His grandfather coached crew at the St. Andrew’s School (Del.) for 40 years and his father became a legend in New England rowing circles during his three decades guiding the Phillips Andover Academy (Mass.) program.
So when Spencer Washburn got an offer in 2005 to serve as a coach for the Hun School crew team after completing his career as a heavyweight rower for Princeton University, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I grew up around the sport, the whole family has been involved,” said Washburn.
“I have been immersed in it since birth; there are lots of pictures of me as a little toddler out on the launch watching the practice. I saw the impact that my father had on the kids that rowed for him and that was really powerful to me. I had met people who had rowed for my grandfather at St. Andrews and remember hearing the stories about that. So coming out of here there was no question that this was a path that I wanted to take.”
After a two-year stint at Hun, Washburn came across town to his alma mater where he served three years as an assistant coach for the Princeton men’s lightweights and four years assisting for the Tiger heavyweight program.
But the tug of the family business is taking him away from Princeton as he will be taking over the Deerfield Academy (Mass.) crew program this August.
“There is no part of me that will ever want to leave this place but Deerfield is offering a great opportunity for our family and for us professionally so I think we need to go,” said Washburn, whose wife, Megan, will be teaching science at Deerfield as the couple raises their two young sons, Caden, age 3, and Teague, age 1. “It is a challenge we need to take on.”
In starting his coaching career at Hun, Washburn relished the challenge of putting together a team.
“Hun was a great opportunity for me,” said Washburn, who coached the girls’ team and was also the school’s Associate Director of Residential Life.
“At the time, I felt like I was in there doing a good job, the girls were doing a good job and the results were good. Looking back now, I realize I dove into it without any sense of what I was doing or how to do it well. I think it was a real testament to the girls that they were as successful as they were because it wasn’t really me. It was a great experience for me to go in there and have a program and to be able to have the freedom to try some things and make some mistakes. There were some coaches around there, like Geoff Evans, who were really helpful.”
Living in town, Washburn developed the itch to coach at Princeton and got the opportunity to join the Tiger men’s lightweight program after some pestering of head coach Greg Hughes and assistant coach Scott Alwin’s promotion to head coach at Columbia.
While Washburn knew the college drill from a rower’s perspective, he quickly realized that coaching at that level was all consuming.
“High school is a short season, just a couple of weeks in the spring,” said Washburn.
“You get here and it is rowing 24/7. As much as I have really enjoyed it, that was a big adjustment. You go from being able to balance out the rowing and being able to step back and think about the dorm stuff to where you are always thinking about the lineup or the training or recruiting.”
Washburn got the chance to cut his teeth by guiding the freshman lightweight boat.
“I had the freshman boat and Greg was really hands off,” said Washburn. “He said ‘I have got the varsity boats and this is your boat. If you have got questions, let me know and we will do stuff together here or there but this is your boat.’”
Handling a key aspect of college coaching, the recruiting of student-athletes, required Washburn to master new stuff.
“The recruiting piece really required a lot of time,” said Washburn “You have got to learn the rules and how to go about it. You also have to find your voice and you have to find the way that you connect with these kids who are going through a pretty significant time in their lives. I think over the time I have found my voice. I don’t think I am one of those coaches that tells a kid that you have to come here. It is much more let’s figure out if this is a good place for you and a place where you will thrive and where you will develop and enjoy things. If it is not, OK.”
Seeing the lightweight first varsity boat produce a historic 2009 campaign that saw it win championships at the Eastern Sprints, the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) nationals and the Henley Royal Regatta proved to be a key step in Washburn’s development as a coach.
“I was watching what he was doing from afar and that was where you saw those guys operating at maximum capacity and maximum ability,” said Washburn.
“Greg was reading what they needed and giving them what they needed as they needed it. To see that work was truly inspiring and you realized that OK when it is all working together, that is what you can achieve.”
Moving up to the Tiger men’s heavyweight program along with Hughes after that season was a natural step for Washburn.
“I knew the schedule, I knew the rhythm of that year, I knew the opponents much more so I felt much more comfortable,” said Washburn.
