At six in the morning, Lido Channel in Newport Harbor, 50 miles south of Los Angeles, is calm. Yachts and sailboats rock idly at their moorings in front of multimillion-dollar estates. Suddenly the tranquillity is disturbed by the agonized grunts of rowers. Up the channel come the Orange Coast College eight, out for their morning workout.
"This is the best time of day," says Dave Grant, who is pacing the crew in a motorized catamaran. "The water's smooth. There is nothing to distract the oarsmen. I have their full attention."
The 53-year-old Grant is the rowing coach at Orange Coast in Costa Mesa, Calif. He also happens to be the school's president. In the latter capacity he presides over a growing two-year community college of 25,000 students. In the former, he has, over the last 28 years, built a powerhouse rowing program out of next to nothing at all.
In California the Orange Coast Pirates are often called the Giant Killers. Grant's boats have an .800 record against freshman, jayvee and even varsity eights from top rowing schools like Harvard, Northeastern, Princeton and Washington. Pirate alumni have rowed on Olympic and national crews; Ted Swinford, 1978-81, and Teo Bielefeld, '85-87, were both on last year's U.S. team.
May 5, 1991
Orange Coast is the only community college regularly represented at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta. The Pirates have appeared eight times and won the freshman eights national championship in 1980. Orange Coast is the only U.S. community college ever to be invited to the Royal Henley Regatta in England; the Pirates have made that trip eight times as well. In 1985 the Pirates became the first U.S. college rowing crew to compete in China. "They perceived Orange Coast as a 'people's college,' " says Grant. "I suppose they thought it would be ideologically appropriate."
It is appropriate that an alumnus has brought all this glory to Orange Coast College. Grant is one of those exotics who actually were born and raised in Southern California. He remembers when "one of the islands near here was uninhabited. We'd row out to these deserted beaches to play pirates. We spent most of our childhoods in the water."
He spent much of his adolescence there, too, swimming for Newport High before enrolling at Orange Coast in 1956. Grant, who remains fit at 5'9" and 155 pounds, was a two-year oarsman for the Pirates. After that, he rowed recreationally at UCLA and at the University of Stockholm. He completed his education at Long Beach State, where he received his master's degree in history in 1964.
"The year before I finished my master's, I received a call from Dr. Basil Peterson, who was president of Orange Coast," says Grant. "He asked me to teach a few American History classes till I figured out what I really wanted to do. Once I arrived, he sat me in his office and said, 'Dave, when you have some spare moments, I'd like you to give a few pointers to the rowing team.' Dr. Peterson was a Mormon. He thought the coach was a bit of a tippler. So whether I liked it or not, I was the new coach.
"I really didn't know anything back then," says Grant with a chuckle. "I should get in touch with all the guys who rowed in those days, and apologize for what I did to them."
In 1967, after a few seasons of coaching by the seat of his pants, Grant wrote Harvard's famous coach, Harry Parker, and asked for pointers. Parker invited him to Massachusetts to watch the Crimson train. "I remember sitting around Harry's house one night and asking him about the finish of the stroke," says Grant. "He didn't say a word for about 10 minutes. I thought he was ignoring me. Finally he said, 'Dave, I don't understand it either. But you know when it's right.' The time I spent with Harry was a revelation. Not because of any one thing he said, but because I came to appreciate the beauty and intensity of rowing when it's done right. You can't try to intellectualize it. I began to understand that it is all in the eye."
Grant took his new insights back to California and began to build a program. He faced handicaps. Unlike many four-year schools, Orange Coast budgeted a negligible amount of money for things as inconsequential as, say, a rowing team. Grant initiated fund-raising efforts that continue to the present day. Whenever the Pirates do well enough to earn an invitation to Henley, for instance, the oarsmen put together garage sales at the boathouse or deliver telephone books door-to-door for the phone company in order to partially underwrite the trip.
