No one who was there that day will ever forget the popsicle incident. More than a decade later, the members of the Trinity College men’s rowing team have never made anyone angrier than they made their coach on that stiflingly hot fall afternoon in 2008.
Larry Gluckman always kept the boathouse freezer stocked with a half dozen flavors of off-brand ice pops. This was partly about physiology: The postexercise glycogen window was open and he wanted them to ingest sugar quickly. It was also about humanity: Everyone wants a cool treat after a hard workout. On this day, the athletes were supposed to complete their postrow cross-training, then some light maintenance of the boats, before indulging. A couple of rowers, unable to wait, broke into the freezer early.
When Gluckman caught sight of the offenders, he excoriated them and then the rest of the team. Generally he would scold people in private. Not on this day. No poor performance on the water or on the ergometer could have upset him the way this small lapse did. Because to Gluckman it wasn’t a small lapse.
“It wasn’t about the popsicles,” says Colin Touhey, who rowed under him from 2006 until Gluckman retired in ’09. “It was about the fact that you don’t get the reward unless you do the work. The world doesn’t reward you for not doing the work.”
Gluckman died last week at 74, after suffering a stroke while battling leukemia. He first picked up an oar as a college freshman, then became an Olympic rower, an Olympic coach and the towering figure who helmed men’s programs at Northeastern, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth and tiny Trinity, turning most of them into champions. To this day rowers across the country complete Gluckers, an excruciating series of interval workouts (one minute: 40 seconds on, 20 seconds off) he pioneered. He finished his career coaching small boats at the elite rowing program he started in Craftsbury, Vt. In February, his last pupil, John Graves, won the U.S. Olympic Trials in the men’s single sculls.
I was a coxswain on the Trinity women’s rowing team during Gluckman’s final collegiate act. He was never my coach, although he hired and trained my coach. But we shared a boathouse with the men, and the culture Gluckman created permeated every inch of the place. Trinity is a small school in Hartford, Conn., (in 2010, the year after he retired, undergraduate enrollment was 2,312) and although men’s rowing predates and is therefore not overseen by the NCAA, it competes at essentially a Division III level. But he told his rowers in a letter he wrote after he was hired, in 2003, “My expectations are as high for this crew as they were for any I have coached.”
He did not really mean on the water, although he led them to success there, too. He meant in life.
So much of college sports these days is indefensible. This year alone amid a raging pandemic, schools including UNC, Notre Dame and UCLA declared campus unsafe for students but continued to hold football practice; Minnesota increased its football coach’s salary to $4.6 million while cutting men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and men’s indoor track and field; and the NCAA paid for the men’s basketball teams at its championship tournament to undergo the most reliable form of COVID-19 testing while using a cheaper test for the women. These people behave as if their mandate is to create wealth for boosters.
Gluckman believed his job was to create good adults. He succeeded; many of the best people I know rowed for him. So I asked several of his athletes what they learned.
Very little of what they said was about rowing. “Larry never told me anything that blew my mind, technically,” says Henry Palmer, who rowed under him from 2003 to ’06. “He built a system.”
Gluckman had three rules: Nothing will work unless we do. Do more than expected. Leave things better than you found them.
Rowing was, in many ways, the ideal sport for him. Almost no other enterprise offers such a simple deal: Effort in, results out. Especially at the lower levels, a willingness to work will beat natural skill most days. But there is also no truer team sport. It is rarely possible to identify the most valuable member of a crew; indeed, one person doing notably more than the others can ruin the flow of the boat. Division III rowing also forced a level of perspective that appealed to him. The participants are truly college athletes, afforded no benefits unavailable to oboists and yearbook editors. When a projected member of his top boat nervously confessed he would like to study abroad, Gluckman beamed. “That sounds like an amazing opportunity!” he said. The boat might become worse, but the person would become better. Rowing, and specifically Division III rowing, provided the perfect classroom for Gluckman’s lessons.
Wes Ng, who would become my coach and then go on to lead the Penn women’s team, interviewed to be Gluckman’s assistant in the summer of 2004. A five-minute walk through campus took twice that, because Gluckman stopped to chat with every worker he saw: Omar at the front desk, Janice in the office, Karen in the athletic department. And as they strolled, Gluckman quietly collected litter and threw it away.
He generally stayed away from metaphor, but Gluckman’s favorite story was about his father, who had owned a newsstand in Queens, N.Y., but shuttered it during the Depression. He applied for a factory job, which drew so many hopefuls the manager was sending people away. As he turned to leave, he noticed a broom on the floor, picked it up and leaned it against the wall. They hired him on the spot.
