When the women’s rowing team takes to Lady Bird Lake on Saturday to compete in the Head of the Colorado regatta, it will mark the first race in the program’s history without former head coach Carie Graves, who helped start the program in 1998 and announced her retirement in May.
Instead, the team is now in the hands of Dave O’Neill, a fresh face in Austin but a familiar sight at the NCAA Championships every spring.
During his 16 seasons as the head coach at UC-Berkeley, O’Neill won two NCAA team titles and led the Golden Bears to the NCAA Championships every year, earning him two National Coach of the Year awards. Given his success, O’Neill said he was ready for a new challenge once the top job opened up at Texas.
“I felt the timing was right,” O’Neill said. “I had great success at Cal. I was really proud of everything we accomplished, and I worked with some wonderful, wonderful people, but then the last few years I started thinking, ‘Could there be something bigger and better?’ I don’t think it was necessarily a mid-life crisis, but I think I was certainly at a point in my career where it’s like, OK, I’ve been at Cal; I did a great job, and now I think I’m fortunate that I’m young enough that I can maybe go somewhere else and make a big mark and do something special.”
O’Neill said women’s athletic director Chris Plonsky’s commitment to raising the profile of Texas rowing, in addition to the size and resources of the University, is ultimately what drew him to Texas.
“One of the things that Chris Plonsky said to me was, ‘We know we can be good at this sport. We know we should be good at this sport. We want to be good at this sport and good in terms of amongst the top programs in the country,’” O’Neill said. “And that’s entirely why I came.”
Texas won four consecutive Big 12 championships from 2009 to 2012, a streak that ended when Oklahoma edged out the Longhorns to capture the 2013 title. After a fourth-place finish for the Longhorns in 2014, O’Neill said he plans on using the races in the fall, which do not count toward the team’s ranking, to prepare for the more important regattas in the spring.
“Something that guides me every day is, ‘The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing,’ and the main thing is go fast on May 17, the Big 12 Championship,” O’Neill said. “So the fall is entirely about preparing for the spring. There’s three things we have to do: We have to get fitter physically; we’ve got to get better technically; and then we’ve got to improve the culture of the team.”
O’Neill’s résumé also includes stints as the head coach for the U.S. Women’s Under-23 National Team and coaching at the 2012 London Olympics. However, he said he most enjoys the aspects of competition that are unique to collegiate rowing.
“The Olympics are super cool, but the NCAA regatta is the only championship regatta in the world where every boat is dependent on every other boat for their own success,” O’Neill said.