Commentary

After more than four decades, Harvard's legendary coach keeps winning

Updated: May 4, 2010, 1:53 PM ET
By Conor Nevins | ESPN.com

NEW LONDON, Conn. -- Deep within the woods of New London, alongside the Thames River, is a clearing in the forest with a sandy patch of beach along the river's edge. Atop the beach lies a grass-covered hill overlooking Bartlett's Cove. One Saturday each year in June, dozens gather in this modest setting to witness the longest-running intercollegiate sporting event in the nation's history.

The Harvard-Yale Regatta, a race between the crews of the nation's most prestigious universities, was the first time two collegiate sports teams formally competed against one another. That was in 1852. They've been renewing the rivalry annually since 1859, interrupted only by major wars; 2008 marked the 143rd such competition.

Legendary Harvard crew coach Harry Parker is no stranger to these proceedings. But he's not one to get too involved in the pomp and circumstance of the event -- perhaps it's because this was his 46th year participating in the Regatta, or perhaps it's simply his matter-of-fact nature. The formula for his Crimson crews is simple: Prepare well, train hard and row the best you can in order to win.

"It wasn't a major focus of the season," Parker said of the Regatta, which ends the season for both crews and comes just a week after the IRA championships, college crew's national championships. All he would allow is, "It's a really, really tough race to lose."

Crew Championships

The standard for measuring success in college crew comes with a variety of footnotes. Since the sport does not have an NCAA-sponsored national championship, the formula for crowning the nation's best crews has changed over the years.

In 1982, the National Collegiate Rowing Championship was introduced to bring together the country's fastest crews to compete against one another for what would serve as the national championship. Parker's Harvard crews won five NCRA championships, finishing as the runners-up twice before the tournament was discontinued in 1997.

In 1997, the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta, known as the IRA, became recognized as crew's national championship race. The IRAs have been in existence since 1895, but since the race was scheduled so close to the Harvard-Yale Regatta, both schools chose not to participate. Eventually, both schools agreed to push back the date of the H-Y Regatta. Harvard started competing in the IRAs in 2003. The Crimson would win three consecutive from 2003-05.

Along with Harry Parker's nine official national titles at Harvard are the eight "unofficial" titles, in the days before 1982 when no formal race existed and the honor of best crew was bestowed on the boat that finished undefeated in all collegiate competitions.

"It seemed not unreasonable to declare that we were the best in the country," Parker said of his "unofficial" championship crews.

-- Conor Nevins

The losses may sting a bit more to Parker because, to be frank, his crews don't lose often. Not to Yale nor any other crew in the country. In his 46 years at Harvard, Parker's Crimson crews have registered a 285-43-1 record with 19 undefeated seasons and 17 national championships (nine official, eight unofficial). No less impressive, and perhaps even more important to those who bleed a deep Crimson red, his varsity crews are 39-7 against Yale in the Regatta, including a victory in 2008.

His assistant of 10 years, Bill Manning, calls Parker "the dean of American college [crew] coaches. There are some people you would mention with him, but there's nobody you would ever mention before him."

Princeton coach Curtis Jordan, an 18-year veteran whose own résumé includes two national championships, offers a more succinct explanation of Parker's influence on American college crew.

"Harry sets the standard," Jordan said.

Parker's success at Harvard, and his influence on college crew as a whole, is due in large part to the way his crews train.

"Every major push forward, Harry had a hand in," Jordan said. "He was instrumental in introducing year-round training regimens. He just upped it a level in the '60s and '70s."

Although the financial muscle enjoyed by other major sports is still absent from crew, over the years the sport has developed to the point where athletes enter college with a little bit of high school rowing experience. Parker's crews hit the water on the Charles River in Cambridge right in the fall when school starts, train through the fall and head indoors for the winter months before heading back onto the water in March to prepare for the spring's competitive races.

It wasn't always the case that competitive rowers entered college with a modicum of experience. It used to be, and still can be, the case that the first rowing experience a rower gets is when he arrives on campus as a freshman. It's a scenario Parker is well-acquainted with. It's how he got his start.

