Whoever coined the phrase "the old college try" may have been thinking of the sport of crew.
After, all the first intercollegiate athletic competition of any kind was the Harvard-Yale crew race of 1852, and the phrase has probably been around nearly that long.
Men's crew has been a varsity sport at UCLA since 1933, and Bruin oarsmen can claim with authority to be strictly amateurs. No scholarships are given for UCLA crew, and athletes are recruited from students who have passed college entrance examinations and have been accepted by the school. When applied to these oarsmen, the term "student-athlete" is not a misnomer.
In the last two years, UCLA's oarsmen have had more success than any in the school's past.
Last year the Bruin varsity eight took first place in the Pacific Coast Rowing Championship, the first time since 1971 that a crew other than Washington or California had won. The victory earned UCLA its first automatic berth in the national championships last June in Cincinnati. The Bruins finished fourth behind champion Harvard, Brown and Wisconsin.
This year UCLA won its first San Diego Crew Classic, finishing ahead of Wisconsin, Stanford, Washington, California and UC Irvine, in that order. And the Bruins are favored to repeat as champions of the Pacific Coast championship on May 21 and 22 at Lake Natoma outside Sacramento.
The way a couple of veteran UCLA crewmen tell it, the success hasn't just been a result of the old college try.
Seniors Bruce Appleyard and David Webb, captain of the varsity eight, think that second-year Coach Zenon Babraj, a former oarsman for the Polish national team, has been largely responsible for the revolution in UCLA rowing.
Webb, who said he played football and basketball at Calabasas High School before taking up rowing as a UCLA freshman, said that he rowed for two other Bruin coaches and does not want to denigrate their coaching.
Under the predecessors of Babraj (pronounced BOB-rye), Webb said, "we were strong and in good shape, but we were probably not as efficient."
Babraj has not only rowed and coached in many championships and in world competition, Webb said, but he also knows "new training techniques that other up-and-coming schools are using" and UCLA oarsmen have taken advantage of those techniques.
Appleyard rowed at Berkeley High School and is a transfer from Cal, where crew has much more prestige than at UCLA. He left Cal after two years because, for one reason, he didn't feel he had been given "a fair shot" at making the varsity.
Appleyard, stroke on the UCLA varsity eight (the oarsman who sits in front of the coxswain), described himself as having been "around the boathouse for a while." He decided to come to UCLA "after I heard a lot of good things" about Babraj.
The 33-year-old Babraj defected from Poland in 1984, and in the following three years he was an assistant and freshman coach at Brown and Washington and head coach at the University of Cincinnati. In the off-season he has been an assistant coach for the U.S. national team, and before his defection he was head coach of the Warsaw club SKRA.
Webb said that Babraj "has changed things in a big way. It's like being on a track team while jogging the whole time, and the new coach teaches you how to run."
The praises for the UCLA coach don't come just from his loyal crewmen. Harry Parker, head coach at Harvard since 1962 and whose Crimson oarsmen are favored to repeat as national champions, also thinks that Babraj has done a good job at UCLA.
Parker's crew handed the UCLA varsity eight its only loss of the season at the Redwood Shores Classic in Northern California in mid-April. He said he "can only judge (Babraj) by results, but I've heard some very favorable comments about his coaching.
"Clearly, he has a very sound grasp of rowing fundamentals as well as of training programs. He also seems to do an excellent job of motivating the oarsmen."
One of the chief ingredients in the motivational messages of Babraj seems to be to take things one step at a time.
The Bruins are favored to win their second straight Pacific Coast title in a little over a week, and a victory at Lake Natoma would earn them an expenses-paid trip to the June 11 nationals in Cincinnati and another crack at Harvard.
It's nice to think about going to the nationals, Babraj said, "but we have to focus on the Pacific Coast championship. We have to do a good job there, particularly against Washington." Although the Huskies finished fourth to the Bruins at April's San Diego competition, they have improved since then, he said.
When a crew is the favorite, "people are more afraid not to lose rather than in thinking how to win," he said.
He was asked to compare this year's crew with last year's, and he answered that the 1988 oarsmen are "definitely more disciplined and more mature.