Temple Crew experiences growing pains, but is built for the future

The Owls experienced inconsistencies under first-year head coach Brendan Cunningham, but the end of their season gave them optimism for 2025.

Brendan Cunningham is hoping to guide Temple Men's Crew in the right direction during his second year as head coach. | SYDNEY SCHAEFER / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Brendan Cunningham first stepped onto Temple’s campus a decade and a half ago as a rower under then-head coach Dr. Gavin White. He witnessed first-hand the coach who cultivated a winning culture that’s still in place nearly five decades later.

White led Temple for 37 seasons, and the Owls were the premier team on the Schuylkill River during that period. They won 20 First Varsity Eight gold crowns at the Jefferson Dad Vail regatta, the largest regatta in the country, including 13 consecutive wins from 1989-2001.

Temple found itself on the international stage under White. It traveled across the pond for the Henley Royal Regatta in England seven times, advancing to the quarterfinals four times and the finals in 1984. 

White retired in 2016 and Temple alum Brian Perkins filled the shoes of the legendary coach. Temple Men’s Crew was on a hot streak to close Perkins’ sixth year at the helm. The Owls cruised to a first-place finish in the Dad Vails, and the Varsity 4 earned silver at IRA national championships, seemingly giving them momentum going into 2024.

That feeling was short-lived. Surprisingly, Perkins’ contract was not renewed during the 2023 offseason, and Temple Athletic Director Arthur Johnson turned to Cunningham, the man who was part of Temple Men’s Crew’s most successful era, to fill the position. Once offered, it was an easy decision for the Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, native. Now just 13 years after riding under White, he has the chance to continue his legacy.

“That was pretty humbling, to be able to lead the program you once were an athlete [for],” Cunningham said. “Not a lot of people get to do that. I think in the sport, it was a pretty humbling but special experience. When I rode here, it was under Gavin White, and now to be in his shoes is something special.”

Cunningham spent five seasons across the river, coaching cross-town rival Drexel as an assistant coach. Temple allowed him to be the leading man of a program for the first time in his career.

However, his first task came before the boats even hit the water — gaining the trust of the players who just lost their coach.

“I think trust is a tough thing to build, it’s pretty much earned not given,” said team captain Brandon Van Vuuran. “Instantly from the get-go, it was ‘If you buy into what he’s doing, he’s going to give you his 110% support.’” 

While Cunningham began to earn the trust of the team, the Owls began the fall season lacking any form of identity — which resulted in early struggles. The Owls’ First Varsity Eight failed to secure a podium finish during the fall season, with their highest placement being a fifth-place finish at the Head of the Charles Regatta on Oct 22.

Temple Second Varsity Eight fared better, with a first-place finish at the Navy Day Regatta in October 2023. But they came in 19th at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta just two weeks later.

Temple entered the spring season ranked No. 23 in the country and quickly disposed of Mercyhurst and Marrietta to win the Michael Quinn Cup on March 23. Despite a promising result, the First Varsity Eight had just one more first-place finish the rest of the season.

The issues continued to arise. Some players even contemplated quitting the team, rower Adam Curran said. In his first year at the helm, Cunningham’s ship was sinking before the season even ended.

“It took a little bit of humbling,” Curran said. “We were kind of just doing it our way, like, ‘New coach, we’re going to try out spring racing, how we want to do it.’ Some issues with spring training and that kind of threw us back down to earth and made us realize we got to just push as hard as we can until the end.”

Before the clock hit midnight on the Owls though, the tide began to shift. The players picked up the accountability of previous failures and momentum began to build. The Owls won the Murphy Cup after defeating No. 24 Colgate on April 24 and weren’t finished yet.

That newfound momentum was on full display at the Dad Vail Regatta, where every single boat found a place at the podium. The Owls’ Second Varsity Eight won gold and Temple finished third overall in points to draw the curtains on the season. 

“Rowing [is] a lot like pulling an arrow back,” Van Vuuran said. “You put all this time and it’s very tedious, and then you sort of build up this almost like this very big tension. Then you get a race like that and you kind of have the opportunity to let go and just shoot. It’s such an amazing feeling.” 

While the performance provided excitement, it was still bittersweet. The First Varsity Eight won bronze, just one place back from earning a bid to the IRA National Championships.

The first season in the Cunningham era was filled with inconsistency, but the rowers have bought into what he is creating on North Broad, hoping the end of the year shows other teams what’s in store for the Owls — a chance to re-create what White did for the team.

“I think what’s so unique about the sport is that you’re doing a sport, but there’s individuality to it,” Cunningham said. “You’re doing something for the greater good, something bigger than yourself. When guys are able to acknowledge and grow with that, that’s when you see the accountability, the ownership of the program really starts to take flight. That’s what we’re starting to get to as we head into year two.”

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