Before the sailing club hired Will Brown as its head coach in 2010, the club had had a string of five head coaches in five years. Four years later, the club finds itself much improved, heading into this weekend's North Spring Qualifier at Cornell with hopes for a top-five finish and qualification for the America Trophy regatta in two weeks.
But the team's current success may hit a bump at season's end, when Brown ends his four-year tenure as head coach.
The sailing club, founded in the 1960s, has undergone intermittent periods of success, downturn, and virtual nonexistence since its inception. According to Brown, its current iteration coalesced in the late '90s and had been without much continuity when he arrived.
Brown, a 2010 All-American at Brown University, was the Columbia sailing team's first steady mentor in years, and his arrival made a noticeable difference, as he instituted regular workouts and practices and had the team competing in more regattas.
"Kids had a hard time taking practice as seriously as they needed to when there just wasn't much structure," Brown said.
Captain Catherine Duggan, BC '15, attested to Brown's influence on the sailors' growth.
"Will has created that consistency that has helped the team really grow," Duggan said. "It's just been helpful to have the same person there, who knows how you sail and what you need to work on."
Conor Cashel, CC '14, a former captain, agreed that Brown's experience has been invaluable for the club.
"His perspective, I would say, is the best thing he's brought to the team," Cashel said. "It's been a good four years."
But this year, the club will lose its coach again, as Brown will be leaving his post after he graduates from Fordham Law School in May. As the club searches for someone to replace him, it hopes to avoid falling into another cycle of one-year coaches.
Duggan, who is leading the coaching search, said she is looking for a long-term solution at the coaching position.
"Ideally, someone that's looking to stay with the team 10, 15 years," she said. "Somebody that'll really help the team stay on this upward trajectory."
This search, however, will be more complicated than the one that resulted in Brown's hire in 2010. Due to a University-instituted cap on club coaches' salaries, no club sport can pay a coach more than $30,000 a year.
This cap, which Duggan said is designed to render club coaches part-time rather than full-time University employees, will make it difficult for the club to make its coaching position a career. Duggan said the club and its alumni are trying to negotiate with the club sports office.
"I'm really hoping that there's some way that we can work out with our alumni and the University a way that we can get rid of this rule," she said.
If forced to hire a coach under the cap, Duggan said the club might explore hiring multiple assistant coaches, paying each up to $30,000.
In spite of the challenges to the coaching search, Cashel was optimistic about the club's future, citing the commitment of its sailors.
"I think that we have a good core of people to move forward, and that's all you need, right?" Cashel said. "You need a bunch of dedicated members, and that's what we have so far."
Brown also expressed faith in the club's current crop of students, but he emphasized the coaching situation as the most pressing issue.
"Sailing-wise, I think the team will be as strong as ever for the next at least four years, based on the kids who are here and the kids who have gotten in and should be coming," Brown said. "Finding this next coach is really the biggest hurdle for the team."
Brown, Cashel, and Duggan all acknowledged the fact that the sailing team's problems could be solved if the club petitioned to become a varsity sport. However, despite the uncertain future the club might face, Duggan said the sailors are still committed to remaining a club sport.
"The heart of this team is the fact that it's student-run," Duggan said. "And I really can't imagine it being any other way."
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