There are parts of us we can’t deny. Elements of our experiences that seem to crop up years later, bringing a strength to something we didn’t know we’d need. Maybe it’s a skill learned at a young age, or a topic you found yourself immersed in, the paths of your life crossing a map you hadn’t expected. That skill, that topic you loved, even when everyone told you it wasn’t necessary or worthwhile, might break through to the surface years later and cushion a need, fulfill a new demand, and bring you success you hadn’t dreamed of.
Al Acosta takes times during a recent practice.
For Al Acosta, the head coach of the University of California women’s crew since 2014, that part of him—that hidden skill—may just be this: he’s a sculptor.
“I didn’t really have an intention to go into rowing,” says Acosta, who studied sculpture as a young man. “I did a lot of sculpture work at Cal and graduated with a degree in fine arts [in 1993].” Twenty-one years later, his alma mater brought him back to lead the rowing powerhouse that had been created by Dave O’Neill, who now coaches at the University of Texas.
Cal women’s crew has indeed seen its share of success. For the 16 years O’Neill guided the women’s team, the Bears were invited to the NCAA national championships every year, winning two team titles and earning 12 top-four finishes and four individual event crowns. Cal women’s rowing has been in the top four—or on the podium—at the NCAA championships 12 times since the NCAA started sponsoring women’s rowing in 1997. It’s easy to call the team he built a powerhouse.
So how did Acosta, a man with a soft laugh and a quick smile, take over the California Bears and not only continue their success, but build on it? How did he take them to the Pac-12 championships and win it in his first year as head coach? How did Cal take second at NCAAs in the spring and then win at the Head of the Charles in the fall of 2015?
I listen as Acosta tells me about sculpture and wonder how he felt taking over such a successful program. Did the reins ever feel heavy in his hands.
“Was it a little different at Cal?” He repeats my question back to me. “For sure. I walked into the office and there were 13 trophies from NCAAs looking back at me. The picture was pretty clear: for the last 12 years the Cal women have been on the podium.”
Acosta started his coaching career reluctantly. He was working as a middle school teacher in Alameda and was driving home one afternoon in California rush hour traffic, the top down on his convertible. Ted Hatch was also driving in the same stretch of rush hour traffic, in his own convertible. Hatch was a former Cal rower, as was Acosta. The two men were close enough to each other to have a conversation as the traffic inched slowly forward. Over the din, Hatch asked him if he would help him coach juniors at a nearby rowing club, Oakland Strokes. Acosta agreed.
“I walked into the office and there were 13 trophies from NCAAs looking back at me.” – Al Acosta
“When I was teaching middle school, 90 percent of the kids didn’t want to be there. Then, in the afternoons, coaching rowing, 90 percent of the kids wanted to be there.” He pauses for a moment. “I have a lot of respect for teachers. That’s a hard job.”
I ask him about his time with Oakland Strokes. “It was a smaller program than it is today. When I started there it was run out of an old warehouse with 40-50 rowers. Now there are over 200 rowers and amazing facilities. It was a nice place to start. There weren’t a lot of high expectations then. We rowed in old wooden boats and just wanted to get the kids out on the water. That was a successful day, just getting the kids out on the water. I lucked into a really strong class of junior rowers and had some good success with them.”
He stops and then his laughter begins his next sentence. “I’m just laughing because the path for my coaching is not so linear. If I had left my job 10 minutes later that day, I might not be coaching today.”
Acosta coached for Oakland Strokes for eight years, then, in 2001, he was offered a job at Stanford, with the goal of starting the Stanford women’s lightweight program. “The job was half-rigger, half-coach. We had a lot of interest from the undergrads and had some success early on,” he remembers. “After a year, they said, ‘We’ll get you an assistant coach, and forget about this rigging thing.’”
Acosta is talking quickly, and my pen is trying to keep up. Before I turn the page of my notebook, though, I write, in inch-high letters across the top of the page, “LAUGHTER!” Later, when I try to capture this man on paper for this article, I see that word and don’t remember writing it. I’d gotten caught up in the trajectory of Acosta’s career, and how he went from studying sculpture, to coaching juniors, to starting the women’s lightweight program at Stanford, to leading one of the most prestigious teams in the country.
“The cool thing about the Stanford job was there were no real expectations. We were kind of old school. We didn’t recruit in the beginning, but just got kids off of campus. After a while—two or three years—we started getting more successful and started recruiting. The expectations change once you have some success.”
I ask him who was driving the expectations. “The expectations were driven by the athletes, and by what I put on myself,” he said. “There weren’t alums or administrators putting pressure on. We just kind of existed in our own little world.” That world included four straight IRA championships from 2010-13.
Then, in 2014, Dave O’Neill transitioned to a coaching position in Austin, Texas, and Acosta was offered the Cal job. I ask him about making his own transition.
“I wasn’t looking to leave Stanford. I really cherished the time I spent there. I’m thankful for my time at Stanford. I learned a lot while I was there, made some really good friends, and am proud of the team that I helped build. However, the opportunity to come back to Cal was pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime proposition. If you want to try something different in coaching, the opportunities are few and far between.”
As we talk, I see this fine arts major relishing the return to his hometown, his alma mater, and to the boathouse he loved as a college athlete. I ask if Cal has changed since he was a student.
