Forty-five years into college sailing as a head coach, Ken Legler is clear: You can coach starting technique, but only experience can teach it. And nobody wins much without it. And I’m clear that nobody argues much with Ken Legler. So, if you feel a trembling in the power of the Force toward the end of this spring semester, you will know that Legler really has followed through and hung up his coaching tools after dishing out experience to generations of Tufts University Jumbos.
Forty-five years, including 43 at Tufts and even more before he became head coach? Heck, he was already coaching when he was still in school. The rest was as natural as learning to smell a windshift. As a coach, Legler’s results speak for themselves. But we can come back to that because if championships were all the man had to show for himself, retirement would not be an earthquake moment. It is one because Legler has inhabited the sailing world, pumped it through his veins and made a difference. He was almost apologetic in 2006 when a second round of throat cancer sidelined him for chemo and radiation. What came to mind as he reported from a hospital bed was: “I sailed through mono as an undergrad. I would be fired if I advised my students to do that now. I just can’t get enough of this college sailing thing.”
Cancer and chemo were too much for “sailing through,” and there was also a stroke. As Legler laboriously recovered from each and returned to coaching, the outpourings from friends, admirers and students will perhaps have prepared him for the outpouring (with a capital “O”) coming his way May 12-13, when a tribute is the keynote of Tufts’ annual Alumni Regatta. Or maybe not. When the stories start rolling…
Josh Adams, a three-time All-American and later director of US Olympic Sailing, says: “When they do a Mount Rushmore for college sailors, Ken Legler will be there. As a coach, he’s more philosopher than technician. What he’s good at is getting sailors on the water to learn from being on the water. When you graduate Tufts and look back, you realize that all those practice days and all those practice races were led by an exceptional PRO. He’s made a difference in race management in America. When Key West was at its peak, Ken’s circle was always lauded.
“Ken is multidimensional. He’s a historian, and he’s a storyteller—he made sure we understood our heritage. And he’s a great photographer who documented all his sailors through the years. Meanwhile, Jumbos showed up in college rankings alongside a lot of Division 1 Ivy League schools. Ken did that with a small Division 3 school, and you can’t look at his accomplishments without feeling like this really is the end of an era.”
OK, a sampling: In 1978 to 1980 at the US Merchant Marine Academy, Legler coached two national championship teams and four All-Americans. At Tufts he is credited with 20 national championships and 92 All‑Americans. He was an All-American himself at the University of Rhode Island (while he was doing his first coaching, remember).
At the tribute, they really should play “My Way.” The home waters for Tufts is Mystic Lake, where the breeze is as shifty as you would expect in a landlocked Boston suburb. The fleet is the Lark, featuring a bendy rig, square-top main and a wide planing transom. That is, Larks are the antithesis of the institutional Flying Juniors and C420s used in the rest of college sailing—tweakier, livelier, more entertaining. And they’re improved, generation by generation, and perhaps a tad frustrating to other teams when they have to show up and adapt. Legler makes sure that his people are challenged by a variety of other boats too, perhaps 16 per semester, and he regrets the time when kids just goofed around in boats. There was freedom in the absence of organization, and there were lessons.
Tufts sailors do not receive the coddling their talents might earn them elsewhere. Legler knows the programs where, as he says: “Sailors don’t have to work on the boats. They just show up and start roll tacking. There’s no cooking or cleaning, and those things take time, as anyone no longer in college soon discovers.” In an appreciation at sail1design.com, Pearson Potts recalls a sailor who asked about accommodations at the next regatta and received the reply: “What am I, a friggin’ travel agent? You’re an adult now. Figure it out.”
Coddled or not, the Jumbo sailing experience includes ample TLC. Current Jumbo Celia Byrne recalls: “After I first visited Tufts, I got a funny text from Ken that made me wonder if it was meant for me, something about a female astronaut. When I went back, I realized it was because he had researched my interests—and read my whole file—and thought I would find it worthwhile. That doesn’t happen everywhere. And that photography he’s known for—he continued through COVID and sent pictures to my family. They were touched at a time when it mattered.”
“Ken was successful because he is meticulous,” says another grad, Stu Johnstone. “The difficult thing at first was a lack of resource. That came later, then really took off when Larry Bacow became president of Tufts and wanted to see the sailing team grow.”
Ken Legler has inhabited the sailing world, pumped it through his veins and made a difference.
Today the three-story Bacow Sailing Pavilion provides boat storage and a repair shop, home and visiting team rooms, a kitchen, a conference room, a coach’s office, a great room for regatta gatherings and an ever-popular observation deck. Small program or growing, Legler maintained the largest roster he could, which today means 50-plus. Every weekend he sends out a fleet of vans to regattas big and small. It’s important to him that all his people, Nationals starters or not, get the full college sailing experience. When spring break rolls around, tradition calls for camping out at St. Mary’s, and a week of sailing institutional boats to get ready for Nationals. Legends are born in those weeks.
So, what is it like to be Ken Legler?
“Recruiting is a massive piece of the puzzle,” he says. “Letters flood in, especially on Sundays, maybe 150 contacts a year. The first thing I look for is whether the kid is qualified to get into Tufts. Then I think about sailing ability. I can tell in a hurry if someone can sail. What I can’t do is take more than one or two male crews in any class year. Six on the team is plenty, but I could take 20 women, because it’s only the small skippers who can sail with most male crew.
“Because of Title 9, we have to take more women to balance out the football team,” Legler says. “As long as we have more women than men, we’re OK, but the school would like it if we had way more women or just fewer men. When Brown went varsity, they cut a deal to have only 10 men for 20 women, with everyone else sailing on the club team. So, yes, we’re looking for women, but they have to be able to get in. Remember, we don’t pick them, Admissions does.”
And how might Legler see the relationship between college sailing and Olympic sailing? That’s a perpetual topic, heated up recently by Paul Cayard as head of Olympic Sailing.
“To excel in college sailing,” Legler says, “you have to maintain a keen focus on academics and a keen focus on the finