A bang-up job by the hammers

Coach Harry Parker's powerhouse crew is a successor to '75's gods
May 30, 1976

This was to be The Year Harvard Got It, but instead everyone else got it—same old sight, an eight-oared shell full of crimson jerseys, moving away. Nothing changed but the Harvard style, or as Carl Sandburg put it:

I have seen/The old gods go/
And new gods come.../
Today/I worship the hammer.

The lines are posted on the varsity bulletin board at Harvard's Newell Boat House, where the gods have come and gone. They called them that last year at Harvard—gods, six great senior oarsmen, replaced now by hammers, "strong oarsmen who can't row," as two-oar Dave Bixby, alias Wart Hog, defines the term. But as Bixby said two Sundays ago at Princeton, "We must be awfully strong, because we don't have much finesse. How else could we row a race like we did today, or have a season like this one?"

Harvard had just won its 10th Eastern Sprints in 14 tries under Coach Harry Parker, its third consecutive national title, and one reporter suggested, "Maybe it's your great depth."

"We don't have any depth," someone replied.

But Bixby said, "We have got Harry."

And now Harry Parker had Bixby, by both arms. It was a great day among many great days for the 40-year-old Parker, and though he rarely reveals emotion, he yelled, "Hey, Hog!" Then he slipped away, and Bixby, who rowed on last year's junior varsity and does not think that all the gods are gone, was stunned. "Harry hardly ever says anything," he said, so at moments like these you feel all warm inside."

In many ways it had been Harry Parker's year, and the year of The Speech. Late in the winter Parker was worried. In October Harvard had finished 12th at the Head of the Charles Regatta—not an intercollegiate event, but 12th! Morale was low at Newell; there was anxiety over the coming season. Parker had admitted to himself the possibility of losing, but it had taken him months to reach that point and now he called a meeting. He stood in the dim yellow light of the tank room at Newell, head down, his jaw set, hands in his pockets, tracing patterns on the floor with the toe of a shoe, searching for the right words from his meager annual ration of them. Finally he said that he knew what was on everyone's mind, that they were following two of the greatest Harvard crews ever, that they were uptight because of it, and that they should forget about everything but the season ahead. He told them not to be afraid of losing, that having fun was just as important as winning. He said, "Let's just set a pace that will make us all' proud."

As the thunderstruck oarsmen filed into the night they began to refer to what they had heard as "the concession speech." "Harry's giving up on us," some said, resentfully. But as days passed, the mood at Newell eased. "Everyone went sort of 'Aaah,' " says senior three-oar Hovey Kemp, the captain. "I think the speech dissolved so much tension. We could really start working, because we weren't afraid to lose now."

Around the country, crew coaches were panting to get at Harvard. So off they went in April to the San Diego Crew Classic, the season's first. And speech or no, on race day the Harvard dressing room was haunted by gods. Kemp was so nervous he hid in a closet. Bixby was ready, he says, "to bite a dog's leg off." And then Harry Parker came in and made another little speech. "I think we can do it, if we row all out," he said. "No one can stay with us then." So they rowed all out, and Parker was right. And that is how the season went, or almost, for it was also The Year of the Crab.

Sometimes, fittingly, the Harvard crew used its oars like hammers, catching the surface at weird angles, slowing the boat and throwing up a commotion of water, catching crabs. A horrendous one against the Coast Guard and UMass turned the shell all but sideward to the course. Another put it behind Brown for a while. But Harvard always recovered to beat them all by open water and there were no regrets. They were having fun. As Hovey Kemp said, "We want to make crew a spectator sport, by making it close. So when someone throws a crab we congratulate him."

Harry Parker was having fits. When he could stand it no longer, he said, "It's an exasperating aspect of their rowing."

But he did have a little bit of Speech left. The day before a race against Princeton on the Charles he followed the boat in his launch, speaking to the crew through his megaphone, louder and louder: "You drive them through the first 500 meters, and if they're still with you then, drive them into the second. If need be, you'll row the last 500 harder than the first, and if your minds are willing, your bodies will be, too."

Next day Harvard destroyed Princeton. And Kemp, who does not think all the gods are gone either, said of the pep talk, "He made Knute Rockne look like a slouch."

Parker heard this and seemed surprised, "I always thought that Knute Rockne-type speeches were manipulative," he said. "I can't do that."

One has a tendency, when speaking with Parker, to watch his eyes, to see if he is winking, or his mouth, to catch the hint of a smile. Every move he makes, every word, is calculated to gain an effect, say some of his oarsmen. Yet Parker claims total innocence of such motives.

Bixby says, "I think Harry is the fairest of coaches, but he's not very open. You can kill yourself and feel you're not making a dent, so I stopped rowing for him two years ago. I row mostly for the boat now. Maybe Harry plans it that way."

So Parker is asked, "Do you keep a certain distance from your oarsmen because you think that strengthens ties among them?"

He smiles vaguely. His head moves, barely, side to side.

Sophomore seven-oar Tom Howes is the youngest, smallest man in the boat. "The little house on the prairie," they call him, and he wonders how he made it. (Was it Harry? Was it me?) Last winter he thought he had no chance. He sat in the tanks at Newell, and Parker would come along. He would say, Howes recalls, " 'Bow-oar, you're doing this wrong. Six, hold your hands like this.' But he always went right by me. I couldn't decide if he'd given up on me, that I was too small, or what. So I worked all the harder, and I guess it paid off."

"Did you psych Tom Howes right into the boat?"

Was that a smile? Did Harry Parker's head move?

"Harry likes to be part of the group," says Ollie Scholle, senior stroke-oar. "In The Speech he said, 'You've got to enjoy rowing, but also the people you're with.' I think he was talking about himself. He wants us to like him, but he doesn't know how to ask."

It is midnight, and on the bus going home from the Eastern Sprints only two people seem to be awake—Parker, who is sitting alone, and a man who has known him for three years but has never had a real conversation with the coach. The man drops into the empty seat. They talk about their athletic backgrounds, Parker's really—his national singles sculling championships in 1959 and '60, his fifth at the Rome Olympics, his four years of rowing at the University of Pennsylvania, class of '57. The man is surprised that Parker was a philosophy major, but then he thinks, no, Harry Parker is no phys ed major.

"What does coaching give to you?"

"Personally I'm fascinated by the whole concept of making a boat move through the water," Parker replies, "whether I'm rowing it myself, or watching my crew do it well. It's a very exciting, satisfying, sensual feeling.

"And I feel a fairly enormous pride in the people I'm dealing with. I have a very strong sense of identity with them."

The conversation gradually drifts off. At 2:45 a.m. the bus arrives in Cambridge. Harry Parker stands at the front. Well done, men," he says. "See you this afternoon, at practice."

Six days later the hammers finished their season, sinking Yale on the Thames River by something like 16 lengths—a margin even gods would approve.

TWO PHOTOSWITH HIS BOAT PULLING STRONGLY AWAY FROM THE LINE AT THE EASTERN SPRINTS, PARKER'S SMILE HAPPILY ANTICIPATES THE TITLE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)