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 The Greener Grass of Texas

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY LISA WORTHY, PROVIDED BY TEXAS ATHLETICS

Ask Texas Women’s Head Coach Dave O’Neill what’s the best thing about coaching and he’ll talk about early-season practices in February on Lady Bird Lake in Austin. He doesn’t mention all the medals and titles his crews have won.

He has led his teams to plenty of those over the years since he began coaching a women’s club program at Boston College, not far from where he grew up in Arlington, Mass. Don’t misunderstand: He wants to win, and he’s not just being modest.

Don’t think he didn’t enjoy those moments on the podium with his teams immensely—especially last season when the Longhorn women won the NCAA national championship in Sarasota.

“The podium is always fun,” said O’Neill. “But the thing that gets me going is the process, the work. I enjoy practice and the challenge of figuring out the puzzle.”

What inspires him most about coaching?

“It’s those mornings in February when there are two eights out there and the kids are just killing themselves, really turning themselves inside out, for no other reason than to beat their best friends in the other boat. It’s not because we’re seat-racing. They’re just loving that the boats are flying and that they’re pushing themselves to the limit.  And when they’re done, they look across at each other thinking, ‘That was awesome!’, and each boat congratulates the other.  Those moments are special, and when we start getting them, we know we’re going to have a really good team at the end of the year.”

O’Neill talks joyously about coaching and the process of building a team and he wants to share that joy with his rowers and make the experience of being part of a team life-changing. He has believed in the transformative power of sport since high school.

“In my senior year, I took an outdoor-education class that shaped me quite a bit. It was like Outward Bound, and the lessons we learned outside, combined with being on a competitive team and working toward something, were awesome. I believe the lessons you learn rowing can make the world a better place, and that’s what really matters.”

And so, in the first week of January 2022, many months after Texas won its first national championship and seven years after O’Neill took over the Longhorn program from the late Carie Graves, the pep talk at the initial team meeting was not about what was done last year but what needs to be done next. It was about getting from January to May and the national championships in a position to compete for the podium.

“Let’s get back to work,” O’Neill told the team. “Let’s get back to practice, have fun, and cherish every day we get to be together and do something we love.”

Of the Texas crew that won last year, two athletes graduated from the varsity eight, two from the second varsity, and one from the four. Several women who were not in the varsity boats last year will be vying for a seat this season, and Texas has two experienced transfers.

“We have our incoming freshman and other kids stepping up and two who transferred in who are really good. I would say the first step in being great is Don’t be bad. And I don’t think we’re going to be bad this year.”

The Process

Perhaps O’Neill talks about process so much because his life in rowing and his development as a coach has also been a process to which he has clearly given considerable thought.

By his own reckoning, he was an undisciplined high-school student and mediocre athlete. He ran cross-country and played hockey but was no standout. 

When he enrolled at Boston College, he was following his parents, both of whom attended. He was mulling majoring in economics and business and figured that by working alumni connections he could fashion a prosperous career.

That vision changed one morning in the fall of freshman year when, while walking across campus, he encountered some guys pitching crew. “That sounds cool,” O’Neill thought. He attended the information meeting, met more of the team, and was sufficiently impressed to show up at the next practice.

One problem: O’Neill is not a morning person (to this day, he is last to arrive at the boathouse every morning). Result: He slept through the first practice. But O’Neill made it to the next and got on the water. After that, he was hooked and decided he would train to be one of the best—a goal he achieved. He helped start the men’s club crew at B.C. and also laid the groundwork for his coaching career. 

As a sophomore, he fabricated a barge from two wooden shells and took interested freshmen to a nearby reservoir to teach them to row. While working as a mover, an ambulance EMT, and a bicycle courier, O’Neill continued to coach. He coached the first junior program at Community Rowing Inc., and the year he graduated, was asked to coach the first B.C. women’s varsity team.

In those days, O’Neill viewed coaching as a fun part-time job.

“I hadn’t thought much about this being a career until John Ciovacc, the men’s coach and program director for B.C. crew, asked, ‘Did you ever think about coaching? You’re pretty good at it.’ 

“I told him, ‘No, I’m thinking outdoor education. I want to have a positive impact on people’s lives.’ And he said, ‘You’re already doing that,’ and I thought, ‘You’re right.’  Instead of working with someone in a summer program for only a few weeks, he pointed out, you get to work with someone for two, three, or four years. I feel grateful for that conversation, and grateful for being able to do what I do.” 

Coaching at B.C. did not provide a full-time salary, but O’Neill stayed with it while he continued working other jobs. He coached B.C. from 1991 through the mid-’90s, when Title IX spurred colleges across the country to launch rowing programs.

O’Neill struggled to land one of the new positions.

“I still have a whole lot of rejection letters. Pick a program, and I never got interviewed. I’m heading into my eighth year coaching at B.C, and I’m thinking, ‘Am I ever going to get a full-time job?’”

Then, a slot opened at the University of California. A rower friend attending grad school at Cal recommended O’Neill to Steve Gladstone, then head of the rowing program. 

“I sent a resume, and a month later, he invited me to come out for an interview. By now, it was early August, and I figured if they are calling me at this point, they need a coach. I’m sure I was the fourth or fifth choice. But I interviewed for it anyway, and a couple of days later, I was offered the job. Five days after that, I was driving to California.”

Although O’Neill’s initial contract was for two years, his teams were so good from the get-go that his contract was extended well before the end of his second year. O’Neill remained at Cal for the next 16 years, during which Cal won NCAA team titles in 2005 and 2006. O’Neill’s crews also earned 12 NCAA top-four finishes and four NCAA individual-event crowns.

Twice, he was named National Coach of the Year and he led his varsity eight to NCAA titles in 2005 and 2013 and his varsity four to NCAA titles in 2011 and 2014.

Greener Grass

Just before the 2014 NCAAs, Texas announced that Graves was retiring, and O’Neill began thinking. 

“I was at Cal for 16 years. We had done really well and had some great success, but I could tell there was a ceiling there. Every coach at some point thinks the grass is greener somewhere else and wonders, What would it be like coaching at whatever school? What could happen there?”

At the 2014 NCAAs, O’Neill met Texas associate athletic director Kathy Harston, and when the season ended, he emailed her that he was interested in the position. After being interviewed, he discussed it with his wife.

“We talked about how Texas could be a really good opportunity, and if we don’t go, then we’re basically saying California is going to be our life. My wife and I both have an adventurous spirit, and we thought we would like to try something new and see what Texas could turn into. I was up for the challenge.”

When O’Neill arrived in the fall of 2014, he was taking over a program with a solid foundation established by Graves. But, as any coach would, he began tweaking and supplementing.

In the last six years, Texas under O’Neill’s leadership has placed in the top 10 at the NCAA championships and won six consecutive Big 12 championships. At the NCAAs, Texas placed fourth in 2017, third in 2018, second in 2019, and last year the Longhorns won the title.

Today, O’Neill continues the process of developing his coaching skills and his crews.

“Building, that’s constant, that’s never-ending. Something I say to the team all the time is, ‘If you want to have a nice garden or nice landscaping, it takes constant attention. You have to be picking weeds all the time. You’ve got to mow the grass.’

“That’s what team-culture building is. It’s not, ‘Hey, let’s do some trust falls and team-building exercises and check the box.’ It’s daily work. I believe that more and more.”

O’Neill calls himself the team’s biggest fan and critic. “I’m also the biggest critic of myself. I am always thinking, How can we look outside the box? How can we make it a little bit better?

“There are definitely things we are doing differently this year than we did a couple of years ago.  That’s one of the cool things about coaching at the collegiate level. You can tweak things and weeks, months, years down the road, you can see how that made a difference.

“An example of that is we made a conscious decision a few years ago to examine what sort of image we want to project over social media and what sort of vibe we want to create at the boathouse—it’s about getting the work done that needs to be done, and having fun doing it. As  Cal oarsman and Canadian Olympian, Jake Wetzel once said, ‘It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.’ For us, it’s fun being on a team where people are committed to a common goal. There are plenty of people who love everything about rowing except rowing.

“The kids on our team love rowing, being in the boats and practicing, being in boats that are going well, that are focused. That’s what drives us all in this sport. When these boats are moving, the feeling is indescribable.”

As for an encore after last year’s championship, O’Neill said he feels no pressure to fashion a team that replicates last year’s success. He compares it to filmmaking. 

“When Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nola, David Fincher, or Martin Scorsese makes a movie that wins an Academy Award and is considered a masterpiece, they don’t stop and say, ‘I’m done.’ Instead, it’s ‘What’s my next film?’”

O’Neill loves where he is right now. 

“I can’t see myself doing anything else other than coaching, and I can’t imagine coaching anywhere else right now than the University of Texas. We coaches are always thinking the grass is greener somewhere else. Well, the grass is pretty green here in Texas.”

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