Maybe it’s the winning streaks, eight current back to back men’s national championship team titles echoing a near decade-long domination of the women’s national title through the 1980s. Maybe it’s the glow of public attention from the recent best-selling book “Boys in the Boat”. Maybe it’s the hundred-plus years of tradition producing 55 Olympians representing four nations. Whatever the reason, the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, USA has a reputation for success. Then again, maybe it’s Bob.

Bob Ernst has been coaching Washington 'Husky' crews for over four decades and continues to be a powerful engine in the Washington machine. Despite his shining record of achievements as women’s head coach (1980-1987), men’s head coach (1988 to 2007), and back to women’s head coach and director of rowing since 2008, Bob still considers himself an outsider.

“Getting to be part of Washington rowing has been a meaningful experience,” says Ernst. “When I came here in 1974, I was the first varsity coach since Hiram Conibear [coached 1906-1917], who didn’t row here.”

Learning what made the programme click has been a long process and Ernst insists he is still learning. When asked what has helped create so much success over the years, Ernst has no doubt in his reply. “The most significant component – one really important component for any successful team – is the fact that our rowing facility is on our campus. Kids can walk here in about ten minutes.”

The Conibear Shellhouse was rebuilt to grand design in 2005 and has since become another source of the team’s success, boasting a dining facility and academic and sports science support centre for use by all 650 of Washington’s student-athletes.

The central location of the shellhouse in the heart of campus and student-athlete life reflects the pride all Huskies take from an illustrious rowing history built up over 114 years on the frontier of the American continent. “We have had people come here and make the Olympics,” Ernst points out. And he should know. Ernst has guided the USA women’s eight to gold at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. There were four Husky women in that crew and one as spare, while two Washington men won silver in the USA men’s fours and another won gold for Canada in the men’s eight.  In fact, Washington athletes have consistently made Olympic teams every Games since 1980, with individual athletes winning eight gold, seven silver and five bronze medals during Ernst’s tenure. Elite performance, however, is only one aspect of Washington’s success.

“Washington rowing is about opportunity,” stresses Ernst. “It is about giving kids an opportunity to be involved with something bigger than themselves.” He believes that a sport like rowing also helps provide balance in the lives of students in today’s high-stress and competitive academic programmes. With this balance also comes the strong social network that rowers discover right away at all levels. “Their peers on their team,” says Ernst, “are the ones that will be with them through their lives, forming relationships that are going to be life long.”

Another factor Ernst points out is that throughout the team’s history, “everybody has been encouraged to come out to try rowing. Around 300 kids will be out rowing during the first few weeks of school. Not everyone will make the top Varsity crews or race at the IRA [Intercollegiate Rowing Association] or NCAA [National Collegiate Athletics Association] Championships,” he says, but, “there is a place for anyone who wants to row and the team numbers around 150 rowers through the year.”

Strong relationships to teammates and the sport translates into an alumni network that stretches far beyond the waters of Lake Washington. “The alumni network is gigantic,” says Ernst. “These people continue to give back to the programme and it’s not just rowers. People who have gone to school here care about the team.” Rowing opens up the world to these athletes in a way no other sport can, Ernst reflects, “basketball doesn’t have this, baseball doesn’t. [In rowing] everyone takes something special away and they know that what they have done while on the rowing team will really help in their lives.”

Recruitment is one more thing Ernst sees as a contributor to success. The women’s scholarship opportunities mandated by NCCA regulations in particular create an incredibly competitive recruiting atmosphere. Ernst’s desire to experience this firsthand was one reason for returning to coach the women after two decades at the helm of the men’s team.

“Rowing is the most international sport in terms of recruitment,” he states. “Between 2000 and 3000 girls per year are getting US College scholarships, so you really have to throw your net out there and cover the entire world.” Local, national and international student-athletes have all called Washington home over the years, each adding significantly to their team and gaining from the experience.

And Ernst, in nearly half century at Washington, is still learning and growing from each crew and every one of the athletes he coaches: “I consider myself lucky enough to get to do all that I have done and keep working in the same place.” For all the Husky success in Ernst’s time, maybe it is Ernst or more precisely, his belief that anyone can be a meaningful part of something bigger than him- or herself.

World Rowing will take a look at a different university club programmes each month to find out what makes them unique and what elements have contributed to their success. From student start-ups to Olympian production lines, is there a global definition of success in university rowing? If you think your university should be profiled, please contact us and tell us what sets your team apart: