How to Be Good

By Jen Whiting

Photo provided.

How do you define “good” in rowing? Is it your personal record on the erg? Beating a rival on race day? Is it the certain number of medals you collect? For Kevin Sauer, head women’s coach at the University of Virginia and a two-time NCAA coach of the year and 10-time Atlantic Coast Conference coach of the year, it’s none of these things.

Sauer, a man who is as comfortable swinging a hammer as he is driving a launch, started coaching while still a student at Purdue University. As the captain of the men’s rowing club, he was the one who told the group of women who went to the men’s club meeting that, yes, they could join the squad, they just needed to show up at 5:30 a.m. the next morning at the boathouse. The year was 1975.

“I was so young,” Sauer told me, recalling how he started coaching. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll nip this in the bud.’” He learned a lesson the next morning when all of the women who had been present at the meeting the night before showed up for practice. “They showed up and they kept showing up. After a few weeks, I knew they meant business. I knew they were genuine.”

Sauer continues: “You know what? At the same time, all over the country, the same thing was happening. This was real.” Sauer worked with the women during his undergraduate days and after graduation. “I coached the novice men and the novice women, but my plan was to be a teacher. Then they asked me if I would be the head coach for Purdue club rowing.” He chuckles, “The salary was $4,000.”

Throughout the series of interviews I had with Sauer, when I would ask him, “Why’d you take that first coaching job” or “Why have you stayed at Virginia all these years,” his answer would come easily. “There’s a little bit of God in it,” he would say. At first I thought this was a figure of speech, but as I got to know him, I learned he was being literal—revealing a bit of himself that his rowers and colleagues know well. Sauer explains his priorities this way, “God, my family, and my rowers, in that order.”

Sauer had a path to travel on his way to becoming one of the most successful coaches in women’s rowing history and the builder of a powerhouse program that began from—literally—an old pole barn with a dirt floor.

This is the part of his career when he swung a hammer. “I and a buddy built houses on the side to support my rowing habit,” Sauer remembers. “The very first year I coached at Purdue, I coached women. Then I coached the men’s club for 17 years,” he says. “Then I got the job at Yale.”

Listening to Kevin Sauer capture the first 20 years of a 40-year career in two sentences is like watching an Olympian pass their medal around. They want to share it with you, because they accomplished a great feat, but also because it was just what they did. Somehow, their accomplishments aren’t to them what they appear to be to the outsider, looking in.

After six years at Purdue, Sauer moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and became the freshman men’s coach at Yale. “When I was coaching at Purdue, at the club level, we didn’t have any resources. We didn’t even have ergs,” Sauer reflects. “When I got to Yale, where you have three indoor tanks, a winter training room, and budget to train, it was a complete reversal.”

After three years at Yale, Sauer returned to Purdue for two years while designing and building the course for the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis (he also designed and built the Atlanta Olympic course), and then worked for USRowing during the 1988 Olympic year. “I’m all over the place in terms of experiences,” Sauer says. Then in 1988, Sauer took a position at the University of Virginia coaching the men’s club program. Eventually, he took over the women’s club, too. “There wasn’t much money. We had a one-bay boathouse with a dirt floor. Luckily, the club experience at Purdue had formulated how I looked at things.” Sauer continues, “There wasn’t any water in the boathouse or electricity. We had a porta-john in the woods.”

There’s a lightness to Sauer’s voice. It’s the lightness that comes from hindsight. It’s the lightness that comes from seeing things that once were and knowing what would come with hard work, strong alumni support, and an athletic director committed to making Virginia women’s rowing a varsity sport.

Talk to any Virginia rower and you’ll hear stories of Sauer’s killer workouts. Some have been quoted as saying that running 10 miles is considered a day off. But you’ll also hear how Sauer is dedicated to his rowers. His coaching style comes through as we talk, even though he’s relaying the stories of the literal building of the men’s club and women’s varsity programs.

