity sport. He hoped that continued inclusion in Eastern Sprints, along with a 10 million dollar pledge, would help convince Rutgers athletic department officials to support men's rowing again. Eventually the inclusion to Eastern Sprints ended after the most recent attempt to regain varsity status failed in 2019. Consequently, Eastern Sprints dropped Rutgers from the league. It's fair to say that Rutgers' decision to drop men's rowing was philosophically based and not necessarily economically based.

Steve Wagner
Steve Wagner

Finally, in 2022, in an effort to rejuvenate the Rutgers program on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic, and 15 years after his team was dropped as a varsity sport, and that event having set many wheels-of-change in motion, Pops could again ride his bike and watch his crew race at a national championship.

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