Steve Gladstone & Yale Men's Rowing

By Sparks Editorial Staff | November 23, 2012

It is hard to find an American collegiate rowing program as storied as the Yale Heavyweight Men. By some marks, it would be impossible, considering it is the very oldest. The first ever college boat club was founded there in 1843 (Harvard followed a year later) and in 1852 the Bulldogs issued a challenge to the Crimson Navy thereby initiating the oldest intercollegiate sporting tradition in the country, the Harvard-Yale Regatta. As a representative of one of the most prestigious (and selective) private institutions of higher learning in the world, the crew attracts the best and the brightest student-oarsman, all already accomplished and plenty ambitious.

"I'm competitive by nature," he explains in his deep-barrel baritone, "you strive to do the best work you can on a daily basis."

It logically follows that the man to helm the program be (arguably) the most storied coach in the history of American collegiate rowing.

Steve Gladstone enters his third year as Yale Head coach. His career spans nearly half a century, coaching at Princeton, Harvard, Cal, Brown, back to Cal, and now Yale, along the way picking up 11 IRA Varsity titles, numerous PAC-10, Eastern Sprints, San Diego Crew Classic, and Henley Royal Regatta championships. The man has won everything.

Gladstone, comparing Yale to Brown in the 80's and Cal in the 90's:  "We have a much stronger situation [here at Yale]. The university is second to none, the infrastructure here is magnificent, and our facilities – anybody who would criticize them is crazy."

"I'm competitive by nature," he explains in his deep-barrel baritone, "you strive to do the best work you can on a daily basis and you want it measured. One of the compelling things about rowing is that it's so direct and unequivocal – a starting line and a finish line and that's that – there's an element of risk and clarity that appeals to me."

It is this blue-collar mentality that Gladstone works to imbue into the Gilder Boathouse, no small feat considering the ivied-hall context. Nevertheless, "there hasn't been any distinction on the water in a long, long time," Gladstone says, referring most recently to lackluster finishes at last year's IRA and Harvard-Yale Regatta. Even the staunchest Bulldog supporter would agree that something has to give. And in many ways, this is the appeal for Gladstone, to rebuild, to recreate, and ultimately, to dominate again. "We're looking for game changers."

No stranger to the process of program building, Gladstone recalls the early challenges at his last two tenures. "When I went to Brown [in 1982], my friends were adamant that I not go there. It has no tradition [they said], the worst water imaginable, and there's no funding, and that was the book, and I was able to work with the athletic department and put things together and by the third year we won the IRA and by the fourth the Sprints. At Cal [when I returned to coaching in 1997], we had this dumpy boathouse [in Oakland, CA], broken glass all around, a commute through the ghetto, and the water was crappy as well. [In contrast,] we have a much stronger situation [here at Yale]. The university is second to none, the infrastructure here is magnificent, and our facilities – anybody who would criticize them is crazy."

Some would point to incredibly effective recruiting efforts as the key factor in his success turning around programs, especially that of foreign talent, like Swiss Olympic Champion sculler Xeno Muller and US World Champion sculler Jamie Koven at Brown, Canadian gold and silver medalists Jake Wetzel and Scott Frandsen and US Gold and Silver medalists Pete Cipollone and Seb Bea at Cal. And the loud-ringing question is, will the same recruiting be possible at Yale? Gladstone dismisses this out of hand. "The whole recruiting machine is a myth," he claims, before launching into a detailed play-by-play of the fortuitous happenstances that occurred with each marquis athlete who passed through his programs. "But," he insists conspiratorily, "the junkyard dog mentality isn't… When you get a group that functions that way, that comes to the boathouse with that energy, you're going to be fine, you're going to win a lot of races, an experience that will change your life."

"The goals for the year is to get each guy on a daily basis to "bring it", to bring full measure to the practice, whether you're coming from a lab or class and you're fried, but to bring what you have to that practice…"

And that's why he does it, why he continues to do it at yet another program that is ready for redemption. "As time as has gone on, from my mid-40's, you realize what a transformative experience it is for a portion of the people you coach, and to be engaged in that kind of process, being able to influence peoples' perspectives on life, is really compelling, and essentially the medium (rowing) does that, if it's presented in the right way, it really touches your soul, [more] than other things you do in life, and I'm really drawn to it."

So what does he have in store for the program this year? "The goals for the year is to get each guy on a daily basis to "bring it", to bring full measure to the practice, whether you're coming from a lab or class and you're fried, but to bring what you have to that practice, have that attention, do the work, along with [Frosh Coach] Joel [Scrogin] and [Asst. Varsity Coach] Sam [Baum]. I can't answer where we're going to finish, but what I strive to do every day, have these guys give full attention to what they're doing, so that it's not a boys club, for shits and giggles, but when you come to it you'll come to it with a purpose."

- Donny Simkin