I never rowed for Harry Parker, but I rowed against him, and I lost. Since I have written on rowing, I thought it appropriate to remember the most successful coach, or at the very least, the best known, in the entire sport.
In his 50 years of coaching the Harvard men’s crew, Harry had 22 undefeated seasons, about 16 unofficial national championships, and most regretfully for me, a Yalie, beat Yale 44 our of the 51 times the two colleges went head to head on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut — that’s the oldest competition in American sports.
I met him several times — once as an applicant (I didn’t get in) — twice as a competitors (I lost both times to his crews) — and once as a writer when I was researching The Book of Rowing. He was a difficult interview, maybe it was me, but Harry personified the word “taciturn” and was renowned for his sphinx-like demeanor among those who rowed for him on the Charles.
I’m not a sports statistician or historian, but I don’t think there is another coach of any sport — amateur, professional, collegiate — with as long and successful career as Harry Parker’s.
When I rowed the Harvard-Yale race in 1978 — still the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life — I spent close to 20 minutes in an oxygen-starved. lactic acid-soaked near-death state staring straight astern at Harry’s craggy visage as he rode along confidently in the coaches launch as his boat pulled away with open water and kicked our ass. I literally lost my shirt.
The Harvard Gazette has a great recounting of the legend that was Harry Parker.