by Daniel Schoolcraft
As Henley week begins, I had a chance to sit down with GVSU’s head coach, John Bancheri, with a computer on my lap and a dozen or so questions. This is what he had to say.
1. What do you consider to be the characteristics of a good oarsman?
Persistence and determination. Otherwise, I’d obviously say tall and lean, but those types aren’t always available. All of the best oarsman I’ve coached have had those characteristics, and I mean persistence and determination. They were always the first to be at practice on time, always did the job, never missed the work, and were constantly determined to find improvement. And to them, improvement was moving forward; otherwise they felt as if they were moving backwards.
2. What are some of your coaching philosophies?
I consider myself a benevolent dictator; everything I do, in the end, is to benefit the speed of the bowball. We call it the ‘bowball philosophy.’ It’s nothing personal, it’s strictly business; the faster the bowball of one boat goes, the faster the bowballs of all the other boats follow. It’s the speed of the bowball of the second boat that makes the first one go faster. Everybody affects the success of the program. As a coach, my job is to maintain the program on a course that follows our philosophy. Sometimes the costs are high, sometimes the costs are low, but in the end, what is done is what is best for everyone on the team, not any one individual.
3. How has crew affected the success of rowers you have coached?
Starting with myself, I don’t think I would ever have finished high school or college had I not been involved with rowing. It could have been tiddlywinks or soccer, but I was lucky to have rowing coaches that drove me to succeed and in turn, I hope that I’ve done the same for other student-athletes. But to specifically answer the question, there was a picture posted on a rowing website, an off-color group picture of one of the better crews I’ve coached in my career, from my former college in 2002. I look at that picture and I see an engineer, an ivy-league coach, an orthopedic surgeon, a Manhattan headhunter, an entrepreneur, and a chief financial officer. All these guys were committed athletes; they were persistent, and they were determined. Unfortunately, at times in college they played a little too hard, but they also worked hard, studied hard, and as a result have shown those qualities in their lives. And that’s just one boat. I could say this story about year after year of all the guys that have stuck it out and put the time into this sport, and say that everybody that has made it through my programs are highly successful and that I’m proud, very proud. And that’s not to say that anyone who hasn’t made it through the program isn’t successful, I’m sure that they’re successful in their own right; my heart lies with the athletes that stick it out through our program. At GVSU specifically, it’s been fantastic to watch the majority of the athletes who had never even saw or heard of crew wind up competing at such a high level, travelling all over the United States and overseas.
4. At the end of your fifth year, how do you feel about your work so far, and what do you see in the future?
I’ve been coaching now for 30 years, and coming to GVSU was a position I didn’t expect to hold, but Chad and Brie Jedlec, my predecessors of five years, convinced me that I would thrive in this environment. And in the years prior to my arrival, GVSU had some very good results in various years. In the five years I’ve been here, I think what I’ve been able to do is develop and maintain a high level of competitiveness throughout the entire program. This is a result of tried and true methods in our sport, and those methodologies have given us three ACRA National Team Points Championships in a row.
5. Who or what would you say has influenced your coaching styles or philosophies?
Well, obviously the immediate answer would be my parents and the way I was raised. I tell people I yell only because my Father yelled at me, but in reality, he did what he had to do, to do what was right and guide me along. I grew up in a tougher situation than some, but he made sure that certain things were done, and as a result, I think I’m the same way as he was. As for coaching, it would have to be my high school Coach Bob Garbutt, and mentor Jack Strotbeck. Strotbeck encouraged me to stay in school and stay involved in rowing, which in turn led me to earn a college degree. As a coach, my mentors have been Rudy Wieler from the University at Buffalo, Larry Gluckman from Trinity, Mike Thompson, and many others. I could go on and on because I thought it was important to learn from a lot of different people, and it’s been a continuing process. Some of my best teachers have been my better athletes, with whom I’ve developed great relationships and trust. It’s funny being asked this question while we’re here at Henley, because my coaching philosophy and technical style follows the teachings of turn-of-the-century Coach Steve Fairbairn, who was a famous coach at Jesus College of Cambridge University, and coached for many years on these very towpaths. His book, Fairbairn on Rowing, continues to be my guide.
6. Outside of rowing, how do you like to enjoy yourself?
During the year it’s hard to think of anything else but rowing and it takes a huge toll on your family and personal life, especially when you’re coaching such a varied group of men and women, from lower levels to higher levels of rowing. I enjoy board games like Scrabble, travelling, and visiting family whenever possible. I especially enjoy the opportunities to watch my 12-year-old boys play sports like basketball and football, and I’m looking forward to their upcoming football season.