Sauer is now in his 29th year with Virginia. “Interestingly,” he says, “in the beginning, when I was coaching the men’s club, I got power to the boathouse,” he isn’t talking about rowing power but actual power, “and put in an asphalt floor.” Sauer’s voice begins to get excited. He’s got a story to tell, and even though it doesn’t sound like it’s about rowing, it is.

“In order to get water in the boathouse, we had to have electricity to run the well pump, but we couldn’t afford the original quote of $5,000 we’d gotten from the power company.” Sauer has two children who were, at this point in the story, of the age to be playing little league baseball. “My son was playing a game. I was talking to a parent out by the fence. This guy tells me that he’s a well-driller. I tell him about the boathouse, which, at this point, still didn’t have water or power. ‘Who in the power company did your quote?’ he asked.” Sauer’s friend knew the person who had quoted the $5,000, and was, handily enough, drilling a well for her the next week. “Let me see what I can do,” the well-driller said. “A couple of weeks later, we got a call from the power company.” Sauer pauses, to make sure I get the next part. “$118 for the installation.”

This sort of situation happened over and over as Sauer spent several years slowly putting into place what the Virginia program needed to reach varsity status. “We wanted a phone at the boathouse but, again, couldn’t afford to get it installed. We learned, though, that the phone company would install a pay phone and we wouldn’t have to pay for it.”

In 1990, Sauer’s second year with Virginia, the Cavaliers won five medals at the Dad Vail Regatta. “After that, we got a loan from the alumni association and invested in four used boats, two new boats, oars, and a trailer,” Sauer tells me.

It’s hard to remember these times. Sometimes, when I stand at a collegiate regatta or at the Head of the Charles, with hundreds of boat shimmering in the sun, it’s hard to remember the times when the national powerhouse programs were young and poor and had to borrow money to buy equipment. When I see the coaches who have raised their programs, especially on the women’s side, from infancy, and now they have decades of experience and success, this past grows distant.

Sauer brings me back to the beginning again. “I got all that equipment and pulled the whole rig inside the boathouse and closed the door.” He has a grin on his face like a boy who’s stolen the last cookie from the cookie jar. “In January, for winter training, we made the kids go to the boathouse. We opened the doors.” Again, the cookie-jar grin. “Everyone started crying. We had equipment. It was all equal, the men and the women. No hand-me-down crap. Within a couple-three years, we got some success.” After that, in 1995, the women’s program achieved varsity status and became an NCAA sport. The previous year, and last as a club team, the women’s varsity four won the national championship. By this time, Sauer had made the move to focusing solely on the women’s program.

“Then there was Tom Allan, a 1958 graduate from Penn. He was moving his business to Virginia. I was coaching at a summer camp—so my kids could go for free—and Tom’s daughter was there. Tom and I hit it off.” Sauer’s storytelling rhythm is familiar to me by now. “About a year later, he calls me out of the blue, looking for a place to retire. He moved to Charlottesville and took an interest in Virginia rowing. He let us use his truck—we didn’t have one yet. One day I was coaching him a little in the single and as we were putting our boats away he said to me, ‘You need a new boathouse.’ The next day he gave us a check for $100,000. I’d never seen that many zeros. He said to me, ‘If I give it to Penn, they’ll be grateful, but if I give it to you, with what you’re doing, it will make a huge impact.’ With the help of tech-savvy assistant Joel Furtek, we raised another $75,000 from our alumni and started building our boathouse.”

Moving to present day, Sauer tells me about his coaches, Brett Sickler, Steve Pritzker, Kristine O’Brien, and his boatman, Roger Payne. “Roger is a boatman like no other. He worked at Pocock and brings so much knowledge to us. The impact all of these people have on me is huge.” He goes on, remembering a conversation with Sickler, Sauer’s associate head coach. “I recruited Brett to row at Virginia, but she went to the University of Michigan. We stayed in touch as she competed [on the national team]. In 2012, we had an opening and she joined our staff. After a month, Brett said to me, ‘Kevin, are you always like this? You’re always on.’”

