Harry Parker enters his fiftieth season of coaching this year.
Eight official national championships. Eight more unofficial national championships. Twenty-seven Eastern Sprints titles in the varsity eight, and 21 in the second varsity. Twenty-one undefeated dual seasons.
Harry Parker is unquestionably a winner. But the statistics are only the tip of the iceberg.
They don’t tell the full story of the man who forever changed rowing at Harvard and across North America. His influence can be seen across the continent in the way crews train and compete, and it can be felt just as profoundly in the lives of his former rowers.
Parker’s story is one of curiosity, creativity, courage, and commitment. The water is merely his medium. For non-rowers and lifelong veterans alike, there is much to be learned from this coaching legend.
Parker first became interested in coaching during his undergraduate years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he rowed in the two seat of the varsity eight after joining the team as a walk-on.
“I became quite close with the then rowing coach, Joe Burk,” he explained. “We did a lot of talking about various aspects of the coaching, and it really intrigued me.”
So Parker, who had already enlisted in the Navy, applied to coach at the U.S. Naval Academy. He didn’t get the job, but the seed had been planted.
Parker’s shot would come soon enough. While he was in the Navy, he was also training to race the single in the 1959 Olympics and 1960 Pan American Games. While racing in England, he became connected to the school he’d call his for a half-century.
“We went to Henley, and I got talking to the then-Harvard coach, and it turns out about a year later they were looking for somebody, and I got it,” he said. “There you go.”
Parker’s days as an assistant coach came to an end when head coach Harvey Love died suddenly of a heart attack. As has now become school legend, Parker took over the program as interim head coach in 1963.
After the team posted uninspiring performances in the dual season and at Eastern Sprints, Parker took the time between Sprints and Harvard-Yale to refocus on the fundamentals.
When the Crimson shocked the favored Bulldogs with a come-from-behind victory, Harvard immediately named Parker head coach, and the Crimson rose to prominence quickly.
Harvard took the Eastern Sprints title every year from 1964 to 1970. Parker’s 1968 varsity eight beat out Burk’s Penn crew for the right to represent the U.S. at the Mexico City Olympics.
It was the last collegiate crew ever to represent the U.S. in the Olympic eight.