What is the University of California’s most spectacularly successful sport ever? A good argument can be made for rugby, with its 33 national championships. Or swimming, which especially in recent years has brought Cal a multiple of medals and championships. But an equally good argument can be made for crew. Rowing is certainly Cal’s oldest organized sport. It has earned 22 national championships (17 men’s, 5 women’s) and has sent 73 Cal students and alumni to the Olympics, where they have won a total of 42 Olympic Medals, 34 of them Gold. And in 1928, 1932, and 1948, it was the Cal Bears as a team who won Olympic glory for the United States. If all that weren’t enough, since the 2019 Big Row, Cal Men’s Crew holds a 67-19 record all-time against arch-rival Stanford in dual meets, while Cal Women’s Crew has an all-time record of 27-13 against Stanford. What follows is just some of the extraordinary history of one of Cal’s greatest sports.
In was in 1870 that a group of Cal students formed a rowing club — the University of California’s first sporting activity. This was just two years after the founding of the University of California, when the campus was still in Oakland and building at the anticipated new campus in Berkeley had not even begun. The rowing club was founded 12 years before the advent of the sport of football at Berkeley, more than 20 years before women’s basketball began, and more than 30 years before men’s basketball. On October 15, 1875, students formally established the University of California Boat Club as an official University-sponsored club, with officers, dues, and a plan to build a boathouse on the Oakland estuary.
Competitive rowing against other institutions would have to wait, however. Although rowing had been wildly popular at the east coast Ivy League schools since the 1850s, it was a brand new sport in the west. Not until 1895 did the University of California Boating Association row its first race against an outside competitor, the Columbia Rowing Club of Oakland. In 1899, the Cal team traveled north to participate in the Astoria Regatta, against rowing clubs from around the west, where the Bears won their first championship: the Feldenheimer Trophy.
Eventually Stanford formed a crew team, and in 1902, California hosted them in first intercollegiate rowing competition in the west, the Bears winning convincingly. The University of Washington had also established a crew team and the following year, 1903, Cal faced for the first time the school that would become — and remain to this day — its biggest rival in crew. As would happen all too often over the following decades, Washington came away the victor.
In 1907, the three west coast crew schools, California, Washington, and Stanford, began racing eight-oared boats, the most prestigious of crew races. Cal was fortunate that its 1908 team included an oarsman named Dean Witter. Witter was an outstanding athlete and was the “stoke” on the eight-oared boat. The “stroke” is the #8 rower, who sits directly in front of the coxswain. It is the stroke who sets the cadence for the rest of the crew, and the coxswain counts the cadence off the stroke’s oar. But the Bears were fortunate to have Dean Witter on the crew not only because he was an outstanding stroke, but also because he went on to become the most famous stock broker in the west. He was a life-long supporter of Cal crew, and established an endowment fund for the sport, which has helped keep crew successful at Cal for nearly a century.
Washington became a perpetual thorn in Cal’s side in the 1910s. The Huskies were unquestionably the best crew on the west coast, and one of the best in the nation. California did not beat them once in that decade. A heartbreaking loss came in 1919, when a very close race was awarded to Washington. Movies that were not developed until the next day showed that Cal had actually won, but this not-so-instant replay was of no help to the Bears. But in 1921, Cal Coach Ben Wallis finally led the Bears to a victory over the Huskies and to their first trip to the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (“IRA”) Regatta in Poughkeepsie, New York. The IRA Regatta was, and still is, the national championship for men’s crew. The Bears, who were lightly regarded by the easterners, created a stir by finishing second to a very strong Navy team.
In 1924, California’s crew fortunes took an enormous turn for the better when Caroll M. “Ky” Ebright was hired as coach. Ebright had been the coxswain for Washington, before serving as a pilot in the Army Signal Corps in World War I. He took the Cal coaching job with the strong encouragement of his alma mater, the University of Washington. Stanford, tired of perpetually losing to California and Washington, had quit crew in 1920 (they would bring it back a few years later). Washington feared Cal might do the same, leaving it without a single college opponent west of Wisconsin. As it turned out, Washington might have done better to keep Ebright in Seattle.
Under Ebright, California began steadily to close the gap with Washington. In 1924, Cal lost to Washington by ten boat lengths. In 1925, they lost by eight lengths, and in 1926 by five. In 1927, California finally won, beating the Huskies by four lengths. And the Bears finished third that year at the IRA Regatta in Poughkeepsie.
