Sports

Life on the river

The storied tradition of men’s crew will continue after the Board of Trustees voted to reinstate the sport’s varsity status in February.

When former Temple rower Ed Stinson got married, he took a particular cardboard box from his parents’ home with him.

Now nestled in his attic, every so often Stinson reopens the box to relive his three-year rowing career at Temple in the 1980s. In the box sits his Temple rowing unisuit, photographs of races at regattas, awards for erg scores and run tests, trophies, dozens of medals and a few newspaper articles.

One of the publications, the April 6, 1986 edition of the Augusta Chronicle, reads “Temple Triumph” on the front page.

The day before, Temple’s men’s varsity eight boat came from behind in a head-to-head race to upset international powerhouse Oxford University in a 1,500-meter course by half-a-boat length with a time of 4 minutes, 17.4 seconds at the Augusta Invitational Regatta in Augusta, Ga.

Temple’s men crew team was triumphant on water for much of its history. In December, however, the team was threatened with extinction when the Board of Trustees voted to cut the crew program due to inadequate facilities.

But in February, the crew program was again victorious – this time on land – when university officials announced that the men’s crew program, along with women’s rowing, were reinstated due to a $2.5 million donation from the city and a $3 million donation from trustee H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest to renovate the formerly condemned East Park Canoe House.

Olympian and former Temple assistant coach Mike Teti said he is glad the program is back because “it would have been a travesty.”

The sentiment is similar along many involved with Temple’s storied crew program.

Philadelphia has been the epicenter of rowing in American since the 1800s. Situated on the northwest side of Philadelphia, the Schuylkill River has been the habitat that has produced world-class rowers like 1920 Olympian John B. Kelly, and more recently, 2012 Olympian Susan Francia.

During that time, Temple made its mark on U.S. rowing history.

The Genesis 

Often seen in his turtleneck sweater and cherry-colored blazer, former Olympic rower Thomas Curran started Temple’s crew program in 1966.

With the nickname “Bear,” Curran was usually remembered for his toughness.

“He was a scary guy,” said current crew coach Gavin White, who rowed under Curran for three years.

Throughout Curran’s 11-year reign as head coach, White said the crew program consisted mostly of novices, which prevented Temple from performing well.

While Temple rarely raced competitively against the University of Pennsylvania, it was schools like La Salle and Drexel that were often fixtures in local regattas. But no one in the region was more dominant than St. Joseph’s University – which made a come-from-behind 1971 victory against the Hawks one of Temple’s most memorable, White said.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Coast Guard Academy and the University of Massachusetts were just a few of the staples at the Dad Vail Regatta, the largest intercollegiate rowing event in the country.

During the Curran era, however, Dad Vail wins eluded the Owls. The closest the Owls came to capturing a win was in 1973, but the team had to settle for second place after losing to Massachusetts.

After serving as Curran’s assistant for three years, White took over the helm in 1978.

The Process

Monsignor Bonner High School, St. Joseph’s Prep High School and Holy Spirit High School were some of the premier rowing high schools in and around the Philadelphia area in the late 20th century.

White visited them.

“I gave speeches and presentations,” White said. “I told them what Temple was like and I got a lot of kids. They just wanted to stay home.”

Now recruiting some of the top rowers in Philadelphia, the Owls welcomed Teti in 1982 on the coaching staff, who at the time was also training for the U.S. National team.

As a result, the training got intense.

“Coach White was focused on your cardiovascular fitness and training,” Tim Stinson, a recruit from Holy Spirit, said. “Mike Teti was a fantastic technical coach.”

“So the two of them working together really paid off well,” Joe Sullivan, a recruit from Bonner, said.

During the 1980s, the Owls practiced in the basement of Thomas Hall, now renovated and renamed Shusterman Hall. The building had one rowing machine. Each student-athlete would sign up for 40-minute rowing slots in the morning.

“Mike taught us a different way of applying force to the oar, to hang on the oar to make sure you were getting as much force out of the oar as possible and to reduce mistakes,” Tim Stinson said.

In the afternoon, the Owls would head out to the Schuylkill, whether on bikes or cars and “rowed for 12 miles.” After practice, the men would run two or three miles.

“I never asked those guys to do anything that I hadn’t done myself,” Teti said.

A Taste of Victory

Spring 1983 was the last season of White’s first group of recruits.

The varsity eight boat was comprised of recruits from local area high schools, which won the majority of the spring races that year. During the Dad Vail, Temple advanced through the heats and the quarterfinals just as it did the previous year.

“It was harder in the semifinals as far as nervousness,” Sullivan said. “We were hoping that nothing happened during the race.”

The Owls advanced to the finals, but they were not favored to win.

After losing to the Florida Institute of Technology in the finals of the Dad Vail in 1982, White and Teti bought cherry-colored paint the night before the 1983 Dad Vail to “jazz the guys up.”

“We painted Temple ‘T’ and all the guys’ nicknames all over the wall,” Teti said. “It was basically graffiti, but when the guys came in the boathouse [the next morning] they were all pumped up.”