Sauer smiles, “I guess this is me. I’m passionate about what I do. Even at 63, I still get a charge out of doing this. This is my 40th year. If I look back, I see that $4,000 job. I figured out a way—I was a dad and had to put food on the table. My life has been awesome. My wife and I pinch each other. I have two beautiful kids, three grandkids, and we all live in the same town. I coach rowing for a living. We feel totally blessed.”

According to Sickler, “Besides their children, whom they love dearly, Kevin and Barb [Sauer’s wife] have made Virginia rowing their life’s work.” Sickler goes on to describe Virginia rowing today, after nearly 25 years of development. “What’s interesting now, with all the funding that has come to women’s rowing, is that there are a lot of things that Kevin doesn’t have to do any more—like mowing the grass at the boathouse—but he still does them. Every coach has to define what the balance of life and coaching is going to be for them. Coaching can be all-consuming. I think Kevin’s approach has been to make it a family affair. I think the challenge he has now, since the program has become pretty white collar, is how can he translate the blue collar values of hard work and determination? How can he communicate this core part of his approach to the team?”

I ask Sauer if he gets offers from other schools. “Of course, but my wife tells me it would be a long commute for me.” Sauer laughs, but is as serious as he’s been with me. “A guy told me a long time ago, ‘If you go more than a week without being excited about what you’re doing, either change or leave.’ I haven’t gone one day—are you kidding? I don’t even call it work.”

Sauer and his team of coaches, his boatman, and Tom McIntosh, a volunteer coach, have seen incredible success. His Cavaliers have been crowned national champions nine times, clinching the team title in 2012. His varsity eight has a .862 winning percentage.

I ask Sauer why he thinks his coaching style works. “It’s not just about making boats go fast,” he says, without hesitation. “It’s about making an impact on young women and men, helping them mature, helping them prepare for the real world. Kids say to me all the time, ‘If I can make it through our program, I can make it through anything.’”

“You can’t Google fitness. You can’t Instagram speed. You’ve got to work really hard at it and it takes a long time to get good. People are embracing that. This is the kind of sport where it takes a village. I call rowing the Outward Bound of sport. You think, ‘I’m done, but I can’t let her down.’ It’s just so powerful in that regard. People are realizing that—it’s a geometric explosion—it’s really, really, inspiring.”

Sauer is a force, in rowing, in building a program, in developing student athletes. But he’s not done with the interview yet, and I can tell. He keeps going, wanting to tell me the secret of his approach. And all of a sudden, we’re back to the beginning, “How do you define ‘good’ in rowing? How do you define success?”

Sauer goes on: “When I started coaching the women, they pulled me aside. They said, ‘We’ve seen you coaching the guys. We know this is who you are. We want that. But there may be a few things that are different. You can work us as hard as you want, that’s awesome,’ they said. ‘All we want is a little bit of notice. We just want to know what’s coming. We just want to be able to plan.’” Sauer reflects a bit and I can feel the weight of it. “That was the only difference. People ask me all the time what the difference between coaching men and women is. The only difference is more notice.”

His voice shifts a bit. I lean in. “A little while ago, I was asked to give a talk at a USRowing conference; a talk on our culture of success. I had no idea what to say so I sent an email out to a list I’ve kept over the years. Alumni, parents, athletes—there are about 600 people on it. I asked them to help me define our culture of success.” He reminds me this was before Virginia had won the NCAA championship team title. “Within three days I had 300 emails back,” he says. “I put all of their responses together. It was four pages of bullets, small print. I plucked out the themes. One was ‘care,’ one was ‘passion,’ ‘hard work,’ ‘fun.’ Those were the things that resonated with people and made a difference in their lives. It’s not embedded in me so deeply that I can go back and recite it. It’s not printed in the locker room. It’s in our culture, it’s how we do things.”