Coach - Harry Emerson “Dad” Vail

Biography | Photos | Years as Coach


Vail, a former rower, captain (1892-93) and assistant coach at Harvard for seven years, was hired after E. R. Sweetland, another former Cornell rower, resigned after only three winter months on the job. Sweetland had rowed in the 5-seat for Cornell, which trailed UW in the Berry Crate race of 1899.

Vail immediately made an impact on the Badger rowers, as chronicled by the Wisconsin State Journal of March 11, 1911, “All of the crew men like the strapping giant, who peels off his citizen clothes and gets into the gym suit to show them how to operate an oar in a shell.” A year later, Vail's varsity placed second to Cornell by only three seconds over four miles at the Poughkeepsie Regatta.

Over the summer of 1914, the UW medical faculty and the Athletic Council decided to ban crew as causing an enlarged heart and therefore being a danger to the athletes. Vail a nationally known sculler and coach, was therefore forced to bide his time at Wisconsin and wait ten more years before returning to the Hudson to compete again in the Poughkeepsie Regatta. His perseverance kept a national crew perspective at Madison . Later studies proved the heart, a muscle, enlarges like any other exercised muscle, and that rowers showed a lower risk of premature death over their lifetimes than non-athletes.

During this period, crew became a club sport for some of the years and, after the ban was removed for the 1920-21 season, returned to short-course races against other colleges for the balance of the years. Vail is credited by all for maintaining a campus spirit for the sport of crew and for helping to bring it back to varsity status in the early 1920's. The truth is, crew would probably have never died completely, given the inherent advantages to the sport on a Madison campus situated between two large lakes.

In 1924, Vail returned to the Hudson River and his varsity eight again took second place at the Poughkeepsie Regatta. During the 1920's, Vail would host opposing crews and coaches that would touch him or Wisconsin in later years. Future Wisconsin coaches - Washington rowers Mike Murphy and Norm Sonju - rowed in Madison in the 1920's against Vail-coached Wisconsin crews. Washington Coach “Rusty” Callow (later a Penn and, finally, the Navy head crew coach) visited Madison with his crews in 1927 and was so moved by Vail's warmth, humor and humility, that he would later initiate, in 1934, the first “Dad” Vail trophy in a regatta that later officially became the “Dad” Vail Regatta. It is today the largest collegiate regatta in the nation, attracting men's and women's Division II crews and new crew programs from Division I colleges.

When “Dad” Vail died in his native Canada in 1928, Wisconsin State Journal Sports Editor, Henry J. McCormick, who rowed for Vail, wrote of his mentor's death, he “never had a more abiding affection for anyone” than he felt for Vail.



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Years as Coach:

1920 1921 1922 1923 1924 1925 1926 1927 1928

1911 1912 1913 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918 1919


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