Recruiting was another stumbling block. Most top high school rowers wanted to compete for the traditional crew powers. Therefore, every year's Orange Coast crew was inexperienced; Grant had to mold his rowers, and quickly. "If there is one main feature of our program, it's intensity," he says. "We have two years to do what other schools attempt in four. We're lucky though, because kids here seem to have a natural feel for the sport. They grow up swimming and sailing, and they are generally well-fed, well-housed and outdoor-oriented. I'm blessed with some exceptional raw material."
Lots of it. Each fall, Grant ends up with as many as 60 enthusiastic athletes who fill several eight-man boats, a couple of fours and many single sculls. He loses no time in putting the novices through their paces. Workouts start at six in the morning with exercises at the boathouse, followed by 90 minutes on the water. As they stroke their way to Lido Channel, the oarsmen are often halted by Grant, who is a stickler for form. "We start and end with technique," he says. "If I see something I don't like, we stop and I correct it. Sometimes it means we get only a couple of yards at a time. After a while, the guys get used to the process, the idea of working step-by-step toward an ideal. It's as Robert Louis Stevenson said: 'To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.'
"I try to teach these kids that you can be powerful physically and still not be a good rower. Mental power and discipline are the keys not only to being a good oarsman, but to being a success in whatever is undertaken. I want them to come back in 20 years staunch of appearance, with good incomes, good health and strong memories of a youth spent with friends."
"There's something special about the Orange Coast crew that goes beyond its success on the water," says former Stanford coach Ken Dreyfus. "Grant's more than a coach. He's the team's father, friend and adviser. He's a man of high character who imparts it to his students."
"Most of the guys who come here are just trying to figure out what to do for a couple of years," says last year's coxswain, Steve Morris. "None of them are thinking about universities. But Dave doesn't accept that. Every single person ends up going on to a school like Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA or Washington."
One who went to Washington last fall, Kyle Enger of Seattle, says, "Dave convinces you that anything is possible."
A technique that Grant—who served as assistant coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team—uses toward that end is showing his athletes films of the alltime great races. Last June, when his jayvee eight was preparing for the Henley Prize race, Grant followed each morning workout with a film session in the lecture room above the boathouse. He offered stirring commentary as the images flickered: "A couple of years ago, the Harvard jayvees were behind our eights in a race. Still, they managed to win. How? The coxswain said two words to his oarsmen: 'We're Harvard.' Next time you're out there, I want you to say three words: 'We're Orange Coast!' "
It didn't work. A week later, Trinity College of Dublin won the race.
That loss notwithstanding, the year-after-year success of the Pirates has produced a ground swell of local support for the crew program. On regatta days, Maruja Baldwin, who lives just across the bay from the boathouse, hangs a huge GO COAST GO! banner from her second-floor balcony. "David introduces these young men around the community, and of course you have your favorites," she says. "But I try to keep a pot of chili con came ready for all of them."
James Warmington, a local developer, once told Grant that he was interested in learning to row a racing shell. "He devoted hours helping me train," says Warmington. "A few years ago, I placed second in doubles and fifth in singles in the national masters, thanks to Dave Grant. He does that for everyone, whether they're 14, 40 or 80. We've got state-of-the-art facilities and some of the finest boats in the world now, and all because of Dave." And because of benefactors like Warmington and another Newport neighbor, Joseph Thomas. Thomas watches the morning practices with a vested interest. "About 15 years ago," says Grant, "we needed half a dozen sculls. Joe bought them for us. Just like that."
Each day, after finishing his morning duties at the boathouse, Grant slips into khakis, loafers, rep tie and blazer and, a la Clark Kent, changes jobs. Until dusk and beyond he is President Grant, a title he assumed in 1990. "There are meetings upon meetings, and fund-raisers and speaking engagements," says Grant, who is unmarried. "Then I get home at night, and sometimes half the team is sprawled out in my living room, watching TV. As I drag myself across the room to bed, I mumble, 'Fine. Just pick up the chicken bones, turn off the TV and flip off the lights when you leave. See you in the morning—early.' "
Kent Black, a free-lance writer, lives in Venice, Calif. This is his second piece for SI.