University of Texas rowers take home third national championship in four years

A well-regarded head coach and strong performances from all three UT boats earned the team a victory over Stanford and Tennessee.

By Shelly BrisbinJune 5, 2024 12:09 pm, ,

The University of Texas rowing team has won its third national championship in four years, becoming the third school ever to achieve that kind of championship streak in the sport.

Many observers credit UT head rowing coach Dave O’Neill with a large part of the team’s success. Madeline Davis Tully, associate editor of Rowing News and a former collegiate rowing coach, says O’Neill’s teams have made the NCAA championship tournament every year that he’s been coaching. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Talk about the UT team’s achievement this year. Was this team expected to win so convincingly? 

Madeline Davis Tully: Yeah, it was a really impressive performance from all three of the Texas boats this year. I wouldn’t say that it was a surprise in the sense that they were highly ranked and had performed very strongly throughout the entire season. But we definitely, in the rowing community, expected a really tough battle.

And Stanford was their primary competition throughout the year. They have been trading back-and-forth for a couple of years now, and everybody sort of expected that battle to continue this year, with also a resurgent Tennessee coming in third. So everybody expected close racing and maybe not quite so much domination from Texas as they won the Varsity Eight and the Varsity Four and were second in the Second Eight. So it was a really impressive performance.

Coach Dave O’Neill has been at UT since 2014, and before that he coached at Cal for many years. What has made him such a successful coach? 

Yeah, Dave is a real stalwart in the sport. He has been coaching not only for a while, but been coaching at a really high level that whole time. In his 23 years of coaching, he’s qualified his team for NCAA every year.

I think we often think about winning, obviously, and being on the podium and getting medals, but just the consistency that it takes to be at the championship every year – and there’s 90 D1 programs; only 20 get to compete at the national championship each year – so to be there every single year at two different institutions is really impressive.

He’s constantly trying different things. [Last year] they finished fourth at NCAA after having won the previous two years. So while fourth is still incredibly impressive, I’m sure that was a disappointment to them. And for Dave to be able to take that team, turn it around, make some adaptations and learn from that and come right back out on top, I think really speaks to his adaptability and his willingness to try new things.

He has really high standards for himself and his team and his staff. I coached against him for a long time. So I will say he has high expectations of his opponents as well. He’s a great person to have in the sport because he’s pushing the whole sport to be better and athletic departments to be better in how they approach the sport as well.

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Well, rowing is a team sport, and national championships – for those who aren’t familiar – are won by accumulating points in a number of head-to-head races. You mentioned the two-first place wins and one second-place win. Is there a particular event that UT tends to dominate, or is it being well-rounded in all three that makes them so hard to beat? 

So yeah, the format of the NCAA rowing championships is one that requires top performance out of the full team. So there are three boats that compete. Most every team, Texas included, has a whole group of athletes beyond that that don’t even travel to the national championship, but are racing throughout the year and getting better themselves – and then, of course, pushing those athletes in the top three boats to be better, too.

So the depth of the program is really important and a big strength of theirs. Texas this year won the Varsity Eight and the Four. And it really requires that level of high performance in every boat class to be able to win.

The margins are so small when you look at the the points total, but you know, coming in second in two events or third in one event and you’re out. And so really I think Texas’ performance, their strength in each of those events is what allowed them to come out on top.

Rowing is a sport that thrives at schools like UT, where football and basketball programs are really well-funded and successful. Can you talk at all about how Title IX’s requirements for parity for women’s sports impacts collegiate rowing programs? 

Title IX has been probably the single biggest impact in women’s rowing in the history of the sport. We’re fortunate to be the huge beneficiaries of the Title IX ruling, because rowing is a sport that has a very large roster. Often rosters can be 50, 60 or even bigger than that. And there really isn’t a women’s sport that carries a roster of that size.

And so at schools like UT, where they have a big football team and they need to offset a hundred and some men within the department, rowing is a sort of obvious option for that. We’re really thankful to be in that position, and to be able to balance that out.

And what’s really the most important thing is that these athletic departments are not just using women’s rowing to tick the box and provide those women’s sports, but to actually really support and make a fantastic experience for the women’s athletes – the rowers and all of the women athletes on campus. That is on par with the male athletes.

And I think we see that at Texas, particularly when several years ago, when they brought Dave in, that the university had a renewed commitment to the sport financially. And that’s the biggest thing that I think tipped them into being a national powerhouse is that the university committed to supporting the women’s rowing team the way that they support other men’s teams within the department.

And it’s a great lesson for all athletic departments to see that this is a sport where with some financial commitment and support you – it’s not easy – but you can be nationally competitive in a big-time women’s sport.

So should UT fans expect another successful team next year? It seems like the pieces are there. 

I would say there’s no reason not to. I would certainly not be foolish enough to count out the Longhorns and Coach O’Neill, so I think we should expect to see them at the top for a while to come.

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