Gluckman told that story only a few times, and only when he sensed what he referred to as drift: a gradual relaxing by the rowers of the standard. All he ever cared about was the standard. They were never surprised when he reprimanded them. They always knew how to meet the standard and when they had fallen short.
“What mattered is that we did things the right way,” says Hal Ebbott, who rowed for him from ’07 to ’09. “And that wasn't because we were rowing. We just happened to be rowing, and it still mattered that we did things the right way. And I think that's where it becomes something that you can carry forward. It's in no way unique to rowing; if anything the whole point is that rowing was arbitrary, and you could have been gardening or doing needlepoint or baking. Everything that he was talking about and espousing would still apply. And I think that that is something that a lot of coaches don't necessarily believe, and even those who do don't necessarily communicate all that well.”
One story he told often was about when he coached at Princeton, which in 1983 beat Harvard in their annual dual race for the first time in 25 years. Princeton was such an underdog Harvard had not bothered to bring the Compton Cup. Gluckman never forgot the slight.
“It was so disrespectful,” says Touhey. “It was just never about winning or losing. Winning was a byproduct of being a good person and putting in your time, and if you did the right thing, the winning would sort of take care of itself.”
He gave his program the unofficial motto of “participation with excellence,” and the order of words there was important to him. “He treated the worst guy in the 4V the same way he did the best guy in the 1V,” says Graves.
In the spring of 2007, a flash flood nearly destroyed the dock. Gluckman asked for volunteers to drive to the boathouse and help clean up the damage. Every member of the team showed up. After the work was done, he gathered the rowers. Code Sternal, who rowed for him from ’05 to ’08, chokes up as he remembers Gluckman’s words: “Guys, I don't care if you don't win a single race this season. The way you all came here and worked together to get this done, I'm extremely proud of every one of you.”
They did win a lot of races. Trinity was a perennial national power during his tenure; his crews won three gold medals at the Head Of The Charles Regatta, two ECAC National Invitational crowns and the Temple Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta. But for all the work he did preparing them for competitions, he sometimes did not even watch the races. By the time his crews launched, he had done what he could. “The race is a celebration of your preparation,” he would tell them. The result, always, was secondary to the process.
His rowers struggled to accept that mentality. “I think the idea when you're a young, amateur athlete that the result doesn't matter is unacceptable to you, and it sounds like something a serious competitor doesn't say,” says Ebbott. “The sound bite of, like, If you do your best, you can't care about what happened sounds like an impossibly low standard. And I think what I didn't realize is that that's actually the highest standard that you could conceivably imagine, and it's unlikely you would probably ever achieve it in your lifetime.”
They always knew Gluckman loved them, sometimes because he told them and sometimes because he showed them. A few times a year he assigned the athletes to run the three miles from campus to his house, where they arrived to find him making pancakes for them. He drew up a grueling strength combine for rowers to complete upon their return to campus each fall—and included a football throw as one of the exercises. Midway through a series of Gluckers, he might catch sight of feathers, turn to a crew and yell, in the same baritone in which he urged them to train to exhaustion, “Boys! Eagle!”
Peter Graves, John’s older brother who rowed for him at Trinity from ’04 to ’07 and then again as a member of the national team, recalls docking after a heartbreaking second-place finish in college. Gluckman was waiting. Peter collapsed, sobbing, into his arms.
A decade later as the pandemic raged, Gluckman bought a Dodge Caravan and drove himself from Vermont to Florida, to watch John Graves compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Gluckman raced along the towpath on his bike, booming, “Yeah, Johnnyyy!” He congratulated John on the win, helped him de-rig his boat, then drove himself back to Vermont. A few weeks later, in his final minutes, he asked his daughters to make sure John was ready for the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Switzerland in May.
John will compete there without Gluckman. All his rowers will be forced to move forward without him. In some ways this will be a formidable challenge. He remained involved in their lives after graduation, traveling to watch them compete internationally and attending their weddings. He saw art exhibits with Ebbott and Touhey. He taught Ed Slater, who rowed under him from ’03 to ’06 and then worked as a volunteer assistant coach for him for a year, how to clean a cast-iron skillet. (No soap, just water and salt.) He emailed, texted and called. At various points during the pandemic he participated in group Zooms.
But in other ways this is exactly what he was preparing them for. His crews have launched. He has done what he could. And because his philosophy was always so clear, they can always call upon it.
“All of my memories of Larry are this, like sun inside me that is burning and keeps me in my own orbit,” says Slater.
They know what the standard is, they know how to meet it and they know when they have fallen short. They know how to be good adults. Gluckman taught them.