All along, Ebright had his sites set on 1928, and the Olympics in Amsterdam. At this time, the United States selected Olympic crew teams as a unit, rather than as individual athletes. Schools and clubs entered their boats in the Olympic trials, and the entire winning team became the American Olympic representative. Navy had won the Gold Medal for the United States in the prestige event of eight-oared rowing in 1920, and Yale had won the Gold in 1924. Ebright wanted California to have that chance in 1928.
The 1928 Golden Bears beat Washington by half a length in a dual meet, and then beat Columbia, the defending IRA champion, by a length at Poughkeepise, in the process beating the course record which had stood since 1901. Then they went to Philadelphia for the Olympic trials. After beating Princeton and Columbia in the early heats, California faced heavily favored Yale in the finals. The Bears took off fast, and led the entire way, winning by 1.2 seconds. The Bears were Olympians.
The Olympic course in Amsterdam was on the Sloten Canel, a narrow canal in the heart of the city. Only two boats could race at a time, requiring numerous heats. The Bears, now “Team USA,” easily defeated Belgium, Denmark, and Italy to reach the semi-finals. There they faced a tougher challenge from Canada, but the Bears won by half a length. In the finals, the British team pulled out to a strong start, but the Bears caught and passed them with 500 meters to go in the 2000 meter race, winning Olympic Gold.
The Bears were greeted like conquering heros upon their return to Berkeley, complete with a rally at the Greek Theatre before an overflow crowd. But for Ky Ebright, this was only the beginning. Although his entire 1928 team would graduate in the next two years, he was determined that the Bears would return to the Olympics in 1932. Knowing that those Olympics were to take place in Los Angeles, Ebright began using the slogan “California’s crew in California’s Olympics.”
The 1932 Bears did indeed appear to be on a mission. They beat Washington in a dual meet by an unprecedented 18 lengths. Then they beat both Washington and Cornell to win the IRA Regatta. At the Olympic trials, they beat Princeton and Columbia easily, before nosing out Pennsylvania by 0.12 seconds to win another berth in the Olympics.
At the course in Long Beach, the Bears, once again serving as “Team USA,” easily won their preliminary heat against Canada, Germany, and New Zealand. In the final, they faced Italy, Great Britain and Canada. It turned out to be one of the closest races in Olympic history, with all four crews vying for the lead throughout. Italy actually had a three-foot lead just two boat lengths from the finish. But the Bears powered past them at the last moment to win by less than a second. California had won its second straight Olympic Gold.
California remained one of the great rowing powers throughout the 1930s. Cal hoped to compete at a third straight Olympics in 1936, but those hopes took a blow when the Bears’ #5 oarsman, Al Daggett, broke his ribs in a motorcycle accident shortly before the Olympic trials. The #5 oarsman, who sits in the middle of the boat, is the “power” man, the strongest rower on the team. After Daggett’s loss, the Bears finished second to the Huskies, who went on to win their only Gold Medal at the Berlin Olympics, their story forming the basis for the recent bestseller, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.
In the late 1930’s the Bears had a couple of notable oarsman who, although they worked as hard as anyone on the team, were not quite good enough to make the varsity squad. Robert McNamara, who would become the controversial Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was on the freshman squad in 1936, and then became a team student manager in 1937. Eldon Peck did better, making the junior varsity crew in 1937 and 1938 as the stroke, or #8 oarsman. He was not quite tall enough to be successful on the varsity squad. However, he was tall enough to become an Academy Award winning actor after he changed his name to Gregory Peck. Peck later summed up his feelings about what he learned from Coach Ebright and the experience of Cal crew:
It’s the most grueling sport known in college. It’s a sport where strong men faint as they go over the finish line because they have spent every last ounce of their strength and consciousness. Your chest feels like cement, your legs feel like rubber, your mind is numb, your back feels broken, but you learn never to give up. . . . Anyone who’s rowed a four-mile race knows what’s expected of him. He understands the agony of the last mile or half mile, and the knowledge that you can’t quit, even if you die. That has to have some effect on his character.
Peck and one of his teammates stowed away in the baggage car when the varsity team headed to Poughkeepsie for the 1938 IRA Regatta. They stayed in New York City for a visit after the Regatta, where the Peck got his first taste of Broadway theater.
