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Aug. 18, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Emily Ford grew up in Columbus, Ohio, a daughter of Ohio State alumni. And so when she took a job as an assistant rowing coach at the University of Michigan, Ohio State’s nemesis, the move created an interesting dynamic at home.

“It was a fun little rivalry for a while,” Ford recalled, smiling.

After 11 years in Ann Arbor, she left to become head coach at Oregon State. Ten seasons later, she’s the new associate head coach at the University of Virginia.

“It had everything I was looking for,” said Ford, who rowed at UC San Diego, from which she graduated in 1993. “It had the academic reputation, the rowing success, and people that I know I really like and really respect. It just felt like a really good fit.”

Ford, whose parents now live on the West Coast, said she’s known UVA head coach Kevin Sauer “for a long time, just because he’s a pretty substantial figure in the sport.” Their bond grew tighter in 1997. Sauer was running a U.S. Rowing development camp in Charlottesville that summer, and two of Michigan’s rowers took part.

“I was in my second or third year of coaching,” Ford said, “I just thought, `I’ll go down and hang out for a week and watch.’ And so I just came down, rode in Kevin’s launch, and watched practice for a week. I’m pretty sure I stayed in the Cavalier Inn.”

Sauer said: “I’ve been impressed with her ever since. She brings a lot to the table. She knows her role and she knows what she’s capable of and she sees the head coach’s perspective as an assistant coach, which makes a huge difference. She’s got a tremendous amount of knowledge, and she’s got a great personality. She’s well-respected in the rowing world. I got several texts and emails from other head coaches around the country saying, `Great hire,’ because they respect her.”

Virginia’s coaching staff has undergone major changes since the end of last season. Steve Pritzker returns as an associate head coach, but Brett Gorman and Kristine O’Brien are gone. Gorman, who was an associate head coach, is not coaching this year, and O’Brien is back with the U.S. national team, training for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Erin Neppel, who was a three-time All-ACC rower at North Carolina, joined Sauer’s staff as an assistant coach last month. Neppel came to UVA from Canisius College, where she was interim head coach last season.

“I’ve known her 20 years too,” said Sauer, who coached Neppel at an Olympic training center in Southern California early in her college career. “She’s got a tremendous amount of energy, and she really, really wants to be here.”

Gorman and O’Brien were “big losses,” Sauer said, “but I think we’ve recouped and gotten a couple of great people to take over.”

Before becoming interim head coach at Canisius, Neppel spent three seasons as an assistant there under Joel Furtek, for whom she rowed at UNC. Furtek also is a former UVA assistant.

The world of college rowing is a small one, so naturally Ford and Furtek know each other well, too.

“When I had an opening at Oregon State, he actually called me about Erin,” Ford said. “So I’ve known about her, and he’s been speaking really highly of her for a long time.”

The Pac-12 includes such perennial powers as Washington, Cal and Stanford. Oregon State is “a great school,” Sauer said, “but it’s not an easy place to win.”

Virginia, which has won two NCAA team titles (2010 and 2012) under Sauer, has better resources than Oregon State. In recruiting, Ford will be pursuing rowers similar to those she coached at Michigan.

She’s still learning about the University, Ford said, “but I think that there’s more support [for rowing than at Oregon State] and there’s more history and tradition. And the academic climate is different.”

On May 14, at Clemson, Virginia won its eighth straight ACC title. Two weekends later, the Wahoos placed 11th at the NCAA championships on Mercer Lake in New Jersey. In each of the previous 10 seasons, Virginia had finished sixth or better at the NCAA regatta.

Sauer came away from 2016-17 with a list of areas in the program that need improving. “So that’s what we’re going to do this year,” he said. “We’re going to do some things that are better than we did last year, both the coaching staff and the kids. We’re going to respond.”

UVA’s recent recruiting classes have not been as strong as their predecessors. To remedy that, Sauer said, the coaches are “going to be more aggressive. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we need to be more aggressive.”

Ford is eager to do her part. After leading a college program for a decade, to be an assistant coach again is “pretty interesting,” she said.

“It’s definitely kind of a unique perspective, because I find myself drawing on some of my experience at Michigan. I feel like I have a lot of perspectives, and so that can help sometimes, I think. So far, with Kevin and Steve, their leadership is so strong that it’s just really easy to kind of fall in with that. It’s been really fun.”

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