July 6, 2010

Q&A With Lightweight Men’s Coach Andy Card

Recently The Yale Sports Info team sat down with Coach Andy Card, long-time mentor for the Yale lightweight crew. In his long and storied career at Yale, Card's crews have won multiple IRA and Eastern Sprints championships, as well as HYP, Head of the Charles, and Princeton Chase titles. As he prepares for the upcoming fall campaign in September, Card shared his thoughts on his coaching staffs, the success of his Y150 teams over the last decade, and the outlook for 2011.

SPO: Where's the team now and what's going on this summer?

AC: Oh man we've got guys all over the globe right now. Off the top of my head, let's see first, we had two guys racing at stroke and three for Yale in the Prince Albert 4+ at Henley [Royal Regatta]. This is the second year they've gone. Last year they lost in the final on Sunday to Oxford Brookes, and this year they drew Brookes in the first round and got a little revenge by rowing through. And we have guys in Delhi, Beijing, Zurich, Paris, Croatia, Kazakhstan, you name it. And all over the U.S. of course, including guys taking classes here in New Haven. We always have some athletes coaching with our Community Rowing program right here in Derby. They're all training with what they have where they're at; there have been some very creative workouts from all reports. Some of these guys are abroad for work, and some for study. It's really remarkable what these guys get into over the summer.

We're also sending a crew to China to race later in July. They'll race in Beijing on the old Olympic course, as well as in Chengdu. That'll be an eye-opening experience to be sure. Colin Farrell, my freshman coach, is taking the crew over.

SPO: Speaking of freshman coaches, you've had a remarkable number of freshman coaches who have gone on to head coaching positions. Could you speak to why that is?

AC: You mean why they were so eager to get away? [laughs] Actually, the program has attracted some great people to coach here, and great people can really make a difference. The only credit I'll take is being able to recognize quality, and then getting out of the way and letting them do their thing. Mike Irwin with the Penn lightweight men, then Eric Carcich with the George Washington women, Wesley Ng with the Trinity women, and Pat Tynan with the Wesleyan women. Yeah, I'm pretty proud of that. They all brought unique qualities to the program and I really liked the coaching teams that we formed in their time here. They continue to be a strength for our program, as they are terrific sounding boards as we go through the years. And I would be remiss not to mention Joe Fallon '06, whose freshman crews won two Sprints titles. But he was the smartest of all and now has a real job with a real income [laughs].

SPO: And Coach Farrell…?

AC: Aside from Wes and Joe Fallon '06, Colin is the first freshman coach that I also recruited as an athlete. I loved competing against his Cornell crews, he always had my respect. And of course I followed his progress on the National Team. Then during the interview process for the freshman job, I talked with Todd Kennett [of Cornell], who recruited, coached, and hired Colin at Cornell. Todd couldn't contain himself with praise for Colin. And he's proven even better than advertised. Colin brings such a wealth of experience as an athlete who performed at a high level for so many years.  I think he can hear me in the other room, so I have to watch what I say. In that case I'll remind him that we've gotten him back in great shape over the past year! But what he's done for us this past year is remarkable. I just love talking rowing with the guy. We're having a ton of fun as a coaching team. Colin is my first freshman coach from within the league, and it was Colin's first time coaching a college other than Cornell. It's going to be even better in year two.  I owe Todd a big favor. Don't tell him I said that though.

SPO: What's your take on the lightweight league, circa 2010?

AC: It's getting to be a lot like the Original Six of the NHL, what were they, Boston, New York, Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago, right? And with so few teams but so many hockey players, only the best of the best made the NHL. And these high-quality teams played each other so much, they knew each other so well, it made the rivalries incredibly intense, passionate, and visceral. Our league is like that. Just seeing the blades of the other teams gets you fired up. And out of that comes this close racing, and lots of "turn-abouts", where like in '09 when we were 5th at Sprints and then came back to take second at the IRA. Navy did the same thing this year and it was called "pulling a Yale." You see that all the time in our league. And when one crew moves higher, that by definition moves another lower, and out of that turbulence comes a renewed desire to turn it all back again, and the cycle begins anew. It's awesome. 

