Two coaches, one shared vision
Already, Boathouse Row has been awake for hours.
The river is more visible as the houses are replaced by a line of trees, and out on the water there is someone alone. A rower stroking through the heart of Philadelphia. This, too, is routine.
For two of La Salle’s historic programs, they have shared the Schuylkill for as long as they have been around. One competes on its water, the other practices along its paths. And the two coaches who lead those programs, Tom Peterson, of cross country/track and field, and Jeff Garbutt, of men’s and women’s rowing, have their unique perspectives on what this space evokes for them.
“The first thing is, you hope you’re going with the wind,” said Peterson, head coach of La Salle’s cross country and track programs since 2014. “Usually, we’ll start up higher on the river and come down to Center City. The grass will probably be dewed up pretty good. You’d be coming past the hill with the cemetery (Laurel Hill Cemetery).”
He pauses to add some historical context. “You know, it was where a lot of the aristocrats of early Philadelphia society were buried because you couldn’t be buried in the city limits.”
“You’d be coming past that and the sun might be peeking over it,” Peterson added. “The sun would be shining on all the buildings—Comcast Tower and the Amtrak building, especially. The biggest thing is just dodging people. Running the river path is probably equal to driving (Interstate) 76.”
Garbutt has a different perspective.
“It’s peaceful, relaxing, there are various levels of sound,” said Garbutt, who is in his first year at La Salle. “Early on, it’s a little bit quiet. The traffic gets more intense when practice starts. Sounds were a big thing for me. I remember going by the Philadelphia Zoo and you would hear animals at times. Smell is another thing because I recall going up through Strawberry Mansion vividly because up at the top of the bridge was the Tastykake factory. So I remember in the morning smelling the Tastykakes being made.”
While most of his time is on the water, Garbutt pointed out there are drills done on land like balancing the boats. That’s when he pays attention to the runners and cyclists going by—particularly noting one occasion.
“One year when I was in college (at Temple University), I remember a bunch of people on the path, kind of making a fuss. Apparently, Mick Jagger was running along the Schuylkill because the Rolling Stones were in town for a concert. He ran five or seven miles a day, so he ran Kelly Drive.”
The two coaches are quite different at face value.
Peterson is talkative, boundlessly energetic, with bright blonde hair parted and swooping behind his ears. A conversation with him is a runner’s high of information. Garbutt is composed and more concise, his dark hair cut tight with greying sides shaved closely. It’s a steady dialogue, like a repeated oar in the water.
Garbutt, also, is Philly through and through, growing up locally in southern New Jersey. His first memories of rowing came on the banks of the Schuylkill—and now, a homecoming in his first year with the Explorers.
Peterson, from New York, jokes that his earliest notion of success was a Stanley Cup win in 1994 for the NHL’s Rangers. He has spent the last 10 years adopting Philly as his home, such has been his lengthy tenure with the Blue & Gold.
Their respective journeys to head coaching positions at La Salle contain few parallels. One, however, is that neither has taken a straight line to 20th and Olney.
Tom Peterson was drenched in sweat, but not from running. In fact, he wasn’t doing anything at all—and hadn’t been for hours. After returning from Appalachian State University with a master’s degree in exercise science, he interviewed for a strength and conditioning position. He knew he didn’t really want the job, but could land it. And he needed the money.
“You don’t pay for a master’s degree and then come home and tell your parents, ‘Yeah, I can’t get a job.’ You have to at least try.”
So there he was in a shirt and tie on a hot July day, watching practice after an interview that had lasted hours.
“The guy wouldn’t let me sit down; he kept me out at the practice the whole time. And I was like, ‘Man this is rough.’ I was losing interest, but I knew I should be really excited about this because I was going to probably get offered the position. It was more of a formality. I just had something come over me: I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this.”
In those early days, it was unclear what he wanted to do, a different position for him. Peterson’s arc up to that point had been gradual. He began running because of a broken arm and forged friendships in the suffering of the sport. He became good enough to run for a powerhouse at Iona College, but never reached the personal level of making NCAAs, despite his team being successful in conference and national competition. He exercised a fifth year of eligibility upon graduating to run at Appalachian State, where he found both the team and individual success that he sought.
Peterson wanted more. Of what? He didn’t know. An opportunity arose when his former coach at Iona, Mick Byrne, took a job at Wisconsin and was in need of a volunteer assistant. So Peterson packed up everything he had and drove through the night to Madison, Wisc. The job was starkly different from his graduate assistant position at Appalachian State, where he had run with the athletes he coached. At Wisconsin, he only knew Byrne.
“I didn’t really see (Appalachian State) as the beginning… but packing a car and starting completely fresh with an entire team of guys I didn’t know, and Mick bringing me in telling the guys on the team, ‘Here’s a guy that I’m choosing. He’s going to be my assistant coach. So he’s your assistant coach.’ I used that as a completely fresh start. I looked at that as the beginning of my college coaching career. This is where I begin.”
Jeff Garbutt has some cliches that he’s picked up over the years. A few of them include:
• “I’m a lifelong learner.”
• “They don’t care what you know, unless they know you care.”
• “If I can make somebody a championship person, they’ll be a champion in the classroom, a champion in the boat, and a champion in life.”
They might seem obvious, but they are illustrative of Garbutt’s path. While he fell into coaching rather naturally after Temple, when he became a teacher and head rowing coach at the Hun School of Princeton, he admits he coached “completely different” back then.
He leaned on his father, Bob—a legendary high school coach—and other rowing connections to help grow. With people to mentor him in his coaching strokes, he honed his ability from high school to college across two decades.
The result? Most recently, Garbutt’s impressive accomplishments include leading the women’s team at the University of Iowa to unprecedented national success and its highest ranking. That’s what stands out. But to understand Garbutt’s true progress as a coach is to look at a different achievement while with the Hawkeyes.
If I can make somebody a championship person, they’ll be a champion in the classroom, a champion in the boat, and a champion in life.
He found himself teaching strokes to student-athletes from other sports teams.
Field hockey, women’s basketball, and other athletes came to Garbutt for lessons on teamwork—or as he calls it, “layers of teamwork.” He started with the most basic stroke and added layer after layer until he put the student-athletes on a moving boat in the water and had them put it all together.
When explaining why those teams came to a rowing coach for that specific lesson, he likes to allude to other sports to illustrate the difficulty and necessity for perfect cohesion.
“The famous racing boat maker George Pocock describes coaching rowing as trying to get eight individuals to hit a golf ball at the same exact time and have the golf balls land in the same hula hoop, at the same time. In basketball you could have someone go out and have a 50-point night and you might win. But with rowing, everyone has to have a 50-point night for you to win.”
Like his cliches, it might seem obvious that the most important facet of a cohesive team is to know each individual, to nourish them, to make them a championship person. But what that takes from a coach, Garbutt has found, is setting aside a personal ego. It’s the admission that a coach is still learning; even after 25 years, he’s still layering.
‘TRUST YOUR GUT’
It’s not easy to put egos aside.
Peterson was worried. The new coach had packed up his car again and routed his moving van from Madison to Philadelphia. He had joined Dan Ireland as an assistant with La Salle, his first paid position. And they won Atlantic 10 Conference championships, earned NCAA All-Americans, had NCAA Championship participants—you name it. But after three years, Ireland was leaving for Columbia University and Peterson assumed the reins.
Now it was 2014 and Peterson was worried about Chris Sanders, a sophomore. It wasn’t that Sanders performed poorly in his first year; it was the opposite. Sanders had a “crazy, successful freshman year” under Ireland, Peterson said, and now Peterson, in his first year as a head coach, felt he had an obligation.
“One of the things I was scared of was letting a talented kid like Chris down because I knew how much potential he had, and that was a really big responsibility for me,” Peterson said. “If I’m really narrowing down on one big experience early on the head coaching side, it was trying to support Chris in the way he deserved to be supported as an athlete and getting him to trust me and both of us to trust each other.”
All that hard work with Sanders paid off in a dream season in 2016. He shattered the University record in the 800 meters, placed sixth at NCAAs, and competed at U.S. Olympic Trials. Peterson remembers the whirlwind of that time, traveling to Eugene, Ore., twice in three weeks and Sanders, ’18, winning a silver medal at the U23 NCAC Championships in El Salvador.
Then Sanders got injured the following year and redshirted. When he came back, he wasn’t running like he had been previously.
“I was a little doubtful of my own ability,” Peterson conceded. In the confidence of a young coach, it was a make-or-break moment.
I remember Chris and I having a conversation and he just said, ‘Coach, just trust your instincts. Just trust your gut. You’re a good coach. We’ve done it once, we can do it again. Just trust your instincts.’”
“He recognized that I was at a point where I needed the pat on the back and I’ve kept that with me,” Peterson continued. “That’s something that I repeat to myself every once in a while, when I’m not feeling super confident in my ability. I’m supposed to be the one doing that, but he did that. And that was a big, pivotal moment for me to take myself out of the equation a little bit more and realize that it’s not about me as the coach. It’s about my interaction with the athletes that I coach.”
It’s 2020. The differences are stark in the journeys of Peterson and Garbutt to La Salle and to this point. One is a new head coach at La Salle, the other is a mainstay with numerous accolades and championships as an Explorer. Each arrived at different times in their respective careers: a fresh-faced volunteer assistant turned assistant coach turned head coach, juxtaposed against a man with decades of coaching experience.
But it doesn’t matter, now, how different they seem; it matters what they are saying. If you want to know how two of La Salle’s most successful programs intend to continue their success, then listen to the similarities of the coaches who lead them.
They begin with communication.
Peterson has been in different spots in his career. He’s been the guy who wasn’t the guy at Iona, then he led the pack at Appalachian State. He’s seen team success everywhere, so he knows the language of winning—and, vitally, this means motivating the team’s 15th-best runner, as well as the best.
“I’d say we probably do just as much talking, if not maybe more talking than we do running. I own a version of myself who is not in the top seven. At the same time, I’m also dealing with people who are very motivated and have set very high goals for themselves. It’s about figuring out the individual and bringing out the best in them.”
Garbutt echoes this when he looks at his rowers on a case-by-case basis: “Everybody is trying to get better. Everybody is trying to improve. It doesn’t matter whether it’s technical changes or fitness, you work with those athletes on their own individual needs.”
One of the first things they communicate to their student-athletes is history, and Garbutt’s first act when coming to La Salle was to reach out to the University’s rowing alumni. He understood the program’s lineage had scattered far and wide; he desired to reconnect himself and his team to the greats of past generations and reconnect those generations to the program he was continuing to build.
Likewise, Peterson has been keenly aware of the team history he inherited. When he speaks of team togetherness, he refers back to Charles Torpey’s era, which he is poignantly familiar with as he inherited many of Torpey’s runners in his first season after the great coach’s passing.
Peterson also calls the accomplishments that his athletes achieve now as “an homage to Ira (Davis), ’58, and Al (Cantello), ’55, and all those teams in the 1980s and 1990s and even further back.”
Of course, with the greatest respect to those who have come before, what is history if not a half-finished story? Peterson and Garbutt have aspirations that begin modestly and end with rewriting the record books.
For Peterson, it’s the consistency of being at the top of the A-10 Conference in both cross country and track and field. But the one thing La Salle has never done in its history is qualify a full team for NCAAs. That’s the true bar in Peterson’s eyes: to get there and win it as a team.
He has a memory of returning to Wisconsin a year after leaving, after the Badgers almost won a national title when he was assistant coach. Sitting in the stands, as a supporter, he watched Mick Byrne win it all. It left something unfinished for him.
For Garbutt, he wants to right the boat—one boat—and get it into the Dad Vail Championship. Then win it. After that, he sees other boats following suit and turns his attention to conference success. His eyes are fixed on what can still be achieved for a program that has achieved so much. A first women’s A-10 Championship, for example, is in his five-year plan. He adds that a dream of his is to bring a La Salle boat to compete at the Henley Royal Regatta in England – the best-known regatta in the world.
It is clear that these two men have grand visions for their programs’ futures. There is an immense pride and responsibility in inheriting such history, and no matter the paths that they’ve taken to get to this point, they intend to see it through.
But there is a darkness now. The COVID-19 pandemic has halted competition, kept them from being with their team and coaches, and disrupted the normality of recruiting. In short, the core of collegiate coaching is suffering.
But Garbutt and Peterson are used to suffering in the darkness. Right now, one is on the river, the other is running beside it. If they cast their eyes to the sky, they’ll see the grey arrival of the dawn. If they listen closely, they’ll hear the river moving forward.
It’s the image of history, continuing.