Last Friday afternoon, as University of Pennsylvania Coach Ted Nash took his crews along the 2,000-meter Charles River course in Cambridge, showing them the setting for Saturday's Adams Cup race against Navy and Harvard—the No. 1-ranked crew in the nation—there was a near disaster. One of the Penn eights nearly smashed head on into an abutment of the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge.
Nash grabbed the bullhorn and yelled, "Look, cox, I said use the arch on the right or the one in the middle. I didn't say use the abutment!" He rubbed his face and said in a gentler tone, "Hey, it's all right. Just relax. I know. I'm nervous, too."
Nash had reason to be nervous. For Penn, the Adams Cup this year had a particular meaning. As one Penn aide said, "We're the Avis of crew racing—Harvard is No. 1, and that's the Hertz of it."
With a record of 3-1 for the new season (Penn had lost only to Princeton two weeks earlier), the Quakers were ready to try harder against Harvard, which had been undefeated in 26 collegiate races over five years and was masterminded by Coach Harry Parker, the Olympian savant of college crew, whose 14-year regular season record was 63-4. Penn won the Adams Cup in 1970, and Navy in 1971. Since then, it had been all Harvard.
But Penn has been catching up fast, and Parker was less than sanguine about his crew's chances. "We're a young and relatively inexperienced boat," he said, referring to the fact that only half of last year's varsity eight was back. "And we're a light boat. Three of our oarsmen are under 175 pounds.
"Penn is big, tough, experienced and, let's face it, they have an easier time recruiting—Harvard's standards are too high. The question really is, can we beat them!"
It was almost midnight Friday before Nash, an apostle of hard work and attention to detail, returned to his motel from the boathouse on the Charles, ordered five scoops of ice cream and relaxed on his bed to discuss his theories about crew. "What wins races is chesslike logistics," he said. "When you find yourself in checkmate, it's because of something that happened seven moves ago. I never want a race to get out of hand because of something I haven't accounted for. So I was just out with the coxes, walking the racecourse from the bank, showing them clearly every landmark, position and possibility of wind, water, weather and strategy along the river. If the cox knows what he's doing in the river, he settles the whole boat down. He just doesn't panic."
A champion oarsman himself, Nash has coached in four Olympics, his crews winning medals in 1964, 1968 and 1972. His men's pairs without cox got a silver in Montreal last year.
"Crew coaching has changed a lot since I began 13 years ago," Nash says. "We're not Vince Lombardis anymore. We're more gentle, but we're not 'party coaches,' either. We care about the kids and—unlike the situation in most sports—we get half our boat from guys who never saw an oar before college. We want our kids to graduate and do well.
"We're in the middle of finals at Penn right now," he added. "We've got a proctor along, and some oarsmen will be taking exams on the bus back."
Shortly after midnight, varsity Cox Joe O'Connor showed up for last-minute instructions. On a piece of paper covered with what resembled Egyptian hieroglyphics—plus drawings of bridges, rocks, steeples and a welter of numbers—Nash had laid out the possible Harvard moves and his countermoves.
"Harvard usually starts slow, and we fire out strong," he said. "Harvard's move will come between 500 and 1,000 meters, when we're settling down. But they beat right through, and in the last 500 we have a terrific sprint. Depending on what they do, our strategy will be to open like lightning, and finish so strong they can't keep a lead after the middle of the race. I guess you could say that Harvard is more imposing than we are, but we're more mercurial."
The next morning, after Penn and Harvard split victories in the freshman and junior varsity eights, their two big boats plus Navy's lined up in a light chop. The oarsmen in the Penn boat looked as nervous as Nash in his launch. As Penn's number 6 oar, Phil Stekl, had said, "Sure we're nervous, after all we're racing for the No. 1 ranking, but it's a good nervous."
Harvard got off to a surprisingly good start, and Penn a slow one. After 500 meters, Harvard had several feet on Penn and widened the margin to two-thirds of a boat length by the midway point, pouring it on in Penn's weakest section of the race.
But the Quakers then upped the stroke and drew almost even. As the eights passed the three-quarters mark, Penn's stroke was at 39; finding the reserve strength for the sprint Nash's strategy included, they upped that to 40 and then to a killing 41, and held it to the finish. During the last 400 meters the boats were virtually even, Penn nipping Harvard by not much more than a foot—one-tenth of a second—to win in 6:15.0. Navy Coach Rick Clothier, whose crew finished third, three lengths back, said, "That was as fine as anything I've seen in a long time. Either one of them could have won it. It was nearly textbook perfect."
Even Parker seemed content in the afterglow of the race. "I'm not disappointed in my crew," he said. "They did it perfectly, and there's always next week."
"Next week" for Parker and Nash meant the Eastern Sprints on May 15, when the two crews were scheduled to meet again. As Penn loaded its boats on a trailer, the tension began to build anew. "If we're ranked No. 1 this week, as we should be," said Nash, "it means that we'll get to go against lower seeds in the heats at the sprints. It's to our advantage. But we'll see when we get there. Now, I've got plans to make."