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Although sports journalism can be subject to hyperbole, calling Harvard Coach Harry Parker the John Wooden of the collegiate rowing world would not be an overstatement.
Since taking over the Crimson varsity heavyweights in 1963 when he was 28, Parker has established himself as the premier coach in the country.
He has guided the Crimson to 16 Eastern Sprints titles--including last year's--and 21 Rowe Cups (awarded to the best overall program at Sprints), 13 undefeated seasons and five official national championships, including the last three, in the 1980s. His Harvard crews have captured an Olympic trials win, a Pan American Games crown and the Grand Challenge Cup at the 1985 Royal Henley Regatta.
But Parker is more than just a great rowing coach. He has been there himself, straining on the water for precious seconds. Parker was a distinguished rower, winning the American single scull championship in 1959 and 1960 and the single scull gold medal at the Pan Am Games in 1960. That same year, Parker finished fifth at the Olympics in Rome.
But what makes Parker's boats so successful? Some point to the mystique and history of Harvard rowing that extends back to 1852. Others make a strong case that the Crimson's success stems from its excellent facilities, surpassing those of all but a few colleges.
But there has to be something more. When Parker took over in 1963, his boats proceeded to smash the Yale crews in the annual running of The Race for 18 straight years and he currently enjoys a five-year streak over the Elis. Yale is blessed with the same so-called advantages as the Crimson program, yet Harvard continues to dominate.
"I don't understand what it is," junior Owen West says. "Other schools draw from the same talent pool, have excellent facilities and even have more water time, but we keep on winning. There should be parity out there, but we seem to have some kind of psychological edge over them."
But Parker is the first to deflect talk of Harvard's success away from himself and back to the rowers.
"We've been lucky in attracting the athletes that put us ahead," Parker explains. "I don't think I have any magic formula, but I have to keep going back to the motivated athletes."
Harvard rowers are a bit hesitant when describing Parker. Few words come to them to describe a man regarded to be a living legend. When pulling on the ergs or rowing in the tanks, the Crimson rowers are constantly aware when Parker is watching...watching...watching.
Almost all Harvard rowers attribute Parker's silent quality to be a big part of his effectiveness.
"He emanates authority," junior Heb Ryan says. "His low voice kind of rumbles through the room and commands attention."
Rowers describe Parker as cerebral and enigmatic. While on the water, Parker will slowly cruise behind his boats, carefully watching the twitch of every blade as it is slipped into the water. But only in a while will he raise a battered crimson megaphone to his mouth to murmur something.
Click, Click, Click
Only the click, click of the oarlocks, the seat sliding back and forth and the banter of the coxswain remains for the rowers to coach themselves.
"He rarely talks," varsity seven-man Dan Justicz says, "so you're always wondering what he's thinking. What he says counts. In a way, the oarsman is made even more aware of his own mistakes while he turns over Harry's words in his own head."
"Losing is unacceptable at Harvard," Owen says. "From the first day of the fall we are competing, looking up at the walls, seeing the great crews of the past and measuring ourselves against them. Harry makes sure that we know that we are part of a great tradition."
To Parker, though, it is not just a continuum--each crew is different--although he diplomatically hedges when asked to name the highlight of his coaching career.
"There have been so many," Parker answers. "Earlier in my career, it may have been easier, but now, it seems as if every win is a highlight and every loss a lowlight."
"I think I look back most fondly at the victory in the Adams Cup when I was rowing for the University of Pennsylvania as a sophomore," says Parker, recalling his favorite memory as a rower. "That year, we beat a Navy crew that had gone undefeated for four straight years and it sent a message to everyone that we were a fast crew."
Despite prestigious individual achievements as a single sculler, Parker most fondly remembers his days as a sweep oarsman for Penn. This team philosophy has carried over to coaching.
Shhh, the Race
Before a race, the silence can be overwhelming. Parker refuses to call upon the ghosts of old to inspire the Crimson. No chalk talks and fiery speeches--Parker lets the rower motivate himself.
Parker has never relied on trick racing strategies, but stresses intensity and aggressiveness and tells his crew to battle its opponent. He feels his rowers should enter every race expecting to win.
"I treat every crew separately so that they can get the most out of their own rowing experience," Parker says. "It would not be fair to put any extra pressure on them. This way, every crew can aspire to their own heights."
But Harvard heavies are very aware of the past and are also aware of Parker's successes. Every crew would love to be remembered by Parker as one of his all-time greats. Walking into the boat house, the rowers know that Newell has been filled with many great crews, and Parker, seemingly, has always been there.
As the Crimson swept across the finish line to win the Sprints last year in Worcester, he was there. All alone on the roof of the boathouse, he was watching...watching...watching and without a word, he just smiled when the race was over.
With few words, he's always been there, watching...and winning.
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