Bebe Bryans might have stunned University of Wisconsin administrators with the decision she took this week: She's stepping down after 19 seasons leading the women's rowing program.
The confirmation came Saturday, six days after the Badgers finished sixth out of eight teams at the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis. It was the second straight season that UW finished in that spot and missed the NCAA Championship after 13 consecutive appearances from 2009 to 2021.
Bryans said she "shocked the heck out of" senior associate athletic director and rowing administrator Marija Pientka on Tuesday when she delivered the news. And Bryans said she heard from athletic director Chris McIntosh on Saturday.
"He wanted to know if there was anything, any reason that he could help out with, and there just isn't," Bryans said. "I'm proud of what I've done. And I'm proud of what the team has been able to accomplish and build. The staff has been remarkable, everybody that I've been able to work with. And it's time for new leadership."
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Bryans matched Sue Ela with 19 years in charge of the Badgers and wrapped up her tenure as UW concluded a season in which it celebrated 50 seasons of the women's rowing program.
She was fourth in seniority among UW coaches behind Chris Clark (men's rowing), Mark Johnson (women's hockey) and Todd Oehrlein (women's golf).
UW hired Bryans in 2004 after she started the women's rowing program at Michigan State and spent seven years there. Her 18 seasons of competition (the 2020 season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic) with UW produced a Big Ten championship in 2010, 12 top-three finishes and 15 trips to the NCAA regatta.
Bryans said she entered the 2023 season hoping to get the team back on track after disappointing results in 2022. But UW's best finish at the Big Ten meet was third place by the Novice Eight.
"I'm at peace with what we did this year, even though it wasn't as fast as we'd hoped to go," Bryans said. "The team was unified and they did a great job. So this was just the right time."
Rowing in Madison brings challenges with a shortened season on Lake Mendota outside the Porter Boathouse. Bryans saluted Clark, with whom she has shared the rowing headquarters, for a collaboration that helped both men's and women's openweight and lightweight programs.
Bryans said she has tried to use the challenges presented for rowing at UW as a chance to build a strength.
"Adversity builds steel," she said. "And that's what we try to use it for. There's so many plusses to rowing at Wisconsin. Being right on campus is huge, both for the time management of the students but also just visibility. Everybody in Wisconsin knows there's a rowing team.
"It doesn't really make sense but it's true. I've been a lot of other places where it was much more reasonable to know there was a team but nobody did because it wasn't that visible and it hadn't been around that long."
Bryans, a member of the athletics hall of fame at San Francisco State for a swimming career, has been coaching college rowing since 1988 at Mills College, Georgetown, Michigan State and UW.
"It's been a lot of years of doing one thing," Bryans said. "I always say that for the freshmen, it's the hardest thing they have to do, be a freshman in college. Because it's the biggest change in their whole lives. And so maybe I'm going to test that theory. We'll see."