NORMAN — A shopping cart lay on the barren riverbed. But all Leeanne Crain saw was potential.
Well, she did see the shopping cart, too. The Oklahoma rowing coach laughs at the memory of the day Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione drove her to the Oklahoma River and asked her to build a rowing program for the Sooners.
Five years later, her fourth year with actual recruits, Crain and her team are in Indianapolis to compete in their first NCAA Championship.
“I'm really proud of this group. It was a goal we set five years ago. It's nice to have achieved it,” Crain said. “Everyone bought into the plan and the training program to get to this point.”
Crain said deciding to accept Castiglione's offer was an “easy decision.”
“Starting a program at the University of Oklahoma, knowing the resources that would be available and the commitment that the president (David Boren) and Joe Castiglione made to our programs, when I interviewed and stepped foot on campus, I knew I wanted to be a Sooner,” she said.
As for that empty river?
“That was a little bit of a tough sell,” she said, laughing. “I knew the river would be full and knew about the plans for the riverfront and boathouse district. It was a work in progress when we came, and building a program would be the same.”
Crain started with nothing. No athletes, no facility, no boats. Not even an oar.
Crain took what she knew from years as head coach at established programs such as San Diego and Central Florida, threw in her own recruits, like current senior Nicole Furmanek, and set out to create a tradition of excellence.
Furmanek, one of the building blocks of the program, acquired nearly every academic and athletic rowing award in her four years. Her leadership and her faith in Crain's vision helped bring in more recruits to grow the program. Crain said her recruits for next year would rank among the top 10 of the current Sooners.
This year, Oklahoma announced plans for a multimillion dollar rowing facility on campus that will rival the likes of Harvard, Yale and other traditional rowing powers. Then the Sooners won the Big 12 Championships, and followed that with a Conference USA championship.
“She is just a really great coach,” Furmanek said of Crain. “She sees the dream before you do and she believes in you when you doubt yourself.”
From Day 1, Crain pushed her team in order to produce those results. She said she didn't want to sell her team and their goal short, but five years ago, the five-year plan was to make the NCAA Championships.
“I don't think anybody's expecting us to win the Championships,” Crain said. “We haven't raced a lot of teams that will be there. We'll see what we can do.”
That didn't stop her from dreaming up her next five-year plan a minute later. It's to be in the top 10 at the Championships and to be a crew that the rest of the field sees as a national title contender.
NCAA Rowing Championships
Where: Eagle Creek Park, Indianapolis
OU crews competing: Varsity eight, second varsity eight, varsity four