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Polling Coaches About... Polls
          NCAA racing has begun and so too has the CRCA/USRowing poll.  I got in touch with coaches from top-ranked programs- California, Virginia, and Yale- to see what influence polls have on their programs.  The coaches also weighed in on the change to this year's poll- it now considers the performance of entire teams (V8, JV8, and V4) rather than just V8 results. 
          Virginia was ranked first in the most recent poll.  Coach Kevin Sauer said, "We don't talk about it much besides it's nice to be recognized and respected, but that's it- now go out and earn it on the water."  Dave O'Neill from California (currently ranked second) and Will Porter from Yale (currently fourth) also pay little attention to their ranking.  Will Porter said, "I try to ignore rankings and encourage my athletes to do the same.  We have seen some pretty ridiculous things happen with our rank in the past few years which makes us all see ranks as they are- someone else's opinion."  O'Neill said, "I mention it once at the beginning of each season, and I let it be known that there is no value in the athletes putting any stock in how we move up or down.  After that it's not discussed again."  
          The coaches opinions on the poll's switch to team rankings seem to vary along the lines of past performances and team culture.  Porter's V8 finished first in 2007 and 2008 while his team finished fourth both times.  He called himself "a traditionalist" and believes "the team with the fastest varsity eight is the national champion.  All this team stuff is just the NCAA format but rowers and coaches know whoever wins the 1V wins the regatta.  We are in the NCAA so we have to play by their rules." 
          California won the V8 and the team championship in 2005.  In 2006 the Bears won the team championship while their V8 finished second.  The team finished third in '08 when the V8 finished 4th, and second in '09 when the V8 finished 3rd.  Coach O'Neill said, "I've always been focused on the team, and I really haven't seen a change in the poll overall.  It doesn't look any different than before... Nothing has changed in my mind." 
          Sauer's JV and V4 have won NCAA races in the past and their V8 narrowly missed a victory at the NCAA championships last year.  Virginia consistently contends for individual race wins and the team championship.  Sauer suggested that future polls include a team ranking with a parenthetical V8 ranking. 
          Polls don't make crews faster.  At this point in the season that's the only focus for these top programs.  Polls also do not play a role in team selections for the NCAA championships.  Still, the polls do have value.  As Cal's Dave O'Neill explains, "while I might sound dismissive of the polls, I think they're great to add some recognition for people outside the sport and even inside rowing.  When a team breaks into the top 20 for the first time it's a big deal and should be.  The ranking puts the teams into a language everyone can understand and that's a very good thing."  

Lou Kinder - April 21, 2010