JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Bill Jurgens has navigated lakes and rivers all across the world as a member of the 1974 United States men's national rowing team and a former Jacksonville University student-athlete. On Thursday, November 17, his latest course will guide him to the New York Athletic Club where he will be recognized by USRowing for his contributions to the sport.
A professional colleague and personal friend of the award's namesake, Jurgens will receive the Jack Kelly Award for "exemplifying superior achievements in rowing, service to amateur athletics, and success in (his) chosen profession, thereby serving as an inspiration to American rowers."
"It surely is an honor," said Jurgens. "I served on the Board of Directors at USRowing with Jack Kelly. He was a very large figure in amateur sports in America. I'm honored, humbled and appreciative to have been considered for this award."
Long before he was a world-class rower who won the 1974 U.S. Trials and went on to compete at the World Championships in Lucerne, Switzerland, Bill Jurgens was just a kid from Melbourne, Fla., who decided to give rowing a try.
"I had seen it in the Olympics and on some commercials on TV and really thought I would enjoy it," said Jurgens. "I grew up near the [Indian] River and spent a lot of time down at the river and it seemed like the best of both worlds to me."
With a similar locale as his hometown – Jacksonville University sits right on the St. Johns River – and an opportunity to follow a childhood dream, it's no coincidence Jurgens chose JU.
"I wanted to study biology and I've always loved sports. I knew (JU) had a rowing team and I was very interested in trying out for the program. I rowed all four years at Jacksonville."
From Shack to Shiny
In the age of multi-million dollar stadiums and athletic facilities that many Division I programs boast, imagine a small wooden shack without so much as a concrete floor, running water, or even electricity.
"The boathouse had straw, literally straw on the floor. It was so fragile that if for some reason you didn't have a key, you could just pull a board away from the side and get into the boathouse that way. It looked like it was made of driftwood. It was a unique boathouse," added Jurgens.
Little did he or the rest of the rowing team know, their little driftwood boathouse was near the end of its time and would soon be transformed due to their perseverance against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology one chilly January afternoon in 1965.
"MIT had just raced against Tampa, Florida Southern, and I believe Rollins. They had taken a sweep through Florida and were catching us on the way back," said Jurgens.
During the race, a yacht had been following the boats, and the man in the driver's seat proved to be a key figure in providing funding for a new boathouse.
"This was the first day that I was stroking the varsity eight, and as we left the dock, I caught a crab," laughed Jurgens.
In rowers' terms, "catching a crab" is slang for when an oar blade gets caught in the water. A rower may recover from a crab quickly or get stuck and get thrown from the boat.
"It was 28 degrees outside, or colder, and my hands were a little frozen. Catching that crab was a wakeup call and I said, 'Let's not lose all the confidence of your crew members.'"
"I think the MIT team took us lightly because we were able to open it up to a lead from the start. They tried to come back on us, but we were in a groove and it's hard to relinquish a lead once you have it. We ended up beating them by a little over a boat's length."
Mr. Franklin G. Russell, the "man in the yacht," was, at that time, a member of the Jacksonville University Board of Trustees. He was so impressed with the varsity eight's performance that he generously donated a new boathouse and dock to the team. Following his donation, another board member, Alexander Brest, donated two new shells and oars.
"That was a moment hard to forget, transforming that old wooden driftwood boathouse with straw and no electricity or water into a beautiful two-bay boathouse with locker rooms, a training room and a coach's office. I was real proud to have been part of that, just to see the transition that took place."
One Boat Can Make a Difference
Jacksonville's stoic head coach, Tim Tyler, saw potential in Jurgens and his teammates.
"There was one practice where we had just finished and were on the dock, and Coach Tyler said 'The two of you,' that was August Burrichter and myself, 'how about you taking out this eight and rowing it around?' I thought, because we were the stern pair, his purpose was to show us that we were part of the problem."
After rowing in the St. Johns River for a bit, the pair came back to shore. When Coach Tyler asked how it felt with Jurgens, Burrichter and a coxswain rowing a varsity eight shell, Jurgens wasn't sure how to reply.
"I didn't want to tell him it was shaky a little. I said, 'Oh, it just rowed perfect,' and I didn't think anything of it."
A couple of months later, a shell for the coxed pair arrived at the boathouse.
"That summer, we ended up rowing, Augie and I, in the President's Cup in Washington. We went on to the national championships and just enjoyed competing," added Jurgens. "I had different partners, but I ended up winning the national championship and the U.S. Trials for the world championship and going all the way to Lucerne, Switzerland, and competing in the world championships there. He (Coach Tyler) had a great impact on my life - he introduced me to that boat."
Back to the Start
Following graduation from JU in 1968, Jurgens was hired as a science teacher at Arlington Junior High School. Two days into the school year, Principal Corman asked if he'd teach physical education and become the school's basketball and assistant track coach.
"I told them I wasn't trained for that and I really didn't have the experience as a basketball coach, but the principal said 'You'll do just fine.' That year, I had a blast; it was a very good experience for me."
The following summer, at the suggestion of his principal, Jurgens applied for and received a National Science Foundation grant to attend the University of Florida and continue his education.
He graduated with a master's degree in science education, and the rowing bug returned when Coach Tyler asked Jurgens to be the head official at the state rowing race that Jacksonville was hosting. Along with the usual crews, Florida Institute of Technology had just added a rowing team and was without a head coach.
"When I was at the state race, FIT was one of the participants and the sponsor of the team asked me if I would consider coaching. I took one visit down to Melbourne and they went ahead and offered me the job.
"It was an opportunity to coach at a college in my hometown, and I could grow with the program. I was a young coach and the program was a young program."
Jurgens not only grew with the program, but he formed its roots as well, leading the team for 19 years before retiring in 1988.
Five years into his coaching tenure, Jurgens became the school's athletic director. For twelve years, he held the unique dual-role of coach and AD, committing himself to the success of student-athletes.
Now in his 41st year as Florida Tech's athletic director, Jurgens reflects on the transition from coach to AD.
"In 1988, I retired from coaching full time to focus on expanding and growing the athletics programs as the athletic director. I just thought that it would be something that would be a strong challenge. I thought I could probably do more as an AD than just coaching alone. So I've continued doing that."
The respect and encouragement from his mentors – Coach Tyler and Principal Corman – still resonate with Jurgens in his daily life.
"There are a lot of people, and a lot of times you don't even realize, that have a positive impact on your life and can steer you in directions that you would never go in. At some point in time, you have to decide whether that is something that you want to do or not. They saw something in me that I didn't even know in myself," reminisced Jurgens.
"Never a day passes that I don't take time to talk to student-athletes and give them some positive encouragement."