College crew: MC men’s crew team faces adversity
With a history steeped in Dad Vail championships and being able claim the first sport at Marietta College, the men’s rowing program is adding to its lore this year.
Of course, it may be one of its darkest moments.
Following a coaching change and a team rebellion, the once proud program has a minuscule roster of just six rowers.
“It’s obviously taken a little bit of a set-back right now,” said Larry Hiser, Director of Athletics. “But I know the current energy and effort that’s being put in with the guys. I’m not expecting them to win Dad Vail gold, but I expect them to be competitive.”
That’s exactly what the former rowers had hoped for as well when they returned in the fall to compete for Phil Schmehl – who was hired after Chris Pucella resigned last spring.
Over the course of the fall season rowing times got slower, morale was dropping, and most notably; a team walkout decimated the roster from approximately 30 rowers to just six.
While Hiser and Schmehl did not want to comment on the circumstances of the team breakdown, several rowers felt the time was right to speak out on the situation.
So, what happened?
According to some former members of the team, there was an immediate frustration when Schmehl was announced as the new coach. Schmehl was the assistant coach to the Marietta College women’s program since 2009, but several rowers believed he wasn’t the ideal choice for the position.
“It’s like taking an assistant Division III women’s softball coach, and hiring him as the head Division I baseball coach,” said former captain and sophomore Bert Lindamood, who is also the grandson of legendary Marietta rowing coach Ralph Lindamood. “Not to take away from our women’s program, but we compete at much different levels.”
The NCAA oversees women’s rowing. Men’s rowing teams do not fall under NCAA jurisdiction, and can compete as a varsity or club sport. However, men’s programs must still abide by their school’s rules for athletic competition; thus a Division III school like Marietta College cannot offer athletic scholarships to rowers while Division I and II programs can.
Marietta College is free to row against whomever they choose, club or varsity teams, and could qualify for the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships, where they could race Ivy League schools like Yale, Harvard or Princeton.
While the women’s crew has been very successful, most recently having their varsity 8+ place fifth at the NCAA Championships, their major competitions are strictly against Division III schools. Marietta’s men have claimed 39 Dad Vail championships, including five Heavyweight Varsity 8+ titles.
With this rich history in mind, rowers like Lindamood believed Marietta could attract a large applicant pool.
The athletic department finalized their search over the summer and narrowed it down to three candidates. According to Lindamood, Schmehl wasn’t the top pick by the current rowers or the alumni. He was surprised when Schmehl was announced as the head coach on July 13.
“What upset a lot of people is that they think they should’ve hired someone externally,” Lindamood said. “I have email evidence of some high quality coaches like (Drexel assistant) Joe Palmer and (Cal assistant coach) Luke Agnini ’02 applying that weren’t given a fair chance.”
Hiser was confident then and remains so today that Marietta hired the right person.
“Coach Schmehl handled himself very professionally in his interviews. We liked that he pursued a Master’s Degree (Exercise and Sports Studies), and he projected himself well to be the head coach of the men’s program,” he said.
Despite the rowers’ disappointment, senior Nico Richey said the team approached the fall season with optimism. They were returning the bulk of a Dad Vail Championship boat with a strong group of incoming freshmen to contribute.
“We all kept an open mind,” Richey said. “We thought we could work with this guy.”
But over the course of several weeks the frustration among the rowers began to percolate. Lack of preparation for practices, poor training plans, and an increase of injuries were reasons cited by Richey and fellow senior Nate Porter as the reasons for the tension.
“We were going out on the water, but we weren’t getting faster,” Porter said. “I think we were actually digressing and getting slower.”
Rowers became even more upset after the Head of the Ohio on Oct. 6, where the team performed well below their typical standards.
“We lost to teams like Pitt and (Ohio University), teams that we should never lose to,” Lindamood said. “We were losing to teams that weren’t even in the finals or semifinals of the Dad Vails. We were making these sacrifices with no reward.”
Team captains decided to meet with Schmehl to discuss possible changes to his coaching style, but according to Lindamood, the new coach was not open to their suggestions.
Meanwhile, the team continued to compete. The team traveled to Boston to compete at the Head of the Charles on Oct. 20, where they again underperformed.
“We were lucky to be invited back,” Lindamood said.
Things came to a tipping point with the dismissal of junior Dane Sellers from the team.
“I see Dane as kind of the catalyst,” Porter said. “Everyone was getting more and more frustrated. And right before one of our most important lightweight races (The Bill Braxton Regatta), he cut one of our best lightweight rowers.”
The rowers responded by having an “extensive team meeting” on deciding their future. The athletes individually decided to walkout of practice, leaving Richey, Lindamood and senior Connor Walters to deliver the news to the coaches.
Team captains then went to Hiser seeking some sort of resolution. Lindamood said the AD met with the captains and Schmehl. Hiser listened to their concerns and told the rowers they should work toward bringing the team back together. According to Lindamood, Hiser told the captains that if they were still unsatisfied they could speak to other members of Marietta College’s administration, an option they did pursue.
Lindamood and Walters met with Dan Bryant, the Vice President of Administration and Finance. Bryant took notes on the team’s issues, and passed their concerns along to Dr. Robert Pastoor, the Vice President of Student Life.
Lindamood and Walters each had separate meetings with Hiser and Pastoor, where they again voiced their concerns and tried to come to a resolution to get the team back on the water.
Hiser, who took the team’s issues to President Joe Bruno’s senior administration team, was supportive of Schmehl.
“I have come to the conclusion that Philip Schmehl is our rowing coach now and for the foreseeable future,” said Hiser in an email to the men’s rowing team. “We hired Phil to run the rowing program up to our department’s standard of conduct. And while he and I acknowledge the need for improved communication, nothing in his program is baseless or without reason.”
In this same email, Hiser gave Schmehl the authority to only invite back certain rowers to join the team. Six rowers accepted the offer.
“We feel so bad for the underclassmen,” Richey said. “They came here to join the ranks, to join The Long Blue Line, and didn’t get that at all.”
Porter shares in Richey’s disappointment.
“It’s just a really frustrating situation,” he said. “This is definitely not how I pictured my senior year going.”
Schmehl declined to comment about the team’s breakdown throughout the fall and is focusing on the future of the program. He does, however, approach his current rowers and the spring season with large amounts of optimism.
“I look at the positives about how the men are comporting themselves, that their training is improving, and the fact that we have some strong recruits,” Schmehl said. “I have every reason for optimism.”
The Men’s Rowing Team will be back on the water March 23, as they will race a lone Varsity 4 against one of the school’s biggest rivals Purdue at the MC-Purdue Challenge Cup. The roster currently includes junior Lida Sheng, sophomores Ben Fields, Jackson Herd and Colin Lancashire and freshmen Ruochen Shen and Patrick Specht.