The Compleat Coach

Gary Caldwell, who made the Tufts crew team a force to be reckoned with, also made it a family
Gary Caldwell
“When you make a boat go really fast, there’s a sense of accomplishment and almost awe that you can put these pieces together, as the athletes make magic happen,” says Gary Caldwell. Photo: Alonso Nichols
August 23, 2016

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Hired as crew coach at Tufts in 1990, Gary Caldwell took over a program that was on the brink of being cut. The athletics department had been asked to trim its budget, and crew was one of the programs targeted.

Caldwell not only helped save the program, he led the Jumbos through a generation of growth. He was at the helm as a new boathouse was built and as the program added a full-time coaching position. After spearheading these improvements and more for 26 years, Caldwell retired on June 30.

“Gary excelled at wearing different hats,” says Brian Dawe, Caldwell’s lieutenant at Tufts for the past seven years, and women’s crew coach. “He has all the coaching boxes checked. He knows the detailed technical requirements of the sport, and knows how to build a program.”

A native of Connecticut, Caldwell attended the prestigious Yale-Harvard crew races on the Thames River near New London while growing up. He entered Yale as a math major in 1968, not intending to row. But a random connection with members of the Yale varsity led to an invitation to a team meeting, which turned into a four-year career as a coxswain for Yale, including two seasons with the varsity.

Caldwell participated in the Yale-Harvard regatta and was part of the first Yale-Harvard tour of Egypt in 1971. Though he wasn’t committed to coaching upon graduation, he took a job as the first-ever women’s crew coach at Trinity College in 1972.

Over the next 18 years, Caldwell mixed coaching at Trinity, Marist and Northeastern with other jobs. His lifelong love for the team aspect of sports, particularly crew races, was one reason he turned to coaching full time at Tufts.  

“When you make a boat go really fast, there’s a sense of accomplishment and almost awe that you can put these pieces together, as the athletes make magic happen,” he says.

A New Home

Soon after starting at Tufts, Caldwell raised money to put crew on solid financial ground. The next step was to find a home for the Jumbos. Since the program’s inception in 1986, Tufts had rented space at the Harvard boathouse on the Charles River. The lease was running out, though.

He moved the Tufts program to a temporary facility on the banks of the Malden River for the 2001-02 season, and started working toward a permanent home. His efforts led to the fall 2006 opening of the $2.25 million William A. Shoemaker Boathouse.

“It legitimized the program,” Caldwell says. “You can talk to any Division III coach in the country and ask them what is the nicest Division III boathouse, and the Tufts Shoemaker Boathouse is at the top of everybody’s list.”

A Bright Future

For almost all of his 26 years at Tufts, Caldwell was crew’s lone full-time coach, relying on several dedicated assistants to get the job done. Early in 2015, he helped secure funding to add a second full-time coach, Noel Wanner, who had led the Middlebury College program and is now director of rowing. Dawe was promoted to full-time women’s coach.

Caldwell also became one of the top race administrators in the nation during his time at Tufts, a role he will continue to play. He is currently commissioner of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association, as well as a member of USRowing’s board of directors.

In the midst of it all, Caldwell twice defeated cancer. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1995 and prostate cancer in 2013. He did not miss a day of work in 1995. The second cancer took a greater toll, but he returned to put the finishing touches on a coaching career during which he mentored more than 1,300 rowers.

Tufts crew is steadily reaching new heights. The women’s team earned the program’s third NCAA Championship berth in 2015 and was ranked seventh nationally for 2016. The men’s program in 2016, under Wanner’s guidance, improved seven spots over last year in the New England Rowing Championship team standings and has a bright future.

“All of his accomplishments are well known, but what counts more to me, what I have learned from watching his interactions with the team, is that when you row at Tufts, you come into a caring, nurturing environment that is a family,” Dawe says. “That feeling of family has come from Gary’s innate empathy and understanding of what is happening in college life for young people.”

Caldwell will now devote more of his time to his own family. He married the former Janet Silva—herself a longtime Tufts employee who recently retired from the sports medicine staff—in an on-campus ceremony in 2005. He has a son, Courtney, from a previous marriage.

“I can’t imagine a more fun way to spend a career than doing what I’ve been doing,” Caldwell says. “Tufts has been a very special place. I can’t imagine any place that would have been finer to work at for 26 years.”

Tufts Sports Information Director Paul Sweeney can be reached at paul.sweeney@tufts.edu.

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