May 12, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
BELLEVILLE, Mich. -- When Mark Rothstein was asked about the nine Olympians he has developed in 20 seasons as the rowing coach at the University of Michigan, he made it clear that athletic achievement is only half of his mission.
"It's something we're really proud of," said Rothstein. "We've had more Olympians come out of Michigan than any other school in the last 20 years.
"But, you know, I've never gone to a coaching meeting and said, 'How can we produce more Olympians?' That's never been the goal. It's really just to produce Olympic-caliber people. I'm really proud of what our alumni do. They do amazing things in the world, and that is the point of it, developing 'leaders and best.'
"Rowing is a real important part of their education because rowing is a great sport for teaching teamwork. We all need to work with others to be successful, and rowing teaches that as well as anything."
Rothstein makes sure the Wolverines know when to work hard, and they do. They put in 197,000 meters of rowing on Belleville Lake in the week leading up to the Big Ten Championships on Sunday (May 14).
However, he also stresses academics, and had seven rowers with 4.0 grade-point averages from the winter semester stand during a team meeting in the Michigan Boathouse off Belleville Lake.
And he makes a special point to make things fun.
Rothstein recently did a cannonball into the 55-degree waters of the lake to make good on a promise if a certain rower achieved certain academic standards.
He keeps it light when running through a video presentation on a flat-screen TV of the set-up at the conference regatta in Indianapolis: "You are here and your parents are watching from here. So, it's kind of like being in a zoo."
The 60-some rowers, sitting before him, laugh and exchange pleasant glances. They would soon be churning their oars in sync on Belleville Lake for a late-afternoon 14-kilometer recovery row after going 19 kilometers in a heavy, early-morning session.
However, their faces weren't showing dread or wear. They were smiling and kicking back.
I realized while watching Rothstein address his team that he is part comedian Jim Gaffigan, part Bo Schembechler (more on that later) -- with all parts honed in on the team's best interests.
"Rowing is a sport of Type-A personalities," said senior Kaitlin Wright, an All-Big Ten first-team rower from Lakeville, Minnesota. "But Mark brings a lot of relaxation and things that are funny, too. It's not really a fun sport, but when you bring fun into it, you can bring so much more heart and passion to the sport when you are relaxed and laughing.
"Having a coach who can spread that around a team is a really big deal."
He's a family man, married since 2006 to his wife, Alisse Portnoy, with a second-grader, Jessica. And he joked about coaching "simpler" all the time, noting that the principles Jessica's teacher had written on a blackboard at school "were pretty much what I'm doing" with the team.
Rothstein has won five Big Ten championships (2000, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2012) and is a four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year.
He has two No. 2 finishes in the 2001 and 2012 NCAA Championships, and his teams have finished in the top 10 in 14 of 19 seasons. Twice Michigan's 2V8 Boat won the national championship, and he was the 2001 National Coach of the Year.
The facilities have gone from a pole bar at Argo Pond to the current $1.2 million boathouse to the state-of-the-art facility scheduled to open on the new south athletic campus down State Street in December.
"I mean, this is just wonderful," Rothstein said the Belleville Lake house. "The new facility is going to be first class, and we'll have indoor rowing tanks with water that is propelled to simulate (lake or river) water (flow). So, I feel very fortunate and grateful for how things have played out for me."
All that's eluded him is finishing No. 1, and I mentioned to Rothstein that there was a fairly accomplished coach at Michigan with a nearly identical legacy. Schembechler won everything but a football national title.
"Well, I mean, that's a goal," said Rothstein, whose current team is ranked No. 4. "It's definitely a goal. If it's not, you probably shouldn't be coaching because you're always striving to be better and we're all striving to be the best.
"But it's not our mission. It's not what drives me. I won't consider it a failure if we don't. But, I mean, Bo's a great example of that. He's the greatest coach in the history of Michigan, and he affected every coach in the program."
His rowers want to get him that championship, though.
"We absolutely want that for him," said Kendall Brewer, a junior from Austin, Texas, who was All-Big Ten first team as a sophomore. "He's the heart of the program. His sense of pride is what drives us and makes us want to get that first-place finish. I'm really thankful for how patient and receptive he is to all his athletes. We all really love each other and appreciate each other, and he drives that culture. You don't win a national championship without that."
Wright added, "One of the reasons we want to win so badly is for the women who set the stage up for us, too. We are racing for all the women who came before us and will come after us."
Once the pre-practice meeting concluded, the rowers stretched and began descending two flights of wooden stairs to the two large bays just off the water where the white Hudson shells, sleek and aerodynamic, await them.
Before hitting the first step downward, a white sign with blue lettering awaits them:
Blame no one.
Rothstein mentions another Wolverines Hall of Fame football coach: "That sign's a Lloyd Carr thing."
Rothstein has invited the theories and practices of the wealth of athletic coaching standouts at Michigan. Men's basketball coach John Beilein recently spoke to the team.
Rothstein also brought back Olympian Felice Mueller as a graduate assistant coach, and she brought up the main team mantra:
"This year we've had a focus on what being a coach or athlete means to us," said Mueller. "It starts with our four main pillars: do it, own it, give it, appreciate it.
