Still Smooth, Less Rude

National championship crews return to the Charles to relive their glory days

The Rude and Smooth Boat Club proved that it was up to at least a few of its reputed tricks when it passed two boats in the Senior Master Eights event last Saturday afternoon.

The legendary members of the Harvard heavyweight crews of 1974 and 1975 comprise the eight, and although the lineup changes every year, there’s has been a Rude and Smooth boat at Head of the Charles for the last 25 years.

Most would not dispute the rude reputation of the ’74 and ’75 boats, and none would say they were anything but smooth. Harvard tacked unofficial national championships on to undefeated seasons in both years, building a legend that future crews would strive to mirror.

“The first thing you have to know about them is that they were a very, very fast, very competitive, very capable crew,” said Harvard heavyweight coach Harry Parker. “The term “Rude and Smooth”—their reputation overshadowed their rowing skills.”

The Rude and Smooth dealt with the same national ranking difficulty that recent Crimson crews have had, in that Harvard often does not attend the official Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Championship regatta. However, in 1974, after Harvard won the Eastern title, Western champion Washington invited the Crimson to an east-meets-west duel to determine the true national champion.

“People complain that the Harvard oarsmen live in the boathouse, but the members of Washington live in the boathouse,” said Peter Lowe ’74.

On the way to Washington, the Crimson’s two boats stopped to race IRA champion Wisconsin on its home turf, defeated the Badgers as it had in Eastern Sprints and silenced any talk of IRA superiority. Harvard then went on to beat the Huskies and seal the title, with the Crimson junior varsity boat setting a Washington course record, only to watch it broken 20 minutes later by the varsity crew.

“We probably had the first and third fastest boats in the country my junior year,” said Ronald Shaw ’75, who went by Ronnie in his days as the seven seat in the ’74 junior varsity and ’75 varsity crews. “We had such a special time—that’s why we get back together to relive our 15 minutes of glory.”

The 1975 boat was again crowned the national champion, and flew across the Atlantic to compete in the Grand Challenge, the premiere event of the Henley Royal Regatta. Although Harvard fell to the British national team in the final, its semifinal win over the Union Boat Club, essentially the U.S. national team, provided victory in itself.

“There was a little bit of history,” Parker said. “We were racing against basically the makings of the U.S. national crew. In 1974, they were world champions. Two of the members of that crew were in our crew, Al Shealy [’75] and Dick Cashen [’75]. When we decided to go to Henley in ’75, the national team coaches decided to take the remainder of the national team. There was a pretty natural rivalry there, and it was pretty satisfying to win that race. We actually set a course record on that day as well.”

“The most excited I ever saw Harry in four years was in the semifinals when we beat the quasi-U.S. national team,” Shaw said. “We hear this guy whooping and yelling after we cross the finish line. We looked over and there’s Harry—so uncharacteristic because Harry doesn’t show any emotion like that.”

Harvard’s success ensured four years of perfect racing for both Shaw and Gregg Stone ’75, the only exception being losses to the Soviet Union and East Germany at the World Championships in Nottingham, England, in 1975.

Men on the Moon

There’s no question about the smooth—so where is the rude?

Although the nickname is oft attributed to a 1974 Sports Illustrated article entitled “Rude and Smooth and Fast,” Lowe recalls an earlier origin.

“Different people tell you different things,” Lowe said. “The origin is a very simplistic outlook on life which is that certain things are either rude or they’re smooth. This really derived from some hockey players that I knew that lived in Eliot House in 1973. That was their view of the world. I kind of introduced it here with coxswain Dave Weinberg [’74], and we kind of introduced into the lexicon of the boathouse.”

When a Sports Illustrated reporter tailed the team at a race in Seattle, the writer picked up on the slang, and the uncensored attitude of the oarsmen.

“At the time when this guy was writing the article, the phrase ‘How rude is that?’ had already become very current within our group,” said Tiff Wood ’75. “I’m not sure that ‘how smooth is that’ ever…we were more inclined to talk about how rude something was.”

“The first time I ever saw it was in Sports Illustrated,” Shaw said. “We were smooth because we were smooth on the water, but off the water, there were some antics. Even on the water, our stroke, Al Shealy, was pretty rude. When we went by a boat, he’d be yelling ‘So long suckers!’”

As rowers face backwards while they row, the Harvard crew was able to see its opponent while passing, making the jibes even more effective. But the esteemed Rude and Smooth oarsmen didn’t stop there.

“Some of us were in the habit of mooning people,” Stone said. “I have to admit, Al taught us everything we know about mooning.”

After this initial exposure to the media, the Crimson rowers dramatically changed their tone when the reporter showed up again the following year.

“The article was called ‘The Crew of Perfect Gentleman,’” Stone said. “We reacted by behaving very differently when we were around him the next year.”

The Making of an Oarsman

Unlike today’s Harvard freshman classes, which often boast a number of junior national rowers, many of the Rude and Smooth had less auspicious beginnings to their rowing careers.

“I got involved because if you were of a certain height or weight, you got a letter the summer before freshman year from Harry describing why I was so uniquely qualified for rowing,” Lowe said. “I knew that it was a lot of nonsense, but it got me to go to the introductory meeting.”

“They said that from your athletic background, we think you would make a great oarsman,” Shaw said. “They talked about how the ’68 crew actually went to the Olympics because they had a time trial then.”