“It became much more personal, not that the lightweight stuff wasn’t, but this is the team I spent four years really trying to develop. All of my buddies who had graduated were excited to see me go back to that and they were saying let’s get it back up and going to where we know it can be. So for me there was a lot of personal pride tied up, not just in the team succeeding but it was my team succeeding. It was really exciting for me to have a chance to be involved with that program.”
With the heavyweights having hit a lull, Washburn and Hughes concluded that the rowers needed to put their noses to the grindstone.
“Greg and I spent a lot of time that summer talking,” said Washburn. “From afar, we saw where that program was and what we thought they might need. I think ultimately we felt like there were some good athletes there and they just might need a push.”
Over the last few years, Washburn became essentially a co-coach with Hughes.
“I think for me the first couple of years were hard because I had rowed for him so I still had this kind of feeling, he is the coach and I am rowing for him,” said Washburn.
“I think in the past couple of years that dynamic has adjusted from my end where I have allowed myself to come out of that and I have become much more of a partner with him. We are talking about the whole team and every guy. I really appreciate the fact that he takes my opinion and I think puts a lot of weight on it.”
Hughes, for his part, made his opinion of Washburn clear in comments on the Princeton athletics website upon the announcement of Wyatt Allen as the new assistant coach.
“Spencer’s impact on rowing at Princeton is immeasurable,” Hughes said.
“First as an athlete, then as a coach, he has consistently proven himself as a winner. This success was not just seen in results, but also in the way that Princeton trained and raced. Spencer is the hardest worker I’ve ever known and he leads by example with the kind of attitude and character that inspires those around him to strive for excellence in what they do and the way that they do it …. I wish Spencer all the best up at Deerfield. He is pursuing a passion that has long pulled him and the fact that he earned this opportunity is evidence that good things happen to good people.”
In his final Tiger campaign, Washburn had to put in some extra work to get his second varsity boat on track. “This was definitely a year where it took some time to come together,” said Washburn.
“Last year’s 2V, that got second in the sprints and fourth at the IRAs, jelled early on and we spent a lot of the spring trying to maintain that speed. With this year’s group, I think there was a lot more overlap between the 1V and the 2V. We spent more time doing selection so we didn’t set the boat until the late spring. Then once we did, the 2V showed lots of flashes of real ability but it just took us a little more time to figure out how to draw it all out.”
Figuring things out at the right time, the boat finished second at the IRAs, producing a fitting finale to Washburn’s Princeton tenure.
“That was such an exciting race, to see them out together, all of the elements of which they are capable of doing on that big stage against really, really good crews,” said Washburn, noting that the boat topped perennial champion Washington and trailed only a powerhouse Cal crew.
“That is what you hope you get as a coach and as an athlete. You hope you can produce your best performance when it matters most and they did. So that was amazingly gratifying to see them do it. It was a pretty good way to go out.”
As Washburn heads to Deerfield, he will be focused on getting his new rowers to produce their best.
“Whether it is high school or college rowing, you coach the same way,” said Washburn, noting that he will be going against his two younger brothers as Taylor will be coaching at Tabor Academy (Mass.) and Parker is coaching at Choate Rosemary Hall (Conn.).
“What I learned from Greg in the past two years is that kids have an amazing way of reaching the expectations you set for them. Sometimes, and I was guilty of this, you would set a bar lower because you wanted to make sure that they hit it. I think what we found in the last couple of years is that if you keep pushing it out there, they find ways of getting there. One of the big lessons that I learned was to challenge the kids and give them goals they might not think they can achieve but you help them and you provide the right structure for them to get there. When they do achieve them, they look back and say, wow I have come a long way, and they are pretty excited.”
Washburn’s goal now is to achieve special things over the long term at Deerfield.
“I look around at the people I admire the most and they have all found a program they can lock into and develop and make their own,” said Washburn, who will also be working in the school’s college advising office.
“My father and my grandfather did that and the fact that Greg and Lori (Princeton women’s open coach Lori Dauphiny) are doing it here is a really appealing thing. You can really create a standard and a culture that you can be proud of and the kids come in and want to be part of. I don’t think you can do that overnight and I don’t think you want to bounce around to do that at a million places.”