7. What was it like preparing to take two full teams to England this year?
We had originally planned to only take one eight of men and one eight of women. However, we knew that a few seniors and upperclassmen who had been involved would not have had this opportunity to come had we only taken such a select group. So we decided to include a larger group, which increased the cost and the preparation. It changed our housing, changed who we were getting equipment from, it changed a lot of variables. We started preparing for it back in September and October, and it’s been quite a large amount of work. I don’t think I’ve ever prepared for one thing any more than this Henley trip, and even with all the preparation, you’re still at the hands of your guests. For instance, with the equipment, the boats I felt were good pieces of equipment, but oars are like golf clubs: it’s something you’re used to the feel, to fitting them correctly, and I didn’t get quite what I wanted. I think one thing we’ve all learned in rowing is that it’s an ever-changing environment, and luckily we were able to adapt. Mark, Mike, and Scott were able to get the oars over here, and that helped out. So in the end, it was a lot of work to get the team here, and a lot of people put in a lot of effort to get things done, from parents, athletes, alumni, and the institution, it’s amazing what it has taken, but we’re here, the women were here, they’ve done well, and the guys I anticipate will do very well. In ten or twenty years from now we won’t remember how much it cost us or the effort that it took us to get here, but we’ll remember the great memories from what we’ve seen and what we’ve been able to accomplish and do together.
8. What was your opinion of the performance of the women’s team at this year’s Henley Women’s Regatta?
Overall I was pleased. However, I honestly felt we underperformed and we didn’t reach our full capacity; the oars were meant for men’s boats, and I tried to find the correct adjustments. I wish we’d had a little more time over here to be able to find the correct equipment, but that was a lesson learned. You can rent the boats, but bring your own darn oars, even if you have to sell them once you get here. I felt the gals gave it all they had. It was nice to beat second-place at Dad Vail St. Joseph’s, and we went against a tough Drexel boat; I felt that with the proper equipment, it would’ve been a tighter race. Do I think we would’ve beaten them? I don’t know. We did the best we would have with what we had. With the four, if you look at the results of their head race and the seedings for their pairing, Reading was the faster boat, and was also one of the boats to beat. We had to do something different in order to beat or even be competitive with Reading. My rationale for lightening the load was simple; the wind was beginning to die for that race, and I decided to shorten the oars so the gals could get the blades through the water a little quicker, and hopefully row above a 32 stroke rate. The gals in the four ended up losing by a little over a length. I know they gave it their best shot, and as I said, I don’t think it would’ve made a different no matter what we did. Reading was going to be too hard to beat.
9. Since the end of the regular season, would you say the boats have continued to improve over the additional five weeks of training?
Yes. There’s no question. With the women, I felt they maintained their speed, if not lost a little speed. I felt the inter-competition on the women’s team was not a positive effect in their success. Conversely, on the men’s team, the inter-competition and training has made us clearly six to eight seconds faster in my opinion. The guys embraced change and embraced the competition which helped each of them push to a higher level. To me, that is true trust, when you’re willing to give everything you’ve got, and not worry about the outcome, knowing that all that you’re doing to make that extra effort is helping your team get faster in the end.
10. How would you rank the 2009-2010 season overall?
I’d say the 2009-2010 season was our second-best season in my five years at Grand Valley. 2008-2009 was fantastic, and that cycle of seniors really did a fantastic job. Case in point, Sarah Zelenka ’09 is now stroking the senior 8 at the Rowing World Cup. This year was a great year; the injury to myself at Spring Break put me out for a while and affected my overall ability to Coach, but luckily I had a strong enough staff in place that did a great job of keeping the program going. Of note were the gals winning the head of the Charles, upsetting Harvard at San Diego, the guys finishing third at Charles and second at San Diego, and all the boats making it to semis and finals of all the major regattas. Any program would be proud to say they’ve accomplished such a great deal. I think what’s happened at GVSU in the past few years is that the expectation has far exceeded what we had expected a short three years ago. You get to a point where it’s hard to maintain that level because of the amount of commitment required to maintain it. It increases, so how do you stay at that level? You either recruit higher level athletes or find ways for your current athletes to balance their time better, and that can simply be to find easier ways to fundraise or so forth. Those are just lessons we learned from this year, which can help us further develop our program next year and in years beyond.
(Question submitted by parent) 11. Can you explain what will be happening from July 1-4? How are the races set up? 2 boats at a time, the winner moves on until you have the top two? Just give us a picture. Can you let us know the times when they race?
The Henley-style racing is fairly straightforward and very similar to NCAA or drag racing knockout brackets. A field of boats is selected from either seeding or a qualifying head race, we’ll say sixteen hypothetically, and then match races are drawn from the field. Two boats race each other at a time; the loser is eliminated, the winner moves on. This narrows the hypothetical field from 16 in heats to 8 in quarterfinals to 4 in semifinals to the final 2 in the grand final. Race times will be posted on our website. Alternatively, they can be found at the official Henley Royal Regatta website, here.
(Question submitted by parent) 12. I’d like to know why an hour before the race, a coach (I don’t know which coach) made changes to the girl’s 4 boat. Did the girls ask for this change?
I (Coach Bancheri) made the decision, and all final rigging decisions are made only by me. There is a simple answer to this: Reading was faster, we knew they were faster, we had to make a change or an adjustment to be more competitive, the conditions were changing, and I knew the load on the rig was heavy going in. That particular load is the same load the heavyweight men’s 4 are currently using.
For any further questions, feel free to email Coach Bancheri, at bancherj(at)gvsu.edu