April 24, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Matt Weise was figuratively and literally at home during the 1992-93 school year. Having just graduated from Michigan State with a bachelor's degree in physics and a minor in mathematics, the Grosse Ile, Mich., native returned home for an ideal job of teaching ninth grade physical science. But after just one year as a high school teacher, Weise missed college, and most importantly, missed rowing. So he opted to return to East Lansing with a formula for success.
Having spent half of his actual high school years and his entire college career as an avid rower, Weise fell in the love with the sport he knew he eventually wanted to coach. As a member of the MSU club team during his undergraduate years, Weise had the opportunity to delve into coaching immediately since the club team has no actual head coach position.
He was a sophomore at the time and says that among his several responsibilities was learning how to organize and manage a group of 60-70 team members. In fact, he served in that coaching role until the position became official and was filled while he was a senior. Still, Weise had gotten that taste of coaching and knew that it was something he wanted to continue to do.
A dozen years later, Weise earned the coveted top coaching spot at Michigan State during the 2004-05 season and proceeded to guide his Spartans to their first-ever Big Ten Championship. In addition, he was named both the conference's and NCAA Central Region Coach of the Year.
Weise had made it, and deservingly so. While Weise will tell you that Michigan State rowing would not be where it is today without the success of former head coach and current Wisconsin mentor Bebe Bryans, the truth is that the Spartan program might not be here at all if it wasn't for Weise.
When he retuned to his alma mater after his one-year stint as a high school teacher, Weise took charge of both the men's and women's club teams as head coach. Weise says the move was prompted by simply following his passion, something that was also a little tough for his parents to comprehend.
"Part of it was that I really liked teaching, but it wasn't something I was passionate about. I was passionate about coaching," he said. "My parents thought I was nuts."
Passion prompted the move back to East Lansing in 1993 and in just two years time, that very same emotion drove Weise to file paperwork in an effort to have rowing become an officially sponsored sport at Michigan State.
"Well, for me, I didn't have to do a lot of convincing, just a lot of writing," he said. "I working in intramural sports at the time and we heard (MSU) was be interested in adding a women's sport. We first took a vote with our club people and they said absolutely to the idea. From there it was asking a million people for input and compiling all the information."
Weise says it took him a year to compile the research and formulate it into a professional proposal. He credits former Michigan State senior woman administrator Kathy Lindahl and Peggy Brown, current associate athletic director of business operations, for their assistance with the project.
"I felt like I was writing a thesis," Weise said of the proposal.
Truth is, he was. At the same time Weise was campaigning for varsity status, he was also in the middle of working on his masters in kinesiology with an emphasis on biomechanics. He later earned his advanced degree from Michigan State in 1997.
But in 1996, Weise's hopes had come true as then-athletic director Merritt Norvell accepted the proposal and implemented rowing as the school's newest varsity sport.
An elated Weise remembers that not all of the Spartan community was equally thrilled with the idea, however. In fact, members of the media printed their criticism for all to read, including Weise.
"I remember a sportswriter in Grand Rapids (Mich.) in our first year saying there was never going to be a high-level rowing program in the state of Michigan," Weise said. "He just ripped us. That proved to be motivation for us and I think we have proven them wrong."
Weise was not disappointed when the school hired Bryans, and not him, as head coach of the inaugural season. He admits that at that time there was a great difference between club rowing and Division I rowing and that his experience was limited to how to organize a large group.
"That was the primary responsibility," he laughed. "My main goal was making sure I got paid."
Weise admits that had Michigan State rewarded him with the head coaching job initially, he does not think the program would be in the state is in now. He praises the work and patience of Bryans, saying she taught him how to work with student-athletes on an individual basis and maximize their potential.
Over the seven-year span Weise tutored under Bryans, the Spartans were an annual NCAA Championships participant and peaked in 2002 when Weise's varsity four placed fifth at the event, marking the highest finish in school history.
And since his promotion to head coach in 2004, Weise has tried to make the program his own while improving on the success the program endured under Bryans' watch.
After a championship season in 2005, the Spartans earned more honors in 2006 en route to their eighth straight NCAA Championships bid. That season Weise guided Erin Robertson and Anne Cowan to Big Ten Rower and Freshman of the Year honors, respectively. The team went on to finish a program-best sixth at nationals.
Despite a fourth-place result in the seven-team field at Big Tens last year, Weise believes this year's team is ready to make waves at not only the conference championship, but at nationals as well.
"They have had a pretty good regular season and knowing this team, if we can keep it going, they'll be pretty successful at Big Tens," Weise said.
Currently Michigan State tops all Big Ten teams in the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association (CRCA) Poll at sixth, followed by Michigan in ninth - proof in fact that rowing can be competitive in the state. The Spartans next take to the water in Ann Arbor for the Big Ten Championships on May 3.
"The team is pretty motivated from struggling last year," Weise said. "They are a positive, easy and fun group to coach, and they can rise to any challenge."
Facing challenges is nothing new to Weise.
From organizing a group of 70 club athletes, to writing two "thesis" papers at the same time - one of which earned MSU rowing varsity status - to coaching a championship-caliber program, Weise has met all those challenges with success.
So relax mom and dad.
Your son Matt wasn't nuts after all.