As the 1930s drew to a close, Ky Ebright had what he considered to be his greatest team ever. The 1939 Bears beat Washington in a dual meet so soundly, that they insultingly turned their boat around and rowed back across the finish line before the Huskies had made it across that line the first time. At Poughkeepsie, they shattered the course record for the four-mile race in winning the IRA Regatta national championship. This great Bears team had hopes of another Olympic Gold Medal the following year, but the 1940 Olympics were cancelled because of World War II, as were the 1944 Olympics.
But the Bears were ready for another shot at Gold when the Olympics finally returned in London in 1948. At the 1948 Olympic trials, California’s only real competition was Washington. They met in the semi-finals, where the Bears edged the Huskies by three feet, over a 2,000 meter course. California then beat Harvard easily in the finals to win the right to compete in their third Olympics.
The 1948 Olympic rowing events took place at the famous course at Henley-on-Thames. Ky Ebright brought the launch he used at Cal, the Oski III, to London. It was temporarily painted red, white,and blue for the occasion, but its colors were restored to blue and gold when the team returned to Berkeley.
The California team faced no real competition at the 1948 Olympics. They won every preliminary heat by multiple boat lengths, before besting the British team in the finals by two lengths. The Bears had won an unprecedented third Olympic Gold Medal, the most by any crew team. Navy and Yale have two Gold Medals each, and Washington one. In the 1960s the U.S. Olympic Committee began selecting crew athletes individually, rather than selecting a school or club as a unit. Thus, Cal’s record of three Olympic Championships is unlikely ever to be broken.
Ky Ebright retired as Cal’s Crew coach in 1959, not by choice, but because at that time Cal had a mandatory retirement age of 65. His career ended with three Olympic Gold Medals and six national championships (1928, 1932, 1934, 1935, 1939, and 1949). His 35 years as Cal’s head coach is a record for any Cal coach in any sport. Ebright and all the members of his 1928, 1932, 1939, and 1948 teams have been inducted into the National Rowing Hall of Fame.
Ebright was a tough act to follow, but Cal had considerable success under his successor, Jim Lemmon. Under Lemmon, the Bears won national championships in 1960, 1961, and 1964. Then they fell on hard times, winning only a single national championship (1976) between 1965 and 1998. However, recent years have seen a renaissance in Cal Crew, which has once again become one of the dominant national powers. The Bears won the IRA national championship in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2016.
Cal established a women’s crew team in 1974, after the enactment of Title IX. Women’s Crew won Cal’s first women’s national championship in any sport in 1980, and have won four more national championships, in 2005, 2006, 2016 and 2018. But perhaps the most extraordinary year for the women’s team was 2010, when the Bears finished second in the national championships led by coxswain Jill Costello, just weeks before her death from lung cancer. (If you have not read the extraordinary and moving Sports Illustrated article “The Courage of Jill Costello,” you owe it to yourself to do so.)
And while Olympic teams are no longer selected by school, Cal continues to send numerous individual students and alumni to the Olympic games. A total of 74 Cal Crew athletes and coaches have gone to the Olympics, representing eight different countries, and Cal men’s and women’s crew athletes have won a total of 34 Gold Medals, 5 Silver, and 3 Bronze.
The tradition of Cal rowing, begun by a group of students in 1870 and growing into three Olympic Gold Medal teams under Ky Ebright, continues to bring honor to the University today, along with national championships and Olympians. Crew is one of Cal’s grandest sports.
Elbright, Carroll “Ky,” Ky Ebright: Crew Coach for the University of California and the Olympics, Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA (1968); http://www.archive.org/stream/crewcoachforucoly00ebririch/crewcoachforucoly00ebririch_djvu.txt
Haney, Lynn, Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York (2005)
Klinedinst, Kathy, “Directing a Dynasty,” The Daily Californian, Nov. 3, 1999; http://www.dailycal.org/article/822/directing_a_dynasty
Kraychir, Hank, Cal Athletic Stories, Vol. 1, Kraychir Publications, Desert Hot Springs, CA (2009)
Lemmon, Jim, The Log of Rowing at the University of California Berkeley 1870-1987, Western Heritage Press, Berkeley, CA (1989)
Mendenhall, Thomas, A Short History of American Rowing, Charles River Books, Boston (1980)
Pickerell, Albert G., et al, The University of California A Pictorial History, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA (1968)