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USC Rowing Team Started Because of UCLA's Generosity

Crew: Members of Trojans' first squad meet tonight in Newport Beach to celebrate the beginning of program 50 years ago.

June 19, 1998|LINDA WHITMORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a story of how two Bruins became Trojans.

Julian Wolf, 73, was a member of the crew team while he attended UCLA. But after he graduated, he enrolled in law school at USC.

There, Wolf, along with Bob Hillen, his coach at UCLA, started the Trojan men's crew team in 1948.

Hillen, who was interested in establishing a program at USC strictly for competition purposes, offered the use of UCLA's boathouse at Ballona Creek--a flood control channel located near Marina del Rey--and the Bruins' shells and equipment.

UCLA's athletic department and alumni had a predictable reaction to Hillen's generosity.

"They weren't very happy about it," Hillen said by phone recently from his home in Culver City. "But I tried to convince [Athletic Director] Wilbur Johns--and he understood the motive--that if rowing was to prosper in this area, there should be more than UCLA rowing."

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of USC's inaugural team.

"I first heard about the team through ads in the Daily Trojan and notices on bulletin boards," said Don Sloper, 73, who was the stroke on that first team.

When Hillen and Sloper attended the San Diego Crew Classic together in April, they thought a reunion might be in order.

Sloper enlisted the help of one of his daughters, who, through the Internet, tracked down 16 of the 20 teammates. Two are dead and two have not been located. At tonight's reunion in Newport Beach, there will be scrapbooks and memories.

"They came off the water in the early part of that first season," Wolf remembered, "and Don said, 'How did we look?' I said, 'You look like . . . expletive deleted.' "

Hillen, who graduated from UCLA in 1939, was coxswain under UCLA Coach Ben Wallis. Hillen took over the program after Wallis' death.

In 1949, Hillen had a falling out with the UCLA administration over Hillen's mixed allegiances, and the Bruin crew program was eliminated. That year, Hillen began to provide his services on a volunteer basis to USC. A year later, UCLA revived its crew program, but Hillen never went back.

Initially, the Trojan crew drove their own cars to competitions in the Bay Area and San Diego, taking their own oars and borrowing shells from the host teams. In fact, it was years before USC put Hillen on the payroll. And even then, Athletic Director Jess Hill could only offer enough to cover gas and some minor expenses. Hillen taught physical education at an elementary school in Santa Monica.

Hillen took over the program in its second year, and coached USC for more than 40 years, retiring in the late 1980s. During his tenure, practices moved from Ballona Creek, where workouts were subject to tidal time, to Marine Stadium in Long Beach and eventually San Pedro Harbor.

"They eventually built a boathouse near the old ferry building," Sloper said, "which was an advantage because they could row for long periods without breaking stroke."

Hillen's most famous protege, Conn Findlay, who won Olympic gold medals in 1956 and 1964 and a bronze medal in 1960 in paired-oar shell with coxswain.

"Bob and I and Conn are the only ones who stayed with rowing beyond our college years," Wolf said.

Wolf, who left law school and went into the insurance business, became a national and international rowing official. He managed teams in the 1975 and '79 Pan American Games and managed the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

Wolf, who lives in West Los Angeles, is a member of the U.S. Rowing Hall of Fame and last year, when he was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, "I gave Bob every bit of credit. He is my mentor and my friend."

Sloper, who attended Dorsey High and served in the Coast Guard during World War II, attended USC on the G.I. Bill.

He rowed his sophomore and junior years, but bypassed the sport in his senior year, opting to study to graduate with a degree in business administration. He ran a marine hardware distributorship in Long Beach for 30 years, and has since retired and lives on Balboa Island.

"It's a sport that doesn't get a lot of individual recognition," Sloper said. "You have to like it to do it. But it was fun for me."

USC dropped men's crew in 1993 but still has a women's crew team. UCLA dropped men's crew after the 1991 season.

"The [trophy] I'm most proud of," Wolf said, "is one the crew gave me the first year for being their coach. It looks like a little oarsman. That's the most important one. The rest is just hardware."

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