The result of Harvard’s internal recruiting was experienced rowers and rookies aplenty at the start of the year.

“I showed up first day of practice and there were 300 of us,” Shaw said. “But it was so tough freshman year that by the end of February, there were only 24 of us left, without any cuts. It was so hard I thought, ‘I don’t know, I’ll just stick it this year and then see what happens,’ but then we won every race my freshman year and went to England, and then I was hooked.”

Raising the Bar

When you walk into Newell boathouse, you immediately find yourself facing a huge blowup of the Rude and Smooth boat of 1975. While Parker maintains that the picture choice was made due to availability—it is a slide from Boston’s celebration of the national bicentennial—it still drives crews to meet that standard of excellent.

“It was such a great era of Harvard rowing,” said Jim Crick ’88, who was the Rude and Smooth’s coxswain this year. “It was certainly something that we in the 80s wanted to emulate.”

Crick and Lowe discussed this weekend’s race, how Crick had managed well when the cox box died and the excitement of passing two boats. Separated by over a decade, some aspects of Harvard rowing under Parker never change.

“A lot of guys in the boat, particularly Dick Cashin, would say, ‘Come on Harry, are we as good as the ’68 boat? How do we compare to that ’65 boat that was on the cover of Sports Illustrated?’ and he’d never say anything,” Lowe recounted.

“In ’87 and ’88, Jack Rusher [’89] was always pressing, ‘Are we as good as the Rude and Smooth?’” Crick laughed in response. “And that’s what keeps the whole thing going, that we’re all striving to be as good as those who came before us. Harry never sets the bar where it is—you have to guess where it is and everyone jumps over and that’s what keeps the ball rolling.”

Stone and Wood, who have been racing a double in Head of the Charles for years and placed third in the Senior Master Doubles event, also recall Parker’s ability to inspire more speed in even the fastest crews.

“We had a coach that managed to convince us before every race, ‘Yeah, you might have won by a lot last week, but these guys are going to really give you a hard time,’” Wood said. “About 600 meters into the race, you’d realize that he’d fooled you again.”

“He was a master manipulator and we were really the perfect fodder for him,” Stone added, laughing.

There is the obvious inter-school competition that motivates crews and the drive to match up historically to the crews of the past, the Rude and Smooth were unique in its rivalry within the team.

“It’s hard to exaggerate the word competitive,” Parker said. “But the special thing about them was the competitiveness, vis a vis the other universities, but within the group. It’s a very interesting dynamic and it’s interesting that they’ve stayed together so closely considering that they were very competitive against one another.”

With several oarsmen in the third varsity boat who had rowed for the first crew at one point or another, battles were vicious and didn’t always remain on the water.

“Steve Row [’74] and I used to fight to try to get on the seven seat,” Shaw recollected. “Actually, one seat race, I beat Row, and Row punched me in the mouth after the practice. We still give him a hard time about that. I was so shocked I didn’t even hit him back. So we called him Mad Dog after that...actually, I think he already had that nickname.”

“I never heard that story before, but I wouldn’t be surprised,” Parker said when asked about the incident.

Of All-Stars and Has-Beens

Rowers from around the world come to the Reggie Lewis Center to compete in CRASH-B Sprints, the World Indoor Rowing Championships. But the Charles River All-Star Has-Beens Sprints have their roots in the Rude and Smooth.

After graduating in 1975, Stone received a phone call from Northeastern’s coach, asking if Stone would put a crew together to race the Huskies as they had an open spot in their schedule. Stone organized an eclectic boat, and the patchwork crew managed to beat Northeastern’s varsity.

And thus, CRASH-B was born, as the group, largely composed of 1976-1980 Olympic and World rowers such as Wood, decided that they would race any college that wanted a match, with one provision.

“We’re ready, we’ll race, just give us food afterwards,” Stone said.

CRASH-B had only two rules: that they never practiced and that they never raced in the same lineup more than once.

“It seemed like the right kind of organization to start CRASH-B sprints,” Wood said.

Wood was the mastermind behind the famed sprints, conceiving of the idea of an indoor competition on rowing ergometers that has been actualized with shocking success.

“I was running in the stadium one day and probably had run one or two too many, and it kind of came full-grown into my head,” Wood said. “We had a group of slightly crazed rowers and friends of mine. We would meet weekly in Charlie’s Kitchen and we would make up what we wanted this thing to become, and lo and behold, it kind of did.”

What would become an international championship started upstairs at Newell boat house, with invitations sent and phone calls made, resulting in 60-70 competitors.

“The stairs that they use to get boats that are really high—we took them upstairs and used them as grandstands,” Wood recalls. “It’s a tiny room, so we had probably all of the people in the room when we were rowing, but it was incredibly loud. It was really exciting all of a sudden. We had a dead heat as a final in the championship in the event. That was actually great, it was very exciting for people to watch.”

* * *

On Saturday, the Rude and Smooth passed a boat just in front of Newell boathouse. Its oarsmen were greeted by family after the race and return to jobs this week, a far cry from the raucous group that ruled the Charles years ago. For a moment, though, they recaptured a bit of their past glory as one of Harvard’s most storied crews.

—Staff writer Jessica T. Lee can be reached at lee45@fas.harvard.edu.

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