Off Campus: Teti drives his rowers - collegians and Olympians - hard

Mike Teti, an Upper Darby native, is the crew coach at Cal. CLEM MURRAY / Staff
Mike Teti, an Upper Darby native, is the crew coach at Cal. CLEM MURRAY / Staff
Posted: June 03, 2012

Rowing lifers call it "breaking the oar," as in pulling so hard that you're trying to snap the oar in two. That's what Mike Teti was doing that day long ago, in the 7-seat for Monsignor Bonner High. It didn't matter to him that Bonner's 5-seat had gotten his own oar stuck in the water and had just completely ejected himself from the boat, stopping the shell.

As the 5-seat floated by on the Schuylkill, Teti wasn't thinking rescue, just win, yelling for the stroke to increase the stroke rate, with 900 meters left and Father Judge pulling ahead.

Bonner didn't win that one, not shorthanded, but it's no wonder that a terrific magazine story written about Teti years ago was titled "Blood in the Water," explaining his pursuit of a perfect Olympic Eight, which eventually showed up in Athens.

No wonder that when the U.S. Olympic Eight was down to a last chance to qualify for London, Teti was brought in as savior. Teti had coached the U.S. Eight to gold in Athens and bronze in Beijing but had taken a job as the University of California's coach.

So for the last six months, candidates for the Olympic Eight trained in Berkeley, after Cal was done with its morning practice. Teti was in charge of both groups.

A tough man for two tough jobs.

"I'm getting softer as I get older, that's for sure," Teti said this week, sitting under a tent by the Cooper River, as Cal competed in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association's national championships in Pennsauken.

It's roughly the equivalent of Mike Krzyzewski coaching Duke and the Olympic basketball team. An Upper Darby native and a 1978 graduate of St. Joseph's, Teti has a similar stature in his sport. He also understands that being tough isn't about ranting and raving and making demands.

"People are different," Teti said. "Not everyone responds to the same stimulus."

He knows the college guys aren't going to be able to do quite as much as Olympic hopefuls.

Not that they know that.

"With each year, with each crew, he seems to have a little different personality," said Chris Yeager, the stroke of Cal's varsity eight. "My first year, my freshman year, I didn't deal with him much. When I did, I was just super intimidated, just because of his resumé. And then my sophomore year, I started in the varsity boat a little bit, and I realize he wasn't as intimidating as I thought."

Teti understood that a young Cal varsity boat had really achieved something simply by reaching Saturday's Grand Final. It seemed like the lanes and the winds were offering obstacles from the opening heat. Cal made it through the repechage race to the semifinal and then grabbed a spot in the final.

This is a young boat, with five sophomores, including St. Joseph's Prep graduate Pat McGlone. The day before, Teti didn't care to rate himself happy or unhappy.

"We have another race," Teti had said after the repechage. "There's no time to be happy or sad. You've got to move on to the next race."

He talked about how Cal's administration had been completely supportive of him helping with the Olympic team.

"The thing about Cal, I think either coaches or athletes, there were about 40 of them in Beijing," Teti said of the last Olympics. "I think if Cal was a country, I think they would have won one more medal than Canada. At least that's what the chancellor said."

Teti had coached Princeton before taking over the Olympic team full-time. Returning to college is different, he said. Not because of the athletes.

"There's much more compliance and paperwork and fund-raising," Teti said. "At Princeton, there was no fund-raising, obviously. Probably 85 percent of what I did was coach. Now, you have a lot of meetings. Fund-raising takes a big chunk. I don't need to let you know what's been happening in the state of California, but they've been cutting budgets everywhere. Now we have to raise most of our budget."

His athletes haven't noticed any lack of focus.

"I haven't seen him with the Olympic guys, but I know whatever boat he's around at that time, they get 100 percent of his attention," Yeager said. "This week, it's all about us."

When he was in Lucerne the other week - as the United States won its last-chance Olympic qualifier - "it was all about them," Yeager added.

On Saturday, the IRA favorites are Washington and Brown and Harvard. A medal would be a big achievement for the boys from Berkeley, who have finished behind Boston University in the first round and in the semifinals. Overall, you get a sense that Teti's group is a year away.

"We have a really young boat," Yeager said. "It's been a pretty challenging year with him trying to figure out everybody's personality, basically. He's just trying to get the younger guys to realize that racing at the varsity level is a completely different level. Every day, he's just pouring it on us, making us work harder and harder and harder."

Nobody could have shown up expecting anything different.

But rowing tough doesn't always mean winning. Everybody pulls hard. Anybody at the Cooper would break an oar to win a heat.

"We're still going," Teti said Friday afternoon. "We had a bad lane yesterday and a bad lane today. I'm proud of these guys. . . . They're great."

Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or, or follow on Twitter @Jensenoffcampus. Read his "Off Campus" columns at

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