Maintaing Tradition

May 21, 2009

By Scott Eisen
May 21, 2009

The list of legendary UW coaches is a short one.

With eight championships, 11 Pac-10 Coach of the Year awards and a gold medal in his esteemed career, it is clear that women's crew coach and program director Bob Ernst deserves to be on the list, if not topping it.

His 33 years of coaching at the University of Washington have seen some of the most successful years of the Husky crew program, helping to continue its tradition as one of the UW's premier sports.

The Southern California native grew up playing football, water polo and swimming. Rowing was barely on his radar when he transferred from Orange Coast College in 1965 to the brand new college of UC Irvine. It was there, though, that Ernst took notice of the upstart crew program during the swimming off-season, and he was hooked from the start.

'The boats were so cool in those days,' Ernst said. 'They were all wood, and it was very fascinating because I'm kind of a technocrat anyway. They were like getting into a wooden Ferrari as far as I was concerned, and all the guys were like the motor.'

Ernst starting out coaching at his alma mater, Irvine, and was recognized as an elite coach by UW head coach Dick Erickson in 1974. Erickson offered Ernst an assistant coaching job shortly after the Huskies nearly lost to Ernst's crew in the 1974 West Coast Championships.

Ernst began his career with Washington in the fall of 1974, where he made an immediate impact as the men's freshman coach.

Eric Cohen, UW alumnus from the class of 1982 and coxswain on Ernst's 1979 freshman team, knew his coach was special, and looking back at it, he sees the genius in Ernst's coaching style.

'I can tell you that even back then, he was a strong mentor, a person that you wanted to win for,' said Cohen, who is now the webmaster of 'He connected with the athletes more as a teacher than a stereotypical coach.'

In 1980, Ernst was called upon to coach the UW women's varsity team, where he reeled off six national championships in seven years. All the while, he achieved national fame as the head coach of the U.S. women's Olympic team, winning the country's first gold medal in that sport.

Cohen believes the entire UW program has prospered from Ernst's presence.

'It was by no accident that the crews of the late '70s and early '80s were strong,' Cohen said. 'It started with Bob.'

Ernst went on to follow Erickson as the men's coach in 1987 and led the men to two Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships, including a historic sweep of every event in 1997. In 2007, following another championship, Ernst hired current men's coach Michael Callahan and went back to coaching the women.

'My ego wasn't a factor [in] deciding who I was going to coach here,' Ernst said. 'I want the standard for our whole program to be elite national standard.'

With the recent selection of the women's crew to another NCAA championships, the 62-year-old coach hasn't missed a beat. He loves working with student-athletes and doesn't see retirement anywhere in the near future.

'For me, the whole goal is to keep having fun until you die,' Ernst said with a laugh. 'Why not? I don't play golf, and I don't want to go fishing every day. This is it. This is where it's at.'

Reach reporter Scott Eisen at

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