"Do it and own it is very personal, and giving and appreciating are very communal."
Mueller, who finished fourth in the women's pair at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil and is training for the 2020 Games, gladly accepted an opportunity to assist this season while pursuing a sustainable systems degree in the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
"Coming onto this team as a college freshman totally changed and shaped the person I was and who I am today," said Mueller. "This team teaches you the value of hard work and what happens when you really stick to a commitment. And the best rowers aren't treated differently from anyone else on the team."
Mueller is joined by Sarah Trowbridge, Kate Johnson, Kate MacKenzie, Heather Mandoli, Janine Hanson, Ellen Tomek, Amanda Elmore and Brett Sickler as Wolverine rowing Olympians.
"He teaches his athletes to love rowing," Brewer said of Rothstein, "and that's why I think so many Olympians come from Michigan. They don't get burned out and love the sport, competing and training. He really teaches you to love training. He creates the culture of rowing selflessly and doing it for your teammates."
On a wall next to where the boats are housed is a photo mural displaying past rowers, many smiling and posing with trophies
"The last time I was here," said Mueller, "I was part of the 2012 team, and that was my team. Now, I'm back, and all my friends are gone, and this is the new team. When I look at those pictures there, I think of how weird it is that all of these teams were 'the' Michigan rowing team at some point, and there are pictures of athletes I don't know, who were here before me.
"But it's cool to think about how the momentum of 25 years has continued to be pushed forward, improved and built upon. It's pretty cool."
They split up to follow pairs of boats that are manned by eight rowers and a coxswain who barks out commands through a microphone on a headset that can be heard by rowers on speakers up and down the craft.
Rothstein and Tuppen observe the top two varsity boats churning down Belleville Lake. They discuss race strategy and coaching approaches while issuing commands. Tuppen shouts from the front of the small watercraft powered by an Evinrude outboard motor, while Rothstein steers with his right hand and speaks through the megaphone in his left hand.
"Go starboard! Go starboard!" he instructed.
Tuppen pointed out that they have landmarks along the 1,220-acre lake that is about eight kilometers long and 1,000 meters wide. The lavish waterfront homes with their latticed landscaping and docks at the bottom of the steep grade are not only beautiful to look at, but landmarks.
"There's 'Barking Dog," said Rothstein, "for the house where there used to be this dog that barked like mad. Only it died some years ago. We still call it 'Barking Dog,' though."
He squinted through the setting sun and his shades to point to his right, and said, "We call that one the Brady House. It looks just like the house from the old 'Brady Bunch' TV show. Some of the kids don't know what the 'Brady Bunch' is, but it's still the Brady House on Brady Point."
Rothstein will use the landmarks to clarify directions to his rowers.
Dogs died and TV shows lost their name value, but Rothstein remains. He's been here a quarter century, having started as the coach of the club team for five seasons before taking the helm of the varsity in its first season of 1997-98.
Serendipity landed him quite a career when, after one year of playing football for Central Michigan, Rothstein opted to leave and attend Michigan strictly as a student.
"I graduated in 1991," said Rothstein, an Ann Arbor native who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from Michigan. "I was going to go to graduate school in physics, but took a year off and rowed that summer in the U.S. Rowing development camp in Philadelphia.
"I was talking to the head coach of the (Michigan) club team and they said they needed a coach for their novice boat. I said I would do it, and then they said, 'If they couldn't find anyone else, you can do it.' "
Rothstein leaned back in his office chair at the boathouse and chuckled at the thought. He might not have been the first coach that crossed their minds then, but now he's the only coach the Wolverines varsity squad has ever had.
His first day as coach didn't get off to a great start, though.
"I was in this old, dilapidated coaching boat," Rothstein said. "I pulled up to a boat, and the wake kind of comes and lifts the stern up, and the (part) broke and lifted the engine right off and I dropped it in the lake.
"So, the first day I coached, I dropped an engine in the lake! I had to paddle back down the Huron River to Argo Pond."
Since then, Rothstein's been busy winning championships, leaving them laughing and producing Olympians as well as those "Olympic-caliber people" he strives to develop.
"We had a 20-year reunion this summer," he said, "and one of our athletes said, 'You know after rowing at Michigan, medical school was really easy.' I think that kind of sums it up, even though it might be an exaggeration. There are going to be a lot of challenges in life, but hopefully the challenges they overcome now prepare them for the challenges of the future and how to respond in a positive way."
Wright added, "Being on this team has taught me so much about perseverance and hard work. We rebuilt the team during my freshman year and had to learn to commit to a goal, and come so far together. I can't row for myself because the boat's not going to move. You have to be on the same page with your teammates on every single stroke, every single day.
"It teaches you a lot about yourself because you have to learn to put yourself out there and give yourself to other people. Giving creates so much for yourself. Mark instills in us to keep persevering, keep pushing. And he does it with a demeanor that is really relaxed and calm and fun."
And on a recent day, when the Evinrude stayed attached and dry, the coach instead got wet. It was cannonball time.