Old friends reunite on the Schuylkill
Season opener pits Marietta coach Chris Pucella against his onetime teammate, Penn’s Nick Baker
March 31, 2011, 2:13 am·
For many Penn lightweight rowers, this Saturday’s meeting against Marietta on the Schuylkill is just a tune-up to prepare for the cup season.
But for coach Nick Baker, it has special meaning.
While attending the University of Buffalo in 1997, Baker rowed with current Marietta coach Chris Pucella. Pucella took the freshman Baker under his wing and became his training partner. Several years later, it was Pucella who gave Baker his first shot at coaching.
“We were housemates at the time, and [Pucella] needed an assistant coach,” Baker recalled. “So he just bugged me until I gave in and agreed to be his assistant.”
Pucella was coaching a local girl’s high-school team in Buffalo after he finished his undergraduate studies. Having rowed with Baker in the United States Nationals and the Canadian Henley Regatta, Pucella recruited him, knowing his “work ethic for training was very impressive.” Pucella remembers that Baker was “good at coaching right away.”
At the time, Baker was still rowing for Buffalo’s crew team. Simultaneously coaching and rowing reaped some unexpected benefits.
“Watching the sport so much every day, I used it to help me with my own rowing,” Baker said. “I feel like coaching gave me feedback for [myself].”
After graduating in 2001, Baker’s first experience coaching at the collegiate level came in the summer of 2002, when he coached at Vesper Boat Club, one of the most celebrated clubs on Boathouse Row.
It was also his first encounter working with Penn students, as several women in the summer program rowed for the Red and Blue during the school year.
Baker later coached as an assistant at Yale and the Naval Academy. He was named the Midshipmen’s head coach in 2008, but just one year later, he left Navy to come to Penn.
“Philadelphia is really a destination coaching position and a destination place to … be part of the rowing community,” Baker said. “When this job opened up … it was hard to pass up.”
He also added that the chance to coach in the Ivy League was very attractive, as was the opportunity to return to Boathouse Row.
Upon Baker’s hiring, Pucella was one of the first people the coach called — not only because they are good friends, but because he had a proposition.
“As soon as I got here, he was one of the first coaches I talked to about adding to our schedule,” Baker stated.
Since their college days, Baker and Pucella have remained close friends, so much so that, according to Pucella, “every year, he remembers to call me on my birthday.”
“We talk at least weekly,” Baker said. “We talk a lot of rowing, we talk about our families … It’s really special, and it’s probably something that won’t take its full meaning for me until years from now.”
For Saturday’s race, the Quakers will face Delaware in the morning competition, in addition to Marietta. Later that day, they will square off against Williams College.
Both Baker and Pucella hope that the race between their two schools becomes an annual tradition. Pucella would even like to raise the stakes.
“It would be really nice to continue this tradition and maybe even add a cup,” Pucella proposed. “Penn’s got more money than we do, so they should be buying the cup.”
Being so close, Baker admitted that the two have talked about someday coaching together. However, Baker says he is happy here at Penn, and he believes Pucella has found a home in Marietta, so a chance to coach together may only be possible in the offseason.
“It would definitely be fun to coach together, even on just a summer basis,” Baker said.
Pucella is confident that an opportunity will arise someday. “I figure I’ll be in the sport another 40 years, and I suspect he’s got another 45 left,” Pucella predicted. “I think our paths will eventually cross.”
And while eventually may be a ways down the line, Saturday will suffice for the old friends.