I think UCLA has high hopes and just isn't talking much," said the University of Pennsylvania's Joe Burk as he loaded his crew onto a bus for the International Rowing Association regatta in Syracuse, N.Y. last week. "I have a daughter in college at Santa Barbara who knows several of the UCLA oarsmen, and she thinks they're quite confident of sneaking up on us."
The tone was typical of Burk, undeniably the most modest and respected college rowing coach in the U.S. For regardless of what Joe's daughter may have thought about the Bruins' chances in the I.R.A., every other expert at Lake Onondaga was pretty sure that Burk's own Quakers would sweep the regatta and grab a victory that had eluded them for 67 years.
Penn's varsity had not won the I.R.A. since 1900 and, until last year's freshman victory, no Quaker crew of any kind had won a race in the championships since 1924. But in the year 1967 the picture had changed entirely. Penn's freshmen, jayvees and varsity were all favored to win, the varsity doubly so since the only crew that seemed capable of defeating it was busy elsewhere. Harvard's rowing machine, coached by Harry Parker, himself a onetime student of Burk's, was getting ready to win its 27th consecutive intercollegiate race against Yale at New London.
At Onondaga, some 15,000 sweat-shirted, shorted and print-dressed spectators were on hand as Penn got an exceptionally strong start in the two-mile, 11-boat freshman race. Syracuse, Princeton and Rutgers took futile turns in the lead until the young Quakers decided to make their move after a mile and an eighth. Already stroking at 36, they went up to 39½, passed Washington and, half a mile from the finish, took the lead. They were rowing a ragged but powerful 43 when they crossed the finish line three-quarters of a length ahead of Rutgers. It was a strong race to be rowed by freshmen.
An approaching thunderstorm beyond the finish line was coloring the sky gray and violet as the jayvee boats lined up, and a warning was radioed down to the start. Officials ordered the varsity boats to launch and the jayvees to begin their race anyway. Syracuse again took an early lead, with Wisconsin second. Shortly after the half-mile mark, Penn powered to the front at 35. Syracuse briefly regained the lead before Pennsylvania began pulling away by a third of a length, a full length, two lengths. Penn was ahead by two and a half and nearing the two-mile mark of the three-mile race when the thunderstorm finally hit them.
Amid cries from ship-to-shore radio that some—or few, or none—of the boats could be seen, the Penn shell, in an unprotected outside lane, was skewed off its course, losing all forward progress. Wisconsin, Navy and Cornell, all in inside lanes, came on strong. With a magnificent effort, the Quakers, who were nearly swamped, managed to right themselves and flailed back. But Navy, after much confusion about lanes engendered by the Middies having steered in toward the sheltered shore, crossed the finish line first in 17 minutes 28.2 seconds, costing second-place Penn its chance to sweep the regatta.
At the starting line the Brown varsity had also come to grief during the brief storm, and along with 13 other crews rowed to shore in order to bail out and mop up. Because Washington and Northeastern had cannily returned to the boathouse, the big race was delayed an hour.
The varsity race, when it did start, was all Penn: Penn starting fast, Penn coming on to take second after three-quarters of a mile and first after a mile, Penn half a length over Wisconsin and Navy, Penn by a full length over Wisconsin and Navy after two and one-eighth miles, Penn by a length and a deck, by two lengths, by almost two and a half at the finish, while stroking 36. At the end Pennsylvania had not only won its first I.R.A. varsity championship in 67 years but the Ten Eyck trophy for the best all-round performance in the entire regatta with 19 out of a possible 20 points.
Penn Bow Nick Paumgarten, an ebullient Pennsylvanian from West Conshohocken, is always ready with a joke. With a great show of effort he did a one-hand press of the huge, grotesquely ornate Varsity Challenge Cup for the benefit of photographers. "It's goddam heavy when you've just finished rowing a race," he moaned. But Stroke John Ferriss, one of two sophomores in the Penn boat, remained dead serious even in victory. "I didn't think we had it won until we crossed the finish line," he said. "We've beaten too many other crews from that far back."
A succession of junior varsity men came up to Burk. "Sir, we're sorry," they said. "We know we cost you the sweep...."
"It wasn't your fault," Joe Burk answered. "I just felt bad for you." To a bystander he said, "That's the kind of boys they are."