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Rowing Nationals: No. 1 Cal vs. No. 2 Yale and Ex-Cal Coach Steve Gladstone Next Week

Next weekend in New Jersey, current Cal coach Scott Frandsen hopes to get past the man who coached him to 3 national titles in Berkeley.

It’s No. 1-ranked Cal vs. No. 2-ranked Yale. It’s the dominant boat in the West vs. the kingpen of the East. It’s the current Cal coach, who helped row the Bears to three straight national championships two decades ago, vs. his mentor, who is now the Yale coach and who turned Cal into a national powerhouse nearly five decades ago.

That’s the much anticipated duel we expect to see a week from Sunday (June 5) in the men’s varsity eight finals of the IRA national rowing championship in the tricky winds at Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J.

Of course, there are preliminary heats to get through starting next Friday (June 3), but barring a significant upset the two boats that have dominated the scene on opposite coasts this year will be roaring toward the finish line side by side ahead of the field on Sunday.

The story angle is that Steve Gladstone -- who was first hired as Cal’s rowing coach 50 years ago in 1972, led the Bears to six national championships in two stints in Berkeley and was Cal’s athletic director for three years -- is now the head coach at Yale, which has won the last three IRA national titles in which it competed (2017, 2018, 2019). And now Gladstone, who has won 19 national collegiate titles overall, will try to beat Cal, which is coached by Scott Frandsen, who was the star rower of three national championship Cal teams coached by Gladstone.

---Scott Frandsen was named Pac-12 rowing coach of the year, and Cal senior Ollie maclean was named the Pac-12 rowing Male Athlete of the Year.---

So how do the two coaches feel about this confrontation? Is it interesting or fun or uncomfortable?

“I think it’s all those things,” Gladstone said last week, a few days after his 81st birthday. “I think it’s fun, it’s interesting. Beyond that I couldn’t be more delighted. Here you have a fellow, Scott, who is a young coach, in a very, very short period of time has put Cal in contention for a national championship. Of course I’m going to be delighted and proud of the work he’s done.”

This is just Frandsen’s fourth season as Cal’s coach, and he has put the Bears in position for their first national title since 2016. What does he think about going against his former coach?

“I totally understand why it is a storyline,” Frandsen said this week. “I have a long history with Steve. He was my coach when I was at Cal, and continue to have a great relationship with Steve. I probably talk to him once a month or maybe more frequently. [However] for me it’s very much about focusing on our crews – our varsity and all our other boats as well – and rowing is one of those sports you can definitely focus in on what you can control. What Yale does or who’s coaching Yale doesn’t really impact how fast we need to go to win.

“I get the storyline, and I see some depth, there’s some value there, but we’re very much focused on how fast Cal is going.”

This is not the first time a Frandsen-coached Cal team raced a Gladstone-coached Yale team, but it is the first time they have met as the two favorites in the nationals.

In 2019, Frandsen’s first season as Cal’s head coach, Gladstone’s Yale varsity eight beat the Bears by seven seconds in the San Diego Crew Classic, and that same year, the Bulldogs finished first in the IRA nationals, well ahead of fourth-place Cal. They have not met since, and in the meantime Frandsen has rebuilt Cal into a national title contender again. In fact Cal is No. 1 in the latest rankings, just ahead of Yale in the coaches poll.

“I have empathy for Scott in this situation,” Gladstone said. “When you’re ranked No. 1 you’re very uncomfortable.”

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Gladstone knows about the pressure of being No. 1. His boats held that position for many of his 20 years as Cal’s head coach (1973-1980 and 1997-2008). But when he arrived at Cal prior to the 1972-73 season, Cal had not won a national championship since 1964.

He knew of Cal’s history of rowing success, but as a young man who had gone to high school in Connecticut, had attended Syracuse University and had coached only at Princeton and Harvard, he was unfamiliar with California and the Bay Area.

“I thought I was going to come to a place of palm trees, warm water, and this was all good,” he recalled, “and, of course, there’s a limited number of real palm trees and the water is freezing cold.”

The Cal rowing facilities at the time were nothing to brag about either.

“But immediately, within weeks, I fell in love with the tone, the tenor, the whole vibe in Berkeley,” Gladstone said. “It was so refreshing to be there in a culture that was so radically different from my, how would you call it, my parochial New England background. So it was a delight; the challenge was there.”

He built Cal back to national prominence, winning a national title in 1976, left in 1980 for Brown, where he won five more IRA national titles, and returned to Cal for the 1996-97 season. That’s when Cal became the top varsity eight in the country. Frandsen became part of that dynasty, as he was a key member of a Cal varsity eight that won three consecutive IRA championships from 2000-02, including a pair of undefeated seasons in 2000 and 2001.

So now Frandsen is hoping to bring Cal its 18th varsity eight national rowing championship, while Gladstone is looking to win the IRA title for the fourth straight time at Yale. There were no IRA nationals in 2020 during the pandemic, and the Ivy League did not allow its athletic teams to compete in 2021 because of COVID concerns, so Yale is back to “defend” a title it last won in 2019 after a two-year hiatus. And Yale and Gladstone have to get past Cal and Frandsen to do it.

---Scott Frandsen was named Pac-12 rowing coach of the year, and Cal senior Ollie maclean was named the Pac-12 rowing Male Athlete of the Year.---

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Cover photo of Cal crew is by Zach Franzen, KL fotos

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Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53

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