SPO: Why is that?

AC: We're all the same size man! It's like stock car racing, we all got the same engines, the same bodies, the same everything. Even the kids in our league who are going to be on the National Team in the future can't go that much faster than a good varsity guy. Our performance range is tighter. And that makes for tight racing. Thus the margins you can earn through harder or superior work are meaningful. What an individual athlete does can make a difference; that's empowering. You're not a victim of your size, like if you are a 6' 2" 180-pound heavyweight taking on a 6' 6" 215-pound bruiser.

SPO: What qualities do you look for when recruiting high school rowers?

AC: Recruiting lightweights is an art, although many have tried to make it a science. We look for "want-to"; do they want to be a lightweight and all that entails, especially with regard to body weight? Like in basketball, sure, a guy might be seven-feet tall, but does he want to play basketball? Or is he doing it because everyone says he should just because he's tall? Does he love the sport? In our case, a guy might weigh 160 in high school, but does he want to work hard and stay there and get faster? Making weight isn't hard if there's "want-to." It's all in the attitude. Is being a lightweight a burden, or is it the most freakin' awesome thing in the world? I know which guy I'd like to coach.

We look for athletes with a demonstrated comfort with high efforts and a low success rate. More "want-to"… they want to work hard, and often, even if they are not very good at things at first. I wish more kids played baseball and rowed; it's too bad they are both spring sports. What I mean is that the best baseball players are comfortable with success only three out of 10 times. As a rower develops true mastery of himself and the shell,  and then tries to make that work with his teammates, the per-stroke success rate is similar or sometimes even worse. Of course, it's hard work that increases the success rate, and we look for that trait. That's "want-to".

"Want-to" also means a desire for challenge. Listen, I say it's harder in many ways to row in college than it is for the national team. Who goes to the Olympic training center and also goes to Yale Law School at the same time? Maybe only scullers, since they can set their own training times. But you get the idea. Yet Yale places that kind of dual demand on people. The guys who have thrived here have loved that kind of a challenge. Athletes who like full plates and seek to get a lot out of everything they do. Rich Littlehale '10 is a perfect example: he rowed for us, rowed for the heavyweights (ok, he could have managed his weight a little better there), took a year off, started his own business, and then came back and rowed this past year while continuing to run the business and finish his Yale academics with success. He's an incredibly hard worker and high achiever. Yourenew.com, had to get the plug in there. Guys have to want that. You can't be scared. You gotta have the "want-to".

SPO: The program has been very successful for the last decade. What seems to be the differences between the championship years and the almost-championship years?

AC: Well first, thanks for saying that about the past decade. Sometimes it is good to look back at what Y150 has accomplished, as long as you don't do it too often. We didn't win our last race this past spring, so I'm still processing that. What did Pat Riley say, "There's winning and then there's misery?" That's kind of how it is. I also like this one from Bill Parcells, and I'm paraphrasing, "No matter how many games you win, no matter how many championships, no matter how many Super Bowls, you're not winning now, so you stink." Every year we don't win I think that.

Second, like I said before about the NHL, in our league non-winning doesn't mean a failure necessarily. Our league has great coaches in it, and the margins are so tight, it's really the best and wisest course to give credit to the winner and not bang on the rest. I've got the World Cup on the brain right now, and of the teams left, who's the best? Netherlands? Germany? Uruguay? Spain? If Netherlands beats Spain, does that mean Spain stinks? No. Just that they couldn't handle one aspect of the Dutch game most likely.

OK so what was the question? Oh yeah, the difference in the championship years. First thing I would say is it's always the athletes. The years that we have won it all it seemed that the group really knew what they wanted, had the physical capability to get it, and then worked their butts off to create some luck and magic just in case. They showed up early rather than just-late. It seems like a small thing, but being on time means a lot.

