April 30, 2014

Story by Bryan Kitch, Photos by Tom Walsh

When you begin as a rower at Ohio State, you’re immediately engaged in a process–the pursuit of excellence. While the medium may change, the lessons learned can be applied to any aspect of life. And no one knows this better than head coach Andy Teitelbaum.

Having arrived at Rutgers with hopes of making the men’s soccer team, the stars were aligned for Teitelbaum’s rowing career to take flight as soon as he walked off the pitch for the last time. “I started rowing when Charley Butt walked up to me just after I had been cut during tryouts for the Rutgers soccer team, and stuck his finger in my stomach and asked me how much I weighed,” recalls Teitelbaum with a laugh. “That was the beginning of my rowing career.”

He had discovered Rutgers Crew, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in March 2014, at an amazing time for the program. Charley Butt, a Rutgers grad himself, was leading the Rutgers men’s lightweight team back from the brink of extinction to a place of prominence in large part through vigorous oncampus recruiting.

Evidently, Butt has always had a good eye for talent. “I walked on as a lightweight at Rutgers, and was really fortunate to be part of a very talented group of guys. Max Borghard [now head coach of the Rutgers women’s program] was the stroke of the eight that I was in as a junior and senior, and even the class above us was very prolific–it was a really good run. In Charley’s last year at Rutgers before heading out to Harvard, and in Scott McKee’s first four years [as varsity lightweight coach], Rutgers won a bronze medal at Eastern Sprints three times. I was really fortunate to be a part of a group at a time when there were some really positive things happening.”

Also rowing at Rutgers at that time were several future Olympians and prominent coaches, many of whom have since become household names in rowing circles: Olympian and world champion Bob Kaehler, U.S. women’s coach Tom Terhaar, and Yale women’s head coach Will Porter. It was only natural, then, that Teitelbaum chose to begin his coaching career shortly after he graduated.

“I was really fortunate the year I graduated to be able to coach a group of freshman lightweights that included a future Olympian [David Collins], and some really fantastic athletes–they went on to win a silver medal at Sprints in my first year coaching.” Teitelbaum is quick to credit his peers and his athletes. “I’ve been in the right place at the right time for a lot of things,” he says, chuckling, “starting with the guys that I rowed with.”

The funny thing about Andy Teitelbaum, the 2013 Big Ten and CRCA Division I Coach of the Year, is that he’s seemingly still not accustomed to the attention. But with his Ohio State program capping off 2013 with a national title–the Buckeyes’ 13th top-10 finish in the last 14 years–he better get used to it.

When I ask him about the beginnings of his time at Ohio State, Teitelbaum, now in his 19th year at the program, downplays his impact. “I think there were a lot of really good things at Ohio State when we first got here–we essentially took over the women’s half of the club, who came over to the varsity. So the club didn’t have anyone for the first five or seven years that I was here. We co-opted those athletes, and fortunately there were some very good athletes in that group. They had a lightweight eight that had just won the Champion Regatta in Worcester. So that was a pretty big deal for any club.”

He continues: “The club had been doing a good job doing what we started to do, which was building a program through its novices. I was fortunate that it was a strong club that was well established and that was doing a lot of the things that varsity coaches coming in would start to do.”

As with any program making the transition to the varsity level, there were growing pains. “The first year was a big learning curve, and I think that the biggest change was getting the rowers to understand that the things they had heard about at places like Washington, Princeton, and Brown, that they were capable of doing those same things–that it really was just a question of the workload, but more than anything the expectations about what `hard’ is and what `fast’ is.”

Those same lessons continue to serve Teitelbaum and the whole Ohio State squad, with walk-ons forming an integral part of the program–even alongside international talent. “[Having a large walk-on presence] is something that is a big part of our philosophy, and all the rowers in our program see it because they see where all of the rowers come from–you have kids in a boat that have won a world title before they arrived, and they might be rowing with someone who had never touched an oar before coming to Ohio State.”

A walk-on himself, Teitelbaum knows just how important they are to the development of the team. “We’re more interested in how hard you’re interested in working, how excited are you about Ohio State and OSU rowing, and what kind of a woman you are than how many different unisuits you own, or the peripheral things of being an experienced or inexperienced rower before you got here.”

I ask him what he would want a walk-on to take away from her first training session with the Buckeyes. Without hesitation, Teitelbaum replies, “This is a process. The process is learning how to be excellent at something. Our medium is rowing, but it’s the same set of skills–life skills and character traits–that you can apply to being a great engineer, or whatever it is that you want to be exceptional at in life. This is an applied laboratory in excellence, we just happen to be doing that while sitting down and facing backwards in a funny-shaped boat. But the specifics of the sport aren’t nearly as important as understanding that work is far more important than talent, that your ability to stay the course is far more important than how good you are on your best day.”