“There was a sense in the boat that we were not going to lose again,” Sullivan said. “We just knew we were going to win, but we also knew we had to push to make it happen.”

On May 14, 1983, Temple’s varsity eight won the Dad Vail for the first time in the history of the program.

“Gavin’s face on the dock was unbelievable,” Tony Stefanski said. “It was like he won the Olympics.”

“Other than the birth of my two children, winning the Dad Vail was the best day of my life,” White said.

‘Dynasty’

After winning the ’83 Dad Vail Regatta, the men’s varsity eight crew team competed in the Royal Henley Regatta, one of the world’s renowned regattas later that summer.

Among some of the competitors were Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge and a few clubs from Ireland.

Temple did not bring the same varsity eight boat that won the Dad Vail to compete on the River Thames, however, as stroke man Charlie Bracken stayed in Philadelphia. The Owls did not make it out of the heats.

Yet, after winning its first Dad Vail Regatta, Temple garnered attention, as Canadian rower Rob Silk became the first international recruit to join Temple’s crew program in the fall of 1983.

“I like the fact that these guys were pretty hardcore, they were just Temple tough,” Silk said.

During the 1985-86 season, White took a year off to return to his studies, but the Owls retained their winning ways with the U.S. National coach John Hooten at the helm, along with Teti.

After winning three Dad Vail Regattas in a row and going as far as the finals of the Royal Henley Regatta in 1984, the Owls were on a quest to win their fourth straight Dad Vail.

During this time, the coxswain, Sean Brennan, was battling a brain tumor. After having surgery, Brennan returned and rowed with the team in 1986.

The night before the Dad Vail that year, White and Teti decided to bring back the cherry paint again.

“We painted the number four about a thousand times in the boathouse, all over the wall, four, four, four,” Teti said. “Then we got this big cherry-red sign with a four hanging from the bridge.”

That day the Owls also drew lane number four. With teams like Purdue, Georgetown and F.I.T. that are always finalists at the Dad Vail, the Owls were challenged throughout the race as President Peter Liacouras, along with thousands of roaring fans, packed the banks of the river.

Finishing three-quarters of a length ahead of F.I.T, Brennan led the varsity eight team to its fourth Dad Vail win.

“I remember John Klemick stood up in the boat and he started reaching down his shorts,” Teti said. “I am like, ‘Oh my goodness, what is he going to do?’ But he pulled out this cloth and he holds it out and it has the number four on it.”

That summer, Temple rowed in England’s premier Royal Henley Regatta for the fourth consecutive year.

In 1987, Brennan died.Throughout the rest of the 1987 season, the team wore a black patch on their unisuits to honor his memory.

The Owls won the Dad Vail that May.

In the spring of 1988, the Owls won numerous regattas, such as the Braxton, Frostbites, the Navy Day and the Head of the Schuylkill, among others, but could not outstroke F.I.T. in the finals of the Dad Vail, snapping their winning streak.

But another streak was on the horizon. After its loss in 1988, Temple established more than a decade of dominance in the Dad Vail, winning 13 straight varsity eight titles from 1989-2001. Along with additional Canadian rowers, recruits from across the Atlantic relocated to North Broad from countries such as England, Ireland, Romania and Croatia.

“We were just a talented group of guys,” White said. “When the varsity would win, the JV would also win and we would win by a lot, like seven or eight seconds, which is a lot in crew. Usually you would win by two seconds or so.”

“All that recruiting and all that work, it was tough,” White added. “Once our reputation got known that we were beating teams, I didn’t have to recruit, people would call me, ‘Hey coach, I hear that you are looking for [rowers],’ and I am like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So it was like success bred success.”

One of the international recruits from Ireland who rowed at Temple in the early 2000s was Marc Stephen. When Stephen arrived at Temple in 2000, he was able to row in a few of the big races, including winning the Dad Vail with the varsity eight boat. The Owls won the Dad Vail the following year in 2001.

The Owls started a coxswain clinic in Philadelphia in 2002.

“It was pretty much a dynasty,” Teti said. “Once you have never won and then you win, you never want to lose again. You don’t want to go back to the old ways.”

After White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2002, the men’s varsity eight went on to win the Dad Vail in 2003 and 2004.

For the next decade the crew team won numerous medals. The freshman four and men’s pair won the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championship in 2005 and 2007, respectively.

Temple’s crew program has sent six former rowers to the Olympics, including Jason Read, who helped to row the U.S. men’s eight to a gold medal victory in 2004 while setting a world record in the process.

A New Beginning

After being at the helm for 35 years, White said he’s unsure about his future at Temple and that he has considered stepping down after this season to serve in an advising capacity to assistant coach Brian Perkins. He’s said he’s taking it day by day.

Now with the revival of the crew program last month, the Owls look to return to the dominance they have seen in previous decades. Reinstatement is only half the battle, White said.

“We just have to show them that we belong.” White said.

Danielle Nelson can be reached at danielle.nelson@temple.edu or on Twitter @Dan_Nels.

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