Arriving on the Pennsylvania campus for freshman registration in 1954, a lightweight coach tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he would like to give rowing a try.

"It was probably the way 95 percent of people were introduced to it at the time," Parker recalled.

Little did he know that his fortuitous introduction with the sport -- a practice he still employs to this day at freshman registrations on Harvard's campus -- would give way to one of the most accomplished coaching careers in American college crew.

Upon graduating from Pennsylvania, Parker did what most young graduates did at the time. He enlisted, opting to join the Navy. He received permission to train for the Pan-American Games in the single scull and would go on to win the national championship, then the Chicago Pan-American Games in 1959. In 1960, he won the Olympic trials in the same event, earning the honor of representing his country in the single scull at the Olympic Summer Games in Rome. He finished in fifth place and began an Olympic relationship that would continue into his coaching days at Harvard.

Harry Parker
Harvard Athletics CommunicationsParker's crews have won 17 national championships in his 46-year tenure at Harvard.
"I had begun to have an interest in coaching in my final years at Penn," Parker said. "I got out of the Navy and received an offer from Harvard."

That offer was for the freshman coaching position. He arrived in Cambridge in 1961, "only planning on working a year or two." When varsity coach Harvey Love died of a heart attack during the 1963 season, Parker was placed in charge of Harvard's crew team. He started on an interim basis, and Harvard was not enjoying a successful season heading into the 1963 Harvard-Yale Regatta, Parker's first as head coach.

"They were the prohibitive favorites," Parker recalled. "We were not feeling good about ourselves. We just went to work and made up our minds to row better."

The Crimson crew felt better when they arrived at the Thames. Motivated by mischief or perhaps by school pride, some Harvard managers painted the rock face overlooking Bartlett's Cove with a large H, according to Parker.

It's a tradition that began that Saturday morning in 1963 and continues to this day, as the victors of the eight-man varsity race are awarded the honor of dressing the rock face with their school's colors for the year in between Regattas. Maybe it was a good-luck charm for Harvard that morning -- they defeated the heavily favored Bulldogs crew, starting a streak that continued until 1980.

Parker's success in the 1960s was not confined to the college ranks. Until 1968, before a national team system came into place, the U.S. sent the fastest college or club crews to the Olympics. At the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, Parker took his Crimson varsity crew, winners of the 1967 Pan-American games. They finished sixth, a considerable effort considering the crew was unaccustomed to the high altitudes.

No matter the level of competition, those who have coached alongside Parker or competed against him say his approach has not changed over the years.

"I will honestly say that I've never heard him shout," Manning said. "His approach is that he wants the whole squad developed. The stronger the base the higher the peak of the pyramid. He's very good with athletes. He's not so much about X's and O's."

In tune with that philosophy is a fierce competitiveness that he brings to every race.

"Harry and I get along great," Jordan said. "But on race days, he has no friends."

Harry Parker
Heather PalmerHarry Parker takes a swim in the Thames River after the Crimson's varsity crew wins the 2008 Harvard-Yale Regatta.
On June 14, the Crimson crew set out to reclaim its authority on the historic race. Yale fans were reveling in 2007's victory, which ended yet another lengthy Harvard streak. How long? "Forever," muttered one Bulldogs fan, seated in a beach chair along the riverbank. It was actually seven years, but Yale was hoping to win two races in a row for the first time since 1983-84. The Bulldogs pulled ahead early in the four-mile race, but Harvard stuck to its strategy and methodically overcame the Bulldogs.

After taking yet another ceremonial dip in the Thames after the victory, Parker still has no idea how long his career will continue.

"The joke in the office is he's going to retire two years after he dies," Manning said. "He's still curious, still learning, still looking for ways to get better. Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno? He would run them into the ground. I mean, this is a guy who races his bike up Mount Washington. I'm confident he doesn't have a date in mind. If it's not fun, he won't do it."

"I assume it will happen, but who knows when?" the 72-year-old Parker said of retiring. "I'm still passionate enough, I'm still healthy enough. I still really enjoy it thoroughly."

After 46 years, that's all that matters.

Conor Nevins is a college sports editor at ESPN.com.