Directing a Dynasty
Wednesday, November 3, 1999
Editor's Note: This is the third in a weekly series
featuring the top 10 Cal athletes and coaches of the century, in no particular order. Individuals are judged both for their accomplishments at Cal and for their impact on Bears athletics.
Carrol "Ky" Ebright is perhaps the most successful coach Cal has ever had. Under his direction, the Cal men's crew won three Olympic gold medals, seven national championships and had a slew of record-breaking seasons.
But the Bears' legendary coach from 1924-59 is more than just an accumulation of accolades and trophies. Even after Ebright's death in 1982, he is still remembered as the founder of the tradition of excellence that became synonymous with Cal crew, which won the national championship last year.
"All I can say is that he was a great man for the University of California," former Bears oarsman Don Blessing says. "He put them on the map for rowing, which put them on the map for athletics."
Prior to Ebright's navigation, the Bears' rowing program was unsuccessful in its quest for national titles. Cal's biggest rival, Washington, had beaten the Bears every year since 1907. After Ebright's arrival in 1924, it was only a few years before he began to turn things around.
Having graduated from Washington in 1917, Ebright knew the enemy well. Ebright brought to California the knowledge he had accumulated under the great rower Hiram Conibear.
"Ky's idol was Hiram Conibear," says Blessing, 93. "He used Conibear's stroke, his entire philosophy, to help turn our program around."
Once Ebright had installed his philosophy for success, the mark he would make on Cal's rowing program began to show itself.
Ebright's third year as the head of Cal's rowing program stands out as what is undoubtedly the most successful season in the history of collegiate rowing.
The Bears went undefeated in the United States, represented the U.S. in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and went on to bring home the gold medal.
But the landmark season was only Ebright's first taste of success. He went on to lead the rowing team to two more Olympic titles in the 1932 and ‘48 games.
The Olympic standards Ebright set have yet to be matched, and will likely never be surpassed.
"Look at the history of crew when Ky was here," Blessing says. "Seven national championships, three world championships, that was unheard of - nobody ever won more than one."
Ebright's attempts to create a tradition of excellence did not materialize overnight. It took months of perseverance and a little convincing from peers to keep Ebright at the helm of the rowing program.
"Ky was discouraged at first," says Kathryn Ebright, Ky's widow. "The first three years we were here, Ky couldn't quite get things right - he even offered to resign at the end of his first three-year contract."
But enough people saw through Ebright's initial discouragement to successfully campaign to keep him on as head coach.
"Those first years were a real roller coaster," recalls Kathryn Ebright. "But Ky had already begun to grow on everyone, so they got him to stay on."
The impact Ebright had on others was not always expressed through an abundance of praise and kind words. More often than not, Ebright's former students and peers associated him with tough love.
"He was tough, there was no doubt about it," Kathryn Ebright says. "I remember one time a former student of Ky's said he never would have won the Olympics if he hadn't been so mad at Ky."
But the love-hate relationship Ebright seemed to forge with many of his students was deeply rooted in his desire to win and his demand for excellence.
"Everyone respected what he said even if it made them mad," Blessing recalls. "He was It - we learned to win from him and not to lose."
Perhaps one of Ebright's greatest feats was his ability to stay grounded in the midst of all of his success. He accomplished this by staying focused on his two true passions - crew and his students at Cal.
"Ky felt an obligation to himself," Kathryn Ebright says. "But, more than that, he felt an obligation to the university and to the men."
The obligation that Ebright adhered to lasted for his entire 35-year tenure as Cal's head coach. Even after his retirement in 1959, Ebright continue to impact the Bears' rowing program.
At the close of his career at Cal, Ebright was honored when the Bears' boathouse - their home since 1924 - was renamed The Ky Ebright Boathouse.
In addition to commemorating Ebright with the Boathouse, former Cal rower and Hollywood star Gregory Peck donated $25,000 to the Ebrights' endowment fund in 1996.
Despite the considerable amount of time Ebright spent in the spotlight, he never forgot the hard work and dedication his rowers contributed to the program's success.
"Even though he was the coach when we won all these championships, he put us in the limelight," Blessing says. "Very few people did that for us."
Throughout his career and after his retirement, Ebright pushed the importance of crew. He donated several shells to help out struggling programs like Stanford and Oregon State.
And although Ebright's presence in the crew circuit had an astounding effect on Cal's rowing program in general, his legacy is more aptly measured by the effect he had on the people he coached and knew.
"I'll be 94 in two months and I'll never forget Ky," Blessing says. "He's the kind of guy you remember forever."
Comments (0) »Comment Policy
The Daily Cal encourages readers to voice their opinions respectfully in regards to both the readers and writers of The Daily Californian. Comments are not pre-moderated, but may be removed if deemed to be in violation of this policy. Comments should remain on topic, concerning the article or blog post to which they are connected. Brevity is encouraged. Posting under a pseudonym is discouraged, but permitted. Click here to read the full comment policy.