Full Speed Ahead

Full Speed Ahead

Dave O’Neill is Texas Rowing’s chief evangelist.

When Shaka Smart or Charlie Strong recruit Longhorns, they get to choose from a large pool of high schoolers from all around the country who already excel at basketball or football. It’s not quite so simple for rowing coach Dave O’Neill, especially considering that you can count the number of Texas high schools with rowing programs on one hand.

O’Neill, who came to Texas in 2014 from Cal after two NCAA team titles and 12 NCAA top-four finishes, has to scour amateur rowing clubs around the country and overseas and find diamonds in the rough on campus and turn them into All-Americans. During the first week of classes, the team gathers on the South Mall to flag down potential future rowers—think ex-high school basketball, cross country, and volleyball players who may have never rowed in their lives. On the heels of an eighth-place finish at the 2016 NCAA Championships, O’Neill spoke with the Alcalde about why he came to Texas and what it’ll take to get the Longhorns to a title.

What drew you to Texas?

I was at Cal 16 years. I had a great run, I loved working there; I love the Bay Area. I felt like I took the program as far as I could take it. [I thought], is there someplace that could be bigger and better, where it can really become an empire? Austin is a cool city and a great place to row. UT is a destination school and has the most powerful athletics department in the country. When [UT women’s athletics director] Chris Plonsky sat down with me and said, “I think we can be good at this. We want to be good at this,” from a rowing coach’s perspective that’s good to hear, because sometimes those fringe sports, you think we’re just around for Title IX reasons.

Like it’s an obligation.

Right. But athletics departments are recognizing that this is a cool sport.

What was the state of the program when you got here two years ago?

I think the program was good. There were good kids, it was clear they wanted to work hard, Coach Graves and the previous staff did a really good job. There were a few things—they didn’t have the success the last few years they wanted to have. I could tell what they were trying to do, and sometimes as coaches you make decisions that you see later on didn’t hit the mark. I think the kids clearly wanted to work hard. I think I came in with a little bit of street cred, where I could implement the workouts, and by no means change the culture, but improve the culture that was already here.

What’s your ideal recruit?

The ideal body type is 5’10” to 6’1”, 160-175 pounds, preferably if they have an aerobic sports background, like swimming or cross country, and also with some good work ethic. We’re looking at the best high school rowers in the state of Texas. Rowing isn’t all that big yet. Most of the rowing is junior clubs, like AAU basketball. One of the good things here, being a destination school, is the top kids from some of the top programs in the country want to come here.

How do you get non-rowers into the sport?

It’s very addictive. It becomes a lifestyle. It’s one of those sports you’re probably not going to do on your own just for fun. It’s a lot of hard work. We say, “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.” The lessons that we teach in rowing are the value of hard work, teamwork, collaboration; and dealing with failure, success, pain, and delayed gratification.

What’s the learning curve like for a first-time rower?

By the end of their first year, they’ll see that it’s possible to do what the kids in the first-eight are doing. If we were to say at our initial meeting what these kids are doing, we’d scare them away. The first week when they’re learning the stroke, if they saw what the top kids were doing they’d be like, “There’s no way I can do that.” It’s a fun balance between encouraging them without scaring them off.


Schools like Ohio State, Cal, and Brown are always at the top nationally. What do you think this program needs to be right there with them?

The only teams that have beaten us thus far have either won the team championship or won the first-eight championship. We’re right in the mix with them. I’m going to put us in that group. These kids are really fit, and they work really hard, and they race ferociously. How do we get there? It’s taking that preparation and figuring out how to turn it on on race day. We missed the final by less than a tenth of a second, which would have changed the entire story of the year.

Do you think having the experience of being right there seeing what it takes is important to win it all?

Last year we got on this wave and we just rode it to the end. Then the honeymoon period was over. Then there were some growing pains this fall. Sometimes you forget how hard you have to work. Those losses stick with you. Talking with the kids since the NCAAs, we’re not short on motivation for next year.

When you see Cal win the NCAAs, how does that make you feel?

I was happy for them. I’m good friends with their coach, Al Acosta. I knew they were going to be good when I left. It was cool to see those kids grow up. I took a little bit of satisfaction, but that was Al’s team.

Does it give you a little extra motivation to beat your former school, a program you helped build?

Yeah … I don’t want to set it up where I’m getting competitive against Cal.

But you do want to beat them.

Oh of course. If Cal had won and we were on the podium, that would have been storybook. Even though we weren’t on the podium, I feel like we were a podium-caliber team. There’s only three teams now that our first-eight has not beaten: Cal, Ohio State, and Virginia. At NCAAs we raced really close with Cal, so they’re seeing that we’re with them. I knew it wasn’t going to be a one-year or two-year process building the empire. It’s going to take a few years.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo (top) by Kenny Braun

Photo (bottom): Texas 4V8 rows against San Diego in March’s Longhorn Invitational on Lady Bird Lake; UT Athletics


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