Culture Change at Beckwith Boathouse
Aug. 23, 2012
Editor's Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa's Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.
Steve Pritzker was hired to get the University of Iowa women's rowing team back in that conversation.
Pritzker was hired July 19 as just the second coach in the 18-year history of the Iowa women's rowing program, and brings a championship pedigree to Iowa City. He spent nine seasons on the staff at the University of Virginia, helping guide the Cavaliers to NCAA team championships in 2010 and 2012, along with runner-up finishes in 2005 and 2007. Virginia won eight ACC titles in his nine seasons on staff.
Building a winning culture is a crucial part of Pritzker's coaching philosophy. He is wasting no time implementing that plan at Iowa.
"We need to set a high standard," Pritzker said. "Athletes want to have a high bar, and they want to have accountability. In our sport, you spend so much time working hard on the water; you want to get something out of it. I think we realize that day one and year one aren't going to be at the level I was at before (at Virginia), but we can move in that direction pretty quickly."
Pritzker wants to accelerate that process by giving his athletes every chance to succeed in all facets of their lives.
"The biggest thing is to create what I call a competitive cauldron," Pritzker said. "It's about creating a culture of success and an environment where athletes want to succeed. The women in our program should strive to be successful in all areas of life. That relates to academics, athletics and in all areas of their lives. My job as head coach is to create that environment."
Culture and environment changes don't happen overnight, but Pritzker wants to put pieces in place, one at a time, in order to elevate the level of rowing at Iowa. That starts with the lifeblood of collegiate athletics; recruiting.
"The immediate job at hand is to get building blocks in place to create a competitive environment," Pritzker said. "From a recruiting standpoint, we need to make sure that high school athletes and coaches know that Iowa is a place that can succeed and wants to succeed."
Pritzker isn't just talking about high school rowing athletes and coaches. The sport is unique in the fact that the majority of athletes on the roster have never competed in rowing before college. Women's rowing rosters across Division I programs can carry over 80 athletes and schools rely on a "novice" program to serve as a farm system for developing talent.
That means Pritzker is also recruiting high school basketball players, cross country runners or swimmers that might not be Division I talent in their respective sports, but show enough athletic ability and drive to compete in rowing at a Division I school.
Novice programs across the country have literally developed the best rowers in the world. In the 2012 London Olympics, 11 of the 19 women who participated for Team USA didn't pick up the sport until college. Team USA's Women's 8 boat captured the gold medal in London.
"Recruiting starts so early in other sports," Pritzker said. "For us, it mostly starts when athletes are freshmen in college. Students can try out something new and use the benefits of a Division I, Big Ten institution to better themselves."
Pritzker knows the history surrounding his sport. He was a collegiate rower at an Ivy League institution (Yale) and says the thought of rowing at a private school is rapidly changing.
"At the NCAA Championships last year, four of the top five finishers were public schools," Pritzker said. "It's moving to schools with good-sized campuses with athletic student bodies.
"We have a great fit at Iowa in that aspect," Pritzker said. "There is a river right through campus, a $7 million boathouse and a budget that allows us to have great resources."
Whether it's river location, a state-of-the-art boathouse or an athletic student body, Pritzker knows there are important parts to a successful rowing program in Iowa City. It didn't take long for the Alexandria, Va., native to realize the city itself might be the most important piece to the puzzle.
"I joked the other day that I haven't seen a single kernel of corn since I've been in Iowa City," Pritzker said. "That's not a knock on the state. People outside of the state really don't know that this gem of a city is here in Iowa."
Pritzker may have landed in the gem of Iowa but the Hawkeye rowing team landed a gem of a coach in Pritzker. His contagious work ethic, track record of success and obsession with turning Iowa into a contender shows why he is one of the most talked-about young coaches in the rowing world.
It's his focus on developing people, not just athletes, however, that makes the gem shine the most.
"We are looking for athletes that want to come through our program as better people," Pritzker said. "They are going to work hard, but after their four years, they are going to think it was the best experience of their lives."