Even still, walk-on talent can be unpredictable. So how does Teitelbaum carry such confidence in this system? “Having a great novice coach helps. Chuck [Rodosky] and the job that he does alleviates a lot of stress and pressure when you’re out on the recruiting trail fighting over the best rowers, because in the back of your mind, you’re always looking at his athletes and what they’re doing and thinking to yourself, two years down the road there’s a good chance that this kid will be every bit as good as this other woman that we are killing ourselves to recruit.”

The school itself is also a boon to the program. With a student-body that includes roughly 44,000 undergraduates, Teitelbaum has a larger-than-usual talent pool, and the athletic ethos of the school aids the process. “Obviously, the bigger your pool, the better off you are, so the student body size definitely helps. Also, I think the amount of enthusiasm and pride that surrounds Ohio State athletics is a real big bonus for us, because it’s a campus where, particularly when you’re talking about a female athlete in another sport who has grown up in the state of Ohio, and you’re going to give her an opportunity to compete for Ohio State as a Buckeye on the varsity level–that’s something that is really helpful as well.”

While having a keen eye for recruiting talent is key, ultimately, it comes down to development–and that is where Ohio State has excelled. “One thing that I have grown to learn more as a coach than as a rower is that you tend to fall in love with certain body types that will wind up breaking your heart, and there are some kids whom you’d never expect that are going to wind up being phenomenal. I try not to give too much credence to the person who looks the part, but who may not have all the attributes necessary to be a great rower, and I try not to dismiss the kids that you wouldn’t necessarily walk up to on campus because I’ve had so many people do both things.”

Teitelbaum and Ohio State have been close to a national title on many occasions, having almost never failed to make the top 10 in the NCAA. In fact, the Buckeyes are now one of only four teams, along with Washington, Princeton, and Brown, to qualify for the NCAA championships in 14 consecutive seasons. But last year was something truly special.

“We knew that we were going to be somewhere in the mix, but there had been so much focus on USC all year long, and they had obviously backed that up with tremendous performances,” Teitelbaum says, a tinge of excitement and anticipation still in his voice. “We hadn’t seen them, and our only crossover was with Virginia, who had been able to beat us in the varsity eight when we raced them at Clemson. So it seemed to me like we might be more likely to end up third. And it wasn’t until everybody got together in Indy that we started finally being able to see how fast the Pac-12 was, and how was our speed relative to theirs,” Teitelbaum explains. “It wasn’t until we started getting down the racecourse with all these crews a little bit that it dawned on everybody that wow, this really could be it.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s a wonderful thing. [That team] helped us demystify what it takes to be a national champion,” says Teitelbaum. “That group was very committed to the idea of not letting each other down–that was very much the sense at dinner that night before the final. For those women, it really was about how they felt about each other. This year, it’s a different group, so it will be interesting to see if that’s their thing, or if something else becomes their thing, or if we just don’t end up with a thing.”

With a new spring racing season fast approaching, Teitelbaum says that there is even more urgency this year than last. “I think everything is a little bit different this year. Everything is a ratcheted up a notch. When you’re the national champions, everyone is wondering whether or no you’re going to repeat. So the question goes from, `What place are you going to come in this year?’ to `Yes, or no?’ The racing season becomes almost a `pass/fail’ situation. But that’s fine. We talked about that on Day 1 and as the saying goes, it is what it is. So you take that and you wrap it up and put it on the shelf, and then you just start focusing on the process.”

He also senses that with that increased intensity, there is more intra-squad competition than in the past. “I think it’s actually a deeper group [this year], and whereas last year’s group was extremely connected to each other, I think this year’s group is more competitive with each other–it’s going to be interesting to see how that ends up playing out. The great equalizer has been the winter–it’s March 4 today and we’ve only been on the water three times so far this spring. I know we’re not alone, but I also know that there are other schools out there that have not been dealing with the polar vortices that schools in the Midwest and Northeast have to live with almost on a weekly basis,” he says.

“It’s a lot later getting on the water for us than it has been in the past, so that’s going to be a big question mark. There’s some real value to being stuck indoors, but obviously an erg is not a boat and we don’t race ergs at the NCAA championships. So at some point we’re going to have to negotiate getting back out and trying to catch back up. It might be a struggle early to be at our best. But I think that unless this winter starts to really set some incredible records, we’ll be on the water long enough to be close to the same speed that we would have been had we been on the water in the typical period.”

As the interview winds down, Teitelbaum, in characteristic fashion, thanks me for the opportunity, and leaves me with one final thought. “Good athletes make you look really good. It really is about these young women,” he says.