And you know what else? Great personalities. Not all the same, of course, but great great personalities. Strong ones, yes, and sometimes there would be a little stormy weather, but mostly they had optimistic, positive attitudes. Like I said before, rowing is such a low-success rate thing, that if you don't have some PMA [positive mental attitude] it just stinks. They could talk intelligently about the sport, and they had self-insight if that's a word. They could call themselves on their own BS, and they would admit mistakes when they made them. Because of this, they didn't make many of them. They believed in the team: the program, the coaches, and themselves. And they could laugh at themselves, man did we laugh.

This doesn't mean that the guys who didn't take home a gold medal at the end of the year aren't great guys. Like [Yale women's crew coach] Will Porter says, it takes talent, hard work, and luck to win. If you don't have one of those, it's hard to win. Sometimes real tragedy strikes. People forget that in 2006, we had won all our races except a crazy-current race on the Raritan, and then on the Thursday before Sprints Alex Capelluto '08 was killed riding his bike. Can you imagine? True grief is more tiring than a thousand workouts. I still am in awe and proud and amazed that my team could go ahead and compete two days later at the request of Alex's family and in his honor. I have no idea how we did it. We were all in a daze. And the day after the Sprints was graduation and Alex's funeral. How do you think about the catch with real life going on like that? I thought we were good enough to win that year, get the back-to-back national championships, but it was too much. I wouldn't wish what we went through on anyone. If only… if only… it took us a while to get back on track to be honest. No one remembers '06, but I do. There was only a little press, but I thought our effort was heroic, but it had a lasting effect on the team. Joe Fallon '06 was captain that year, and he deserves a lot of credit for holding things together. Who knows how a back-to-back would have changed things in '07? We've won three Sprints titles since Alex died, but not at the varsity level. The last guys who knew Alex directly have graduated now. We try to keep his spirit alive. Alex worked so hard and got so much out of life. I think it has made me more appreciative of guys since then who remind me of him, and a little bit less tolerant of those who take the awesome chance they have at Yale for granted. 

SPO: Usually it's coaches who get asked why student-athletes should go to their school. Let's turn that around, what do recruits tell you about Yale?

AC: Overwhelmingly the recruits say that everyone at Yale really loves the school way beyond the norm and are incredibly friendly and welcoming. It's obvious right from the moment they first step on campus; people love to be here. It might sound trite. Doesn't everyone like college? But in my experience the recruits say the "happy factor" really is way higher at Yale than anywhere. That comes directly from kids who are visiting lots of programs and talking to students directly.

And the next thing out of their mouth is a rave about the residential college system. It's really the coolest thing about Yale -- besides lightweight rowing of course – and it's what really separates Yale from the rest. Often imitated, never duplicated, that's the saying, right?

The next thing the recruits ask me is, how come when they go on visits to other schools, the rowers they meet bring up where the Yale boathouse is? Huh? Yes yes we all know that our boathouse is not directly on campus. I wish the recruits would ask why these guys are so afraid of Yale that they have to run us down like that? If the trip to the boathouse is so inconvenient, how come we've won all these races and championships? I mean, lightweight rowing itself is inconvenient too, and very difficult. Colin and I often joke that we wish the boathouse was farther away just to make it harder. Then we'd find out who really likes to row.

SPO: What is the outlook for the future of Yale lightweight crew?

AC: We're always looking for the right guys who fit with Y150. Liberal arts engineers we call 'em. Oarsmen who are familiar and comfortable with objective standards, repetitive learning regimes, and technical group achievement. These things are not exclusive to engineers, but they are integral to our successful crews. It's all about the athletes. My best crews are the ones who like it when it's difficult, and love it when it seems impossible. I think we have guys like that in our program right now. No one can guarantee wins, but I can guarantee we'll go really fast.

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