Bob Ernst knew it was a rare opportunity 40 years ago: A chance to coach in one of the country’s most prestigious rowing programs.
After joining the University of Washington rowing program as an assistant coach in 1974, Ernst six years later became only the second non-UW alum head coach in program history, and has continued to leave his own mark on the UW rowing legacy, winning eight national championships since 1980, six with the women and two with the men.
“I knew that having the chance to coach at Washington was really extraordinary because there was only one other guy that ever coached at Washington who didn’t row at Washington, and that was Hiram Conibear,” Ernst said. “I knew I would get to coach some of the best athletes in the whole country, and the world, so it was no questions whether I was going to come here and take the job.”
After rowing his junior and senior years at the University of California Irvine, and working brief stints as a teacher and in the military, he returned to his alma mater as the head coach of the men’s rowing team in 1968.
“The (rowing) coach at Irvine asked me if I wanted to help coach the team, and so I did, and that sort of got me interested in the coaching part of it,” Ernst said.
During his time at UC Irvine, Ernst’s team had many match-ups against the Huskies and legendary coach Dick Erickson, and twice finished second to the UW in national races.
After nearly upsetting the Huskies at the West Coast Championships in Burnaby, B.C., in 1974, Erickson asked Ernst to take over the freshman men’s team, and the Southern California native joined the Huskies in the fall of 1974.
Erickson took Ernst to Edmonds on his first recruiting visit to Washington, and the new UW coach immediately fell in love with the town. Ernst settled in Edmonds after his visit and has resided there since.
“It really reminded me of Southern California, specifically Laguna Beach,” Ernst said. “So I was really attracted to the place. I thought it was a really cute and really neat place.”
After six years as an assistant coach, Ernst took over as head coach of the women’s team in 1980, becoming the first non-UW alum head coach since Hiram Conibear, who coached the Huskies for 30 years beginning in 1907.
“When I was coaching at Irvine, I thought maybe one day I would get to coach at Cal or UCLA, but once I was here I wasn’t going anywhere else,” Ernst said.
Ernst took over as the head coach of the men’s team in 1987 and coached the team for 20 years before handing the job to one of his former rowers, Michael Callahan, who is still coaching the men’s program.
Callahan rowed for the Huskies under Ernst from 1992-1996. Callahan lived in Seattle when he was young, but spent most of his time on the East Coast, graduating from high school in Virginia. But Callahan was impressed with the way Ernst ran his program at the UW.
Ernst’s practice techniques and coaching methods were unlike any Callahan had seen from any coach in the country.
“Bob was an innovator. His program was really cutting edge,” Callahan said. “The thing I was really impressed with was how much he evolved the program over the time. It was a really sophisticated collegiate program. We always improved every year.”
Callahan and Ernst have been able to build success with both programs and don’t see the men’s and women’s teams as separate programs. Instead, the two teams have united as one to help build a strong tradition unseen in many college programs.
“That’s hugely important. I think that’s what going to serve this program well for another 100 years, it has and it will,”Callahan said.
“We have a culture here that’s trying to serve our student athletes at the University of Washington, and we are unified in doing that. It’s a real model of how things can be run in the business world or in society going forward, and I think our kids learn a tremendous amount of values from that. Its one of our defining characteristics.”
In 2007, Ernst took the women’s head coaching job for the second time and won the national championship the same year. He is the only coach in the NCAA to win a national championship in both men and women’s varsity rowing.
Ernst enjoys coaching the women’s team because of the recruiting possibilities. Due to Title IX, Women’s rowing offers more scholarships opportunities for athletes than men’s programs do, with thousands of women rowing for Division 1 programs.
And even though Ernst has coached for more than 40 years, he has innovated along with the sport.
“That’s the thing about Bob. He’s reinvented the system multiple times as times have changed,” Callahan said. “If you are able to span a long career in anything, you have to evolve. He reacts really well and always seems to react in a positive way.”
During his first stint as the women’s coach, Ernst coached the U.S. women’s Olympic eight boat to a gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He also coached the Olympic teams in 1976, 1980 and 1988.
— Story and photos by Erik Erickson