Brian Conley drives rowing teams to success

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Brian Conley is the head coach of the Lehigh men’s and women’s rowing teams. Conley has been the head rowing coach for nine seasons. (Courtesy of Lehigh Sports)

Brian Conley is in his ninth season of coaching the Lehigh men’s and women’s rowing teams. Currently, the Mountain Hawks are enjoying a successful season and are coming off a recent River Cup title on April 7.

The Mountain Hawks won the women’s, men’s and overall titles, with the women winning every race that they competed in. Conley attributes this relatively newfound success to the team’s culture of mental toughness that he has worked to instill during his time here.

“As a coach, my job is more about teaching culture rather than actual rowing technique,” Conley said. “We’re able to win when we’re tougher than any other boat out there.”

Sophomore coxswain Sophia Mayone agreed that her team emphasizes mental toughness, and she explained that Conley’s transparent coaching style is the reason that the team has such a strong buy-in of the culture he created.

Mayone said part of that toughness comes with doing things that the team doesn’t necessarily like, but Conley’s coaching style allows the rowers to understand why.

“There’s always things we don’t want to do, like six minutes of jump squats after workouts, for example,” Mayone said. “But at the end of the season, (Conley) calculates how many minutes (of jump squats) we did, and it’s like ‘wow I didn’t even realize I could get through that.'”

Assistant coach Alex Urbanik noted that Conley’s culture isn’t always for everyone. Earning results came with some changes to the Mountain Hawks’ roster.

“There’s been a pretty steadfast commitment to making sure that we’re establishing the right culture for the team,” Urbanik said. “While implementing that culture, we’ve had some athletes decide that our culture wasn’t for them and they decided to not stick with the team.”

Through his time as a rower at the University of Pennsylvania and his tenure as assistant coach at Dartmouth, Conley has been exposed to strong team culture and NCAA top 10 success.

Conley also had the opportunity to train with the United States national team after his college career as an oarsmen.

“I rowed at the University of (Pennsylvania), which is a top 10 team in the country, but we rowed against other top 10 teams all the time, so we didn’t see a ton of success against our main competition,” Conley said. “It taught me a lot about exactly what we’re doing at Lehigh, which is developing a program. I learned to take the wins where I can get them, even if they are day-to-day sort of wins instead of on the racecourse.”

After Conley’s time as an NCAA rower, he pictured himself becoming a police officer. He had offers from several police academies and was ready to move onto his new career while coaching a local high school team.

His high school athletes went on to win the scholastic national championships, which brought attention to Conley’s coaching abilities. 

“After we won, a friend of mine called me from Dartmouth and asked me if I wanted to be his assistant coach, and I haven’t looked back,” Conley said. “I have to attribute that a little to my grandmother who always told me that every time I tried to get out of rowing, it always pulled me back one way or another.”

After Dartmouth, Conley accepted the head coaching job at Lehigh. The main reason he took the position was he saw an opportunity to use what he learned in successful programs to help turn around a struggling team.

As for the future of Lehigh rowing, Conley sees more success ahead.

“I see us winning (the Patriot League Championship) and going to the NCAA’s,” Conley said. “It’s definitely within our grasp, and the group we have now has really created that path. With the support of the (alumni) and the families (of athletes), there’s no reason why we can’t attain that.”

Lehigh’s next competition will be this Saturday, April 20. when it competes in the Kerr Cup on Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

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