Campus & Community

Living legend — Coach Harry Parker changed college crew forever

6 min read
Men’s varsity crew coach Harry Parker, in his 40th year at Harvard, poses in Newell Boathouse beneath a photo of the 1974 heavyweight crew that went undefeated in dual regattas for three consecutive years, and sent five members on to row at the Olympics. Parker transformed Harvard Crew into a virtually unbeatable powerhouse. Among his triumphs are six national titles, 15 undefeated seasons, 17 Eastern Sprints Championships, and a 31-6 record against Yale.

Much has been said and written about Men’s Heavyweight Crew Coach Harry Parker over the course of the near half-century he has been involved in crew. He is one of a select few living legends here at Harvard who can still be seen day in and day out just doing his job. Arguably the best-known name in the sport of rowing, and indisputably one of the most successful college coaches of all time, Parker is also the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary by Michael Masland (’95) of the Harvard Film Study Center.

The coach is a strikingly fit and youthful sexagenarian, charismatic in a quiet way, who might have had a career as a film actor (he bears a slight resemblance to Robert Duvall) if he’d had the time. As it turned out, his life has been virtually devoted to the sport of rowing, and more importantly to the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young oarsmen who have passed in and out of his life during a 38-year tenure as head coach.

Parker started rowing relatively late – as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania (class of ’57), where he studied philosophy. He got good fast. He was the U.S. single scull champion in 1959 and 1960, the Pan Am Games champion in 1959, and placed fifth in that event in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

Though he contemplated a career in academia, Parker decided to stay involved with rowing. After the Olympics he came to Harvard to coach and in no time transformed Harvard Crew into a virtually unbeatable powerhouse. Among his triumphs are six national titles, 15 undefeated seasons, 17 Eastern Sprints Championships, and a 31 — 6 record against Yale. This in addition to the 55 or so Olympic athletes he’s coached both at Harvard and as a member of the Olympic coaching staff.

“I believe in everything that he’s done,” says Senior Captain Neil Holzapfel. “He’s the best – a real man of integrity. I have no doubts about his proficiency as a coach. He’s so well respected, has been so successful for so long, and has completely revolutionized the sport.… His role is absolutely essential to Harvard’s success.”

Recreational boating instructor Dan Boyne is author of The Red Rose Crew: a True Story of Women, Winning and the Water (due out in September), which chronicles the 1975 U.S. women’s rowing National Eight team. Boyne attributes much of Parker’s success to his innovative style: “Up until the late 50s, Germany and other Eastern Bloc countries were dominant in rowing. Parker looked at East German physiology texts and integrated some of their ideas into his coaching.” He placed more of an emphasis on cross-training, new rigging equipment, and new elements in rowing technique – all of which had an immediate and positive affect on the athletes’ performance. “He is definitely a pioneer in the sport,” says Boyne.

Holzapfel attributes the team’s strength to the “gritty, gutty perseverance and determination” that Parker, by example and encouragement, instills in the oarsmen. They are trained in the delicate art of “controlled aggression” – a tactic that requires as much mental as physical exertion, and which may be a key factor in Harvard’s legendary mastery over the close finish.

Though Parker flatly denies it, there is an impenetrable mystique, an air of intrigue about him. A reticent man with a nonetheless assured demeanor and commanding voice, he is somewhat of an enigma to those around him. “I like him, but I don’t know him that well,” says Holzapfel. “We joke that he was immaculately conceived, that he’s been around forever.”

These jokes may reflect the fact that Parker doesn’t seem to age. At sixty-four he is still as robust, if not more so, than many of his athletes. Every year he competes with the team in a triathlon that consists of 7,500 meters on the erg (a stationary rowing machine), a 4.7-mile run, and a dash up and down all 37 sections of the Harvard Stadium. He may not win, but he’s usually far from the back of the pack.

Perhaps Parker’s mystique is simply a reflection of his no-nonsense disposition. “I just do what I do,” he says in reference to the larger-than-life attributes ascribed to him. “It has to start with just really liking and being deeply involved in the sport. If that’s true, everything falls into place,” he says, intimating that he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. The way he says it makes you think that it might just be that simple. The oft-touted Nike maxim “Just Do It” would actually mean something coming from him.

The biggest mystery, however, is how he manages to instill such determination and confidence in his athletes. Masland, who filmed Parker in the launch for an entire season, states “The real key to his coaching is that they’re doing the work for themselves. He’s able to get people to do that, to convince people that it’s worthwhile to make the effort.”

“If he says something, I believe it,” says Holzapfel. He goes on to explain that though Parker’s approval is valuable to him, he has learned to believe in himself, in his training, in his teammates, and in winning. “You just know that every year Harvard will be successful.”

“I don’t think too much about what I want to instill in them,” says Parker with characteristic understatement. “They should enjoy rowing. It should be satisfying. My job is to establish the basic framework, but we rely on the individual’s own motivation.”

In the end, the boathouse is a stage for learning about life – about determination, focus, perseverance, and good sportsmanship. “It’s still fun. I don’t know if there’s ever been a day when I didn’t look forward to going to the Boathouse,” says Parker. After thirty-eight years, he still looks forward to going to work. Isn’t that what life’s all about?

The Eastern Sprints are scheduled for May 21, on Worcester’s Lake Quinsigamond, while the 135th racing of the Harvard-Yale Regatta, America’s oldest intercollegiate athletic event, will occur on Saturday, June 10, on the Thames River in New London, CT.