Allen Rosenberg, the U.S. national crew coach, is a giant whom nature has cast in a deceptively small mold. He seems even shorter than his 5'1", mostly because of the company he keeps. Folks are always looking down at Rosenberg, as well as up to him, saying things like, "You are an amazingly courageous man," or "I have never known anybody able to communicate more effectively." And Rosenberg, whose sad furrowed face is a map of a thousand old slights and frustrations, says, "I don't mean it egotistically, but now, after 20 years, I'm willing to admit I really am talented." This week Rosenberg and company are putting that talent on the line again.
The place is Nottingham, England, the very Nottingham of Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood. The occasion is the World Crew Championships, where Rosenberg's eight-oared heavyweight shell will defend the title it so shockingly and dramatically won a year ago at Lucerne, Switzerland.
Last year it was agreed that East Germany would win. Or perhaps Russia. The U.S. was no longer a power; all the experts knew that. But there was one, a very short one, who did not. Allen Rosenberg had been U.S. Olympic coach in 1964, and his heavyweight eight had won a gold medal, but 10 years had passed since that glory, and many people feared that the coach was out of touch. However, Rosenberg came to his Princeton, N.J. training camp with a program for the 70s, including flexibility calisthenics borrowed from the Washington Redskins. He also brought his brother Stanley, a teacher of the defensive martial art of T'ai chi in Denmark, who led the oarsmen in body-control exercises. Said Coxswain David Weinberg, "Rosenberg prides himself on being innovative, and on the water he's so dynamic and confident that he gets us to believe in some pretty far-out things."
At one point in training, the crew was having trouble with starts. Rosenberg asked them to try some with their eyes closed. "We're not doing that," one oar complained. Rosenberg explained why it is essential for a crew to be completely oblivious to its surroundings for the first 15 strokes, and that blind starts would be good practice. They were. And the crew began to believe.
August 31, 1975
"Al has absolute control," says Six-oar Dick Cashin, "but he doesn't have to seek it. He gets it by being one of us." When the time came to take the team picture Rosenberg showed up in his uniform, a necktie and a pair of white socks. That was it. The crew roared and called him Jiminy Cricket and Big Al. But Rosenberg was still the boss.
On the eve of the Lucerne finals Rosenberg spoke for 90 minutes. He told his oarsmen how fortunate they were, how no doctor or lawyer could be the best in the world, but that they had a chance. "I can't possibly explain the difference between the silver and the gold," he said, "but if you win the silver you'll wake up the next morning and know that someone rowed a better race than you, and I don't want you to go through life thinking of that." They didn't, beating' Britain by one-quarter boat length for the world title. Vaunted East Germany came in fourth.
By late July of this year the boat was set again, with only one new man. Mark Umlauf of the University of Washington took over the three-oar from his former Huskie teammate Mark Norelius, now in the Air Force. The coxswain is David Weinberg, Harvard '74, now a banker in New York City, who was aboard last year's national collegiate championship boat. Stroke is Alan Shealy, a June Harvard graduate and a two-time national champion, whose mother says, "Al is so competitive that he can't stand it if someone brushes his teeth better." At six-oar is Shealy's classmate Dick Cashin, a Chinese major, holder of a Fisk Scholarship at Cambridge and also twice a national champion. Hugh Stevenson, who insists he is a romantic idealist, will row again at seven-oar. He refuses to be tested on the ergometer, calling it "antithetical to my concept of rowing." Back at four-oar is Mike Vespoli, crew coach at Wichita State. Vespoli, known as The Mouth because of nonstop conversation, is 29, has been on seven national crews and says he has never respected a coach as much as Allen Rosenberg, who talks to him as an equal. A teammate says, "Rosenberg has Mike eating out of his hand." Youngest (20), quietest man in the boat is John Everett at five-oar, an MIT junior. As of last week there was a difference of opinion as to how many sentences he had spoken during training. Some estimates went as high as four. At two-oar is Rhodes scholar Ken Brown, Cornell '75, nicknamed No. 1 by his teammates, for never having finished second at anything. And, finally, at bow is Tim Mikkleson, an engineer, at 29 going on 30 the oldest, most experienced oar in the boat.
Then there is Jiminy Cricket. Says Vespoli, "Everyone feels good when Al comes out to look at us. He's so perceptive. He says a few things, and it makes a major difference how the crew rows."
All summer, megaphone in hand, Rosenberg was in a motor launch hovering like a dragonfly around his crew, watching, now at the stern, now at one side or the other.
"Weino, Weino," he calls, "Ken Brown isn't sitting straight enough.... Keep the length in that finish, Umlauf.... Hugh, you're not carrying your blade properly."
And always there was the emphasis on the Rosenberg style of rowing, which calls for a three-part stroke: first the legs, then the back, then the arms. It stresses economy of effort, unlike more classic styles which call for pulling with everything at once.
Rosenberg says, "I've had people argue, 'If you want to move a boulder you push hard as you can, with all you have.' But to keep it moving, I tell them, you can use less force."
Then, another workout over, a soft, unfocused look comes to Rosenberg's eyes. He watches the boats on the river and says, "They make them in colored plastic now—green and blue—but there's nothing as pretty as the sunlight on a wooden one."
That is another Allen Rosenberg, the one who often comes half an hour late to practice, the one who spent an hour looking for his passport on the way to Lucerne until one of the oarsmen suggested he check his flight bag.
Dick Cashin says, "He's like a genius who can't find his way around the subway system. The only time he comes into his own, as a leader beyond belief, is on the water."
And Rosenberg, an attorney, says, "I admit that I'm a better coach than I am a lawyer."
It was always that way, or almost. Rosenberg started in crew in 1954 as a coxswain for Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club. Jack Kelly recalls, "I remember Al as a scared little guy who couldn't steer. Some of the oarsmen were animals to him. I'll never know why he didn't quit." But that summer, coxing a four-man boat, he won a national championship. He was a pharmacist then, going to law school at night. He was always in the bottom fifth of his class. In 1955 he won a gold medal, coxing an eight-oared shell in the Pan-Am Games, and in 1962 he took the coaching job at Vesper. For no pay. Two years later Rosenberg's crew won the Olympic gold, and he came home to run for the board of directors of the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen—and lost. He was crushed. People were saying his personality was "abrasive," or "aggressive." Rosenberg's word is "outspoken," and he has always been that way, even at Temple University as a 98-pound wrestler competing in the 118-pound class.
And now 20 years of rowing have passed for Allen Rosenberg. This week his eight defends the world championship, and he has been named the 1976 U.S. Olympic coach. He has already coached an Olympic and a world-champion winner, and no one else has done that, but he has never been offered a college coaching job. He will not admit to being hurt, and for four years he worked as a lawyer in the administrative office at the University of Rochester, not a rowing school. His friends are outraged. "How is it possible," one asks, "that crew schools such as Princeton, Columbia and Rutgers, to mention a few, who have floundered for years, do not recognize Rosenberg's ability?"
"How is it possible," David Weinberg asked last year, "for a guy with a wife and four kids to leave his job, with no guarantee that he will get it back, and walk into something that he hasn't done in 10 years?"
It is probably simply what Rosenberg gets in return, the unabashed admiration and affection of the world's best oarsmen and that rare chance, at least vicariously, to be the best in the world.