“The kids are looking for a certain experience at Cal, just like I was. It’s really competitive academically and it’s really competitive athletically. Cal’s a unique place. It’s diverse, vibrant. It has its own kind of vibe.” His laugh returns. “It’s lively. I speak from experience. I think it’s easy for the recruits to decide to come to Cal. It’s just, you know, it’s different.”
I turn the conversation to the pressure of taking over a rowing program that has such a successful history and that holds such a place of prominence on campus.
“I try really hard not to let the pressure change my approach. In the same way you don’t want the pressure of an event to change your athlete’s approach.” It’s here that I see Acosta’s skills as a sculptor come out, as if he has been entrusted with a fine piece of artwork, already beautiful, already dynamic, but he has the job of making it better, keeping the beauty while revealing even more of its own powerful nature.
“I have to live my words here. We focus on team, not on the outside experience. We develop athletes as individuals.” He stops, laughs at himself softly. “I’m really just trying to block out the pressure of NCAAs and racing Washington.” Even the sculptor knows the sensitivity of his medium.
“The biggest challenge?” I ask.
“I can tell you the biggest challenges have really been,” he trails off, and I wait. “Coaches, I think… we’re creatures of habit. Coming to Cal, I had to reinvent my own wheel. For one, it’s a semester school. More importantly—this was the biggest challenge—coming into a program that has had a lot of success, I’d be a fool to change everything, but I’d also be a fool doing things the same way. It wouldn’t be my program, I’d be an impostor. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sure the changes we make are the right changes. That’s the challenge of taking over a program that is so successful.” He slows here. “Most people take over programs that aren’t successful. On the surface, it would have been easier. Dave [O’Neill] did an amazing job here. Taking over a program with really great leaders and great athletes has made my job a lot easier.
“I didn’t have to spend any time building the team culture or laying down new—or higher—standards. However, this is a high profile job and the team has been on the podium just about every year for the last 14 years. So I don’t think there would be much leeway if I screwed anything up. I felt like the biggest challenge was building trust right away. I had to make sure that all the unreasonable workouts that we ask our rowers to do were actually well-reasoned.
“I also tried really hard to stick to whatever plan I had laid out, made sure we ended practices on time, and tried to spend equal time coaching everybody, not just the top eight. I’m thankful that [my assistant coaches] Sarah Puddicombe and Vanessa Tavalero agreed to stick around. They obviously knew the team a lot better than I did and this helped to make the transition a lot smoother than it could have been. Most importantly, senior leaders like Vanessa Gerber, Ingvild Roenningan, and Lindsay Meltz stepped up and took charge and made sure the team was going to stay on the podium.”
“Coming into a program that has had a lot of success, I’d be a fool to change everything, but I’d also be a fool doing things the same way – Al Acosta
One of the changes Acosta made early on was changing the rowing venue the team used for many of their workouts. Cal is blessed with access to two bodies of water for rowing: the Briones Reservoir, which boasts a 4,000-meter course, and the Oakland Estuary, with over 11 miles of rowable water. Acosta moved a portion of his practices to the estuary.
“I had spent so much time down there as an athlete. I knew that body of water. A body of water will affect how you coach a team. The estuary is long and straight. We can row three boats side by side. I have an affinity for that body of water and that boathouse. I rowed there when I was at Cal. I thought it was beautiful. And I thought it was fun.”
Acosta’s first year at the helm brought a Pac-12 championship to Cal. “Winning Pac-12s was pretty amazing. I don’t think I could have asked for more than that.” His excitement for his team shows through, even beyond his own pride. “You have this idea of what you want the team culture to be. But you never really find out what it is until the —- hits the fan.” He inserts a hard stop to convey his meaning. “You screw up, you win a big race, you lose a big race. As the big hurdles came, and the next ones, and the next, the team handled it all in some amazing ways.”
“Tell me about the bigger picture at Cal, the administration, the alums,” I probe.
He pauses, then becomes the teacher. “Cal women’s rowing started in 1975, so this past year was the 40th anniversary. We had a huge event for it. Women in their mid-60s all the way to recent alums were there. I knew some of them from my time [as a student] at Cal but I didn’t have a strong sense of what the group was going to be like.” He stops, although I know he’s been in this world of successful women rowers since his days at Stanford.
“There were big donors there, impressive donors, Olympians. It can be an intimidating bunch. I got to know a lot of them. We had a big banquet and then went out for a row the next day. From that, I got a sense of what their experiences at Cal had been like.” His speech softens almost to a whisper. “It wasn’t about national championships or winning races. Their stories were about hard practices, what the coaches did, the ergs. They were a rowdy bunch.” I feel like I’m standing in the hallway outside in a private dinner, stories of the past slipping through the doors.
“They’re rowdy and they’re fun and they’re accomplished. From that event, I understood that the athletes I’m training now are getting the same experience, and that’s important. That same day-to-day existence as a Cal rower. They want to come out here and race and suffer a little bit and laugh a little bit.”
I hear, deep within this coach’s voice, that Acosta understands the relationship between the sculptor and the sculpture. One can’t exist without the other.
“Taking over such a successful program is a unique challenge. Opening up the boathouse everyday…” Acosta’s voice softens. “It’s surreal to go from being a student and an athlete at a school to being the coach. It’s different from anything I’ve ever done. It’s hard. It’s fun. And I hope it’s the last job I ever have.”