Coxswain-sized David A. Grant, head rowing coach and dean of men at Orange Coast College at Costa Mesa, Calif., likes to call his heavyweight crew "the varsity." But that, of course, is silly, because Orange Coast College is not now and never was a university (which is what varsity means). Orange Coast is a sprawling junior college with only two classes, the freshman and the sophomore.
Nevertheless, in four years, with only two years to work on each of its members, dapper, determined Coach Grant has molded a rowing squad at OCC good enough to beat every jayvee crew in the West, as well as a number of genuine four-year varsities. So far this season OCC has won three of its six races, beating the University of Southern California, Long Beach and San Diego State.
To accomplish such wonders, Dave Grant has developed a coaching method that combines the recruiting zeal of a pro football scout at draft time, the firm touch of a natural disciplinarian, the infinite curiosity of a scholar, and the enthusiasm of a scoutmaster on jamboree.
"Quiet in the boathouse means just that!" warns one page in a booklet Grant hands out to each of his recruits at the start of the season. "Haircut get a short one," orders another. The insistence on deportment extends even to the time spent in the shells themselves. If there is idle conversation in any boat, warns Grant's book, "that shell will be returned to the boathouse and the workout will be continued on the machines."
These torture devices, along with other rowing paraphernalia, are stored in a sharp-looking Quonset hut big enough to house four Pocock shells. It is located only yards from the roaring traffic of the Pacific Coast Highway on one side and Lido Island Channel on the other. The round-roofed shelter lies like a lazy turtle on a green lawn kept neat and trim by the OCC oarsmen themselves. "We could have the college gardeners come down and do the lawn or paint the dock," says Grant, "but somehow it wouldn't be the same."
Like many college rowing organizations, OCC's crew must constantly scrounge for funds. Flattered with an invitation to row in the IRA at Syracuse last year, it had to beg for money to get there. A public drive soon demonstrated how the people of Orange County felt about their rowers. Needing only $2,500 to get to the New York lake, Grant wound up with twice that amount, including a fat check from OCC's friend and neighbor, John (Duke) Wayne.
The Duke's huge house is only one of many mansions that line the glittering stretch of water on which Grant's impoverished boys do their practicing. A constant stream of sail and power traffic shares the waterway with the rowers, and on occasion the Duke orders his big minesweeper-converted-into-yacht Wild Goose to moor athwart the channel to keep the traffic away when OCC is out on the water. Only once have the oarsmen come to grief.
As Grant explains it, his shell was headed down the channel when a little Sabot class sailboat darted out from the shore on a converging course. Slicing forward at a 43- to 44-stroke beat, the shell was moving much too fast to stop. "Good God," Grant cried out from the dock, as he saw the bow of the shell headed straight for the sailboat, "lay it off, lay it off!" But even as he yelled, the sharp bow of the shell speared into the Sabot.
"It impaled that boat," said Grant in wonderment later. "It went right in one side and out the other, but, you know," he added proudly, "it did no more than scratch our shell."
Grant, who is something of a sailor himself, started his coaching career at about the time the so-called "interval system" was coming into vogue. This is the training regimen in which a crew switches without pausing from a fast beat to a medium to a slow and back to a fast with no rest periods between. One of the most successful practitioners of it was Harvard's Harry Parker.
Parker, famous though he is, has never been too busy to counsel the fledgling coach of Orange Coast. Their association began when Grant, having reached a point where he could let his oarsmen concentrate on rowing instead of building boathouses, found himself at a loss to understand why his practice sessions on the water were not going the way they should. Seeking an answer to this, among other questions, he boldly wrote to the man most likely to know.
"Harry," he explained, "knew what to emphasize, and he told me what to watch for and what to ignore. He also told me not to give up on the system, that there were days when he himself thought it was never, never going to work either."
For about six weeks after consulting Parker, Grant continued to snap at his men's heels, keeping them rowing practically day and night. Starting at 7:15 in the morning, the OCC boys would stay on the water until time to go to school. After classes they would come back for sessions lasting late into the evening. Still their shell ran in spasms that increased the doubts of both crew and coach that they would ever get the boat moving right.
Then suddenly one day it all clicked as boat and crew fell into harmony. "It seemed as though the boat was being towed, it ran so smoothly," says Grant. He remembers that his stroke, sensing the newfound rhythm, broke into a grin that spread practically from one side of the shell to the other.
However, Grant still worried whether his eight would hold up under pressure against rival schools, whether Orange Coast would be able to apply the racing technique it followed so well in practice to actual competition. His anxiety was wasted. In its next race, against rival California, OCC did what it had never done before. It won a race, and by a convincing length and a half.
Grant still has a long way to go before overtaking his idol, Harry Parker, but he is not pounding his breast over the fact. He doesn't even seem to mind when some of his oarsmen go on to schools like UCLA to finish their education and row in rival crews. He doesn't mind that other coaches accuse him of running nothing more than a farm club for his alma mater, UCLA. What he does mind is Cal.
Up tight is an extreme understatement for describing Grant's opinion of the Golden Bears. At his first dual meet with Cal at Oakland, the Orange Coast crew was allotted, according to Grant, both inferior accommodations and a shell that leaked. "We got so mad," says Grant, "that when we met them on our own waters later on, we whipped them twice as badly as we otherwise would have."