Bill Manning & Harvard Heavyweight Men's Rowing

By Sparks Editorial Staff | February 23, 2013

Harvard. The university needs about as much introduction as Barack Obama. "I have never had to explain to a kid what Harvard is," admits 2nd year Associate Head Coach Bill Manning, discussing recruiting advantages. "I have had to educate them on the nature of the education, the residential house system, etc… But to be honest, you could fall onto the steppes of Siberia and I could guarantee the three things they'd know about America are the New York Yankees, McDonald's, and Harvard." Manning is quick to point out, however, that such name recognition comes at a price—the academic excellence for which the school owes its renown comes with exacting admissions policies. "It's a hard place to get accepted to, with only a certain [narrow] strata of student that is going to be a competitive applicant. Of course we would like it to be wider and deeper," he says, but notes that this vetting process has its upside. "As coaches we never have to worry if an admitted student can succeed here, because if the 30 pros in the admissions office say yes, then I know he can do it. Now, I may have to stay on top of him, maybe make sure a poet doesn't sign up for physics, but most of our guys are very ambitious and want to do well academically." Currently tied for the top ranking with Princeton University on U.S. News & World Report, Manning acknowledges that such an admissions gauntlet is not unique to Harvard but a challenge shared by his competitors in the Ivy League and Stanford. "I find it laughable when people talk about what is more or less competitive between schools, a 5.6% vs. a 6.1% acceptance rate," which, practically speaking he contends, is a level playing field.

"The guys that are happiest at Harvard are high achievers that do not want to give up on their great interest in rowing."

Manning has grown into a sort of everyman coach, recently taking over some of the more nuts-and-bolts responsibilities from legendary Head Coach Harry Parker. The move allows Parker the bandwidth to focus more of his energy on coaching the athletes. Knowing full well that more than one feature has been written about Parker—the 1960 Rome Olympic US Single Sculler, former Olympic Head Coach, and most successful college coach ever (tied with Steve Gladstone of Yale for most championships won)—I asked Manning to characterize Parker's coaching style. "The biggest thing that comes from Harry is his creating an environment of opportunity. I have never heard him use foul language. I have never even heard him raise his voice, except for safety purposes. He's not a kick-in-the-pants-to-get-you-going kind of coach. He won't get behind and push. He is always out in front."

"It's a hard place to get accepted to, with only a certain [narrow] strata of student that is going to be a competitive applicant.

If Parker's composed leadership sets the stage for the boathouse culture, the rest lives in the rafters, in the oars, boat racks and lockers, in the history and tradition of Newell Boathouse and Harvard Boat Club. Notable elements to that tradition are the Harvard-Yale Regatta, the oldest intercollegiate competition in America, and the Henley Royal Regatta in England, one of the oldest and most prestigious competitions in the world.


"Harvard-Yale is hugely significant for us. We are blessed to have a rivalry, and anybody who has been part of such a thing will immediately recognize how valuable that is, and how much fun it is. We all of us watch competitions between USC and UCLA, [the Stanford] Cardinal and Cal [Berkeley], Army-Navy, Ohio State-Michigan. Rivalries bring out the best, and this one is fundamental to our program. The Freshman come in here and they don't really get it until they've been through it once. It's two weeks, 10 days focused, [the two teams] circling each other like boxers in the ring, with [our camp] in Gale's Ferry is half mile away from Yale's camp…. Henley is [another] big part of the program. Harvard is the first American club to win the Grand Challenge Cup [the event usually reserved for Senior National Team eights]. There is nothing on the wall [in our boathouse] that says 'Beat Team X or Y.' Our posters are from Lucerne [World Cup], the Olympics, and Henley." This last year's delegation was particularly significant, with the entire squad traveling to the UK, including the 2V, Frosh, Light men and Openweight women. "[The rule for us has always been that we go to Henley] if a crew wins Sprints, or if it's a particularly good crew," Manning qualifies, as "last year they didn't get the win but it was pretty close, and the 2V was second to Wisco, and the Frosh won."

I have never even heard him raise his voice, except for safety purposes. He's not a kick-in-the-pants-to-get-you-going kind of coach. He won't get behind and push. He is always out in front."

I asked Manning to talk more about their recent results and how he and Parker approach their Ivy League and national competitors. Last year saw solid finishes for the team, including tight margins with Brown all year (taking the Stein Cup but falling short in the year end championship races), bronze medals for the first and second varsities at the IRA and the Frosh finishing 5th, winning the Ladies Plate [event reserved for university and Senior B national team eights] at Henley, and 2nd at the Head of the Charles, just 5 seconds behind the National Champion Washington Huskies. The last is a good sign for Harvard, in light of rise of the Huskies' dominance in men's heavy rowing, including their performance at the IRA last year in which they swept the entire competition. But Manning downplays the importance. "I can't speak for everybody in the program, but when you're in the Ivy League, your [Athletic] Department measures you by how well you do within your league, with the resources available to you," referring to a non-Ivy League school's ability to offer athletic scholarships and recruit heavily overseas. While Harvard gets its share of international recruits, Manning says that "the vast majority of [those] guys contact us first, and the great thing for us is that Harvard wants to be a world university, not the UMass at Cambridge. It wants to draw students from around the world, and is one of the only places that offers need-based financial aid to international students…" Switching back to talking about his competitors, he continues, "But for me personally, it's wasted energy to think about the West Coast until we prove we're good enough to be concerned about the West Coast. If you can't win or be close in Eastern Sprints you don't have the right to think about those guys on the West Coast."

it's wasted energy to think about the West Coast until we prove we're good enough to be concerned about the West Coast. If you can't win or be close in Eastern Sprints you don't have the right to think about those guys on the West Coast."

The thing he looks for in every recruiting class that raises the red flag? "Arrogance. I could generate a story every year. There is always a recruit who sees himself as better than he is. We're looking for the fellas that want to get better, that are willing to trust in the institution, the coaching staff and their peers, that want to learn from teammates, that understand there is a long way to go. It does not matter what you did in high school. Nobody cares when you get to college. The guys used to have this thing they used to do. The first practice a freshman showed up with his JNT gear on, he got thrown in the river." He checks himself, "I don't know that they still do it. And by thrown in, I mean 'directed to jump in.'"

From the way he talks about those boathouse traditions, and the institutional drive for the highest level of achievement, it's clear Manning believes those are the qualities makes Harvard rowing what it is. "The guys that are happiest at Harvard are high achievers that do not want to give up on their great interest in rowing. They could just do rowing and tap along their academic sufficiently [at another school], but they don't want to compromise their academic ambitions, innate intellectual curiosity, love of being part of a team, love showing up in September, to work hard, smart, together. They are going to be in that a final in May/June. Maybe we win, maybe not, but always in a position to win. There are not too many places that can say that for both with confidence."

See Harvard resume competition against the Cornell Big Red on April 6

- Donny Simkin