Legendary UW coach dies

Dick Erickson took rowing to new heights

By Todd C. Frankel

Herald Writer

Richard "Dick" Erickson, the legendary former University of Washington rowing coach who inspired a generation of rowers with his famously gruff manner, died Thursday at his home in Marysville. He was 65.

Erickson, an Arlington native, stood at the helm of the school’s rowing program from 1968 to 1987, coinciding with a period when rowing went to the top of the area’s sports pages. Husky teams under Erickson captured 15 Pacific Coast Rowing Championships and a national championship in 1984.

One of his biggest victories came in 1977 on the Thames River in England when the Huskies outpaced a British national crew team to win the coveted Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta.

He also was instrumental in the growth of women’s crew in the state, helping to create a varsity women’s crew team at the UW in 1975 and supporting recreational women’s teams as they got off the ground. One team even called itself "Dick’s Chicks."

Inside the tiny national fraternity of competitive rowers and coaches, Erickson was known as a creative and dedicated leader. He was widely described as "a character" who demanded a lot from his teams and could be fairly intimidating out on the water.

Dick Erickson

"There wasn’t a day that went by where it wasn’t interesting to practice. At times we feared him and wondered what he was doing," said Chris Allsopp, an assistant coach at the Naval Academy and a former rower and assistant coach under Erickson.

Allsopp recalled one practice when Erickson was getting frustrated with his athletes, and "he put his dentures on the boat launch and feigned like he was going to bite through the wood."

Another former assistant, Naval Academy crew head coach Rick Clothier, recalled Erickson as "a really, really tough guy" whose legend loomed so large there were stories that the coach walked barefoot to practice every day when he was rowing, and that he never wore a T-shirt to practice, rain or shine.

Bob Cummins of Everett, who rowed for Erickson in the late1960s, said rowers used to bet on how far into the season they’d get before Erickson broke the coaching boat’s windshield, a tactic he used to grab the team’s attention.

"But in the end, when it was time to row, we were ready," Allsopp said. "He had a knack for getting teams ready in his own way."

And in the end, Erickson was revered by the rowing community.

"He loved his crusty, ornery image, but he was a great guy," said Mike Hess, who rowed for Erickson from 1974 to 1978.

"It’s a sad day for us," said Bob Ernst, who succeeded Erickson as head of the men’s varsity crew program. "He kept us on the map. He was such an innovator and a fun guy to be around. Innovator and creator — those are the words that best describe him. He bled purple blood."

Erickson stumbled into his lifetime of rowing. He wasn’t exposed to the sport while growing up in Arlington. After graduating from Arlington High School in 1954, he headed off to the UW. One day early in his freshman year, he was walking through the school’s commons during a rowing team recruiting drive. The team had put up a row of oars with string tied between them 6 feet off the ground. If you hit the rope — and therefore likely had the lanky body-type best for rowing — the crew team wanted you.

"He didn’t know anything about it," said his wife, Irma. But he went once and just kept going. "It was just something he really, really loved."

Erickson went on to become a member of the school’s eight-man crew that made it to the 1958 Henley Royal Regatta, where the team fell to the Leningrad Trud Rowing Club. Disappointed, the Husky team challenged the Soviet boat to a rematch and earned revenge by beating the Leningrad boat during a race in Moscow.

After graduating from the UW, Erickson spent three years coaching crew at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1964, he earned a master’s degree in education administration from Harvard and returned to the Northwest. He got a job coaching Washington’s freshmen crew team and working part-time as a sixth-grade teacher in Lake Forest Park. Four years later, he took over the varsity team for Fil Lenderson.

In addition to his coaching duties, Erickson served on the Edmonds School Board from 1971 to 1979.

He was also voted The Herald’s 1958 Man of the Year in Sports.

After retiring from coaching, Erickson took on the role of facilities manager for the university’s athletic department, overseeing operations at the various Husky athletic facilities. But he didn’t slow down. He was still working seven days a week, said Irma Erickson.

"He felt that he needed to be there every day," she said.

Erickson also took time to take care of the smaller rowing groups.

"Dick was the patron saint of Everett rowing," said Michele Hoverter, an avid rower and Everett Rowing Association member.

Erickson sent the group so many old wooden rowing boat shells that were Washington castoffs, "That’s all we had for years and years," Hoverter said.

When he was not coaching or working at the university, Erickson delighted in setting off a lavish fireworks display for a large gathering at his house on the Tulalip reservation.

He also loved to go out on commercial fishing boats with his family.

"That’s probably one of his favorite things to do," Irma Erickson said.

He is survived by wife, and his sons Alan, Jeff and Jon. His cousin is Oregon State University football coach Dennis Erickson.

Herald Writer Scott M. Johnson contributed to this report.

You can call Herald Writer Todd C. Frankel at 425-339-3429

or send e-mail to frankel@heraldnet.com.

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