BY ED MORAN
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The first time Ted Bonanno watched a Fordham men’s crew practice, he knew he was looking at a good opportunity.
They weren’t “particularly good,” Bonanno recalled, but they were doing everything their young coach was asking of them, and working hard to improve.
“They were really into it and enthusiastic, and I got the impression there was potential for that program to develop.”
For Bonanno, the notion that he was looking at something that could become bigger and better was inviting.
It had been two years since he had coached a collegiate team, after nearly 15 years at Rutgers University, and a spell at Columbia University, where he was named head coach three years into his tenure.
After leaving Columbia in 1987, Bonanno coached Juan Felix, a Columbia oarsman rowing the single and representing Puerto Rico in the 1988 Olympics and at the Henley Royal Regatta the following year.
Bonanno wasn’t at Fordham looking for a job that day. He had been asked to visit a practice by James Hammond, another Columbia grad and one of Bonanno’s former team captains who was coaching the Fordham men’s club crew and planning to leave after the season ended.
Although he grew up in the Bronx, Bonanno had never been on the university’s Manhattan campus, but an invitation from Hammond was enough to get him in the launch.
“He had a men’s eight, and they weren’t particularly good, but they were really into it and enthusiastic,” Bonanno recalled, “and I got the impression there was potential for that program to develop.
The following season, Bonanno signed on for the position Hammond had vacated and set out to build Fordham into a successful collegiate program.
“It was challenging,” Bonanno said. “They had a club program that wasn’t competitive. They weren’t winning any races, or very few, but I thought there was potential.”
After just one year, the Fordham men’s team was winning races and growing under his direction and recruitment efforts. In his second year, he added the women’s program to his duties and coached and developed them alongside the men.
He not only coached the two squads but also built solid alumni support for both teams and guided the women into Division I when rowing became a NCAA varsity sport.
In October, Bonanno, 72, retired from the position he assumed in 1989, leaving behind a 31-year legacy of excellence and a textbook example of how to seize potential and turn it into success.
In his years at Fordham, Bonanno turned a modest program with little funding into a men’s and women’s team whose strong alumni support has enabled it to travel the country and the world to race.
Bonanno grew the program from a single men’s eight into a dual squad that included nearly 100 athletes in 2019. He also helped develop plans to build a permanent university-owned boathouse, a process that will continue into 2021.
During his tenure, 10 Fordham crews have had undefeated seasons and Fordham crews have won 17 national championships, including a Division I National Collegiate Rowing Championship, the IRA Regatta, 11 Dad Vail Regatta championships, and three ECAC National Collegiate Invitational Regatta titles.
Bonanno’s teams through the years were consistent medal contenders at multiple prestigious regattas, including the Dad Vail, IRA and NCAA championships, Henley Royal Regatta, and the Head of the Charles.
More than just a coach, Bonanno guided hundreds of young men and women through their undergraduate careers and into successful adult lives.
“He has produced great results for both the women’s and men’s programs, even though the teams have not had a permanent boathouse during his tenure,” said Charles Elwood, Fordham’s deputy director of intercollegiate athletics, whose daughter, Kylie, rowed for Bonanno and will be a senior on the team this year. “The struggles of not having a permanent boathouse were difficult, but it motivated Ted and the student-athletes only to work harder.
“Ted has always been known as a great technical coach who can get the most out of his team from every practice, and his dedication to the academic and athletic success of the student-athlete is evident in everything he does and stands for.
“He is known for his ‘Ted Talks,’ his sometimes daily talks to the team on topics ranging from practice and fitness to academics and success for life. His constant theme was to strive for excellence and do your absolute best for your team, yourself, and your program.”
Seeing Potential and Sizing Opportunities
The essence of Bonanno’s approach at Fordham was taking baby steps and setting achievable goals. When his team was small, he focused on the boat that he thought could be most successful during that particular season.
In his first year, Bonanno coached the men’s varsity eight to an undefeated dual season and a spot in the finals at the Dad Vail Regatta. The next season, Bonanno’s priority crew for the Dad Vails was the men’s four, and he coached that to a second-place finish.
From the very first season, Bonanno, who began rowing at Monsignor Scanlan High School in the Bronx before rowing at Marietta College, made recruiting and building a vibrant and supportive alumni network a priority.
Before coaching at Columbia, Bonanno coached men’s lightweight rowing at Rutgers, and he made sure he had a lightweight component in both the men’s and women’s squads at Fordham. His men’s lightweight eight was at times as competitive as any boat in the country.
“It got much, much better pretty quickly,” Bonanno said. “Our strong suit was lightweight men, and we built one of the stronger lightweight men’s eights in the country over the next couple of years. We beat all the Ivy League schools at one point or another.”
While building the men’s team, Bonanno also focused on recruiting and coaching the women and saw an opportunity he believed could lead to getting a crew invited to the first NCAA women’s championship in 1997.
When the regatta was announced, the rules did not require that an entire team had to qualify, as they do now. There were automatic bids for crews that won at specific qualifying regattas, including the Dad Vail.
Bonanno thought he could center the women’s season around a four and pointed his women rowers toward winning at Dad Vail and racing in the NCAA championship. The plan went perfectly. But when Bonanno called the NCAA office after the victory to learn how to enter, he was told that because the women belonged to a club team they were ineligible.
“That was not great news,” Bonanno said. “After that happened, I pushed pretty hard, and the next year we were varsity.”
It might seem unmanageable–one person coaching both men’s and women’s teams, especially with limited budgets and the men competing as a club squad while the women rowed as a varsity NCAA team.
But Bonanno was undaunted. He coached both teams together, pitting men’s and women’s eights against each other when they matched in relative speed, and frequently creating mixed boats that helped rowers of both genders develop.
“When the women rowed with the men, they got sharper,” Bonanno said, “and the men were quicker and more explosive at the catch.”
The men became better technically from the women who “were better at setting the boat.” Bonanno said.
“We didn’t do it all the time, but they enjoyed it when we did. The two teams were always very tight and close with each other. And when we raced the mixed boats in practice, they were very competitive.”
The Perfect Fit for a Career Coach
If Bonanno was a perfect fit for Fordham, the university and the students who attended were a perfect fit for Bonanno, who besides coaching at Rutgers and Columbia guided rowers on the elite and international level and coached at some of the bigger club programs in the country.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time at Fordham,” Bonanno said. “The students were sort of blue-collar rowers. You told them what to do, and they did it. The fact that I had a pretty good reputation when I first got there helped.
“I wasn’t your typical small-program club coach. Most of the coaches they had at Fordham before me were like [Hammond], my former team captain. He was just a rower looking for something to do for a year. Or they had a recent grad who stuck around to coach a season.
“The rowers knew I had a strong background. And then we started to win, and that just fit into what I was doing there. It worked out pretty well, and then the women started to take off as well. We had some really good success.
“But the programs were quite small at the beginning. The funding was virtually non-existent. I made a real effort to build up alumni support, and as a result, we were able to do some interesting things. We started to win, and the alumni liked that and started to support the program.”
By the late ’90s, the program was enjoying ample success, alumni support was substantial, and the men could do anything the women could do.
“If they wanted to go to any regatta, they could,” Bonanno said. “We went to Henley several times. We were regular attendees at the San Diego Crew Classic. We could really do whatever we wanted, budget wise. We had tremendous support, and still do to this day.”
“I totally enjoyed my years at Fordham. Obviously, it was challenging, and a lot of work, but the students I coached–hard-working, dedicated, willing to put in a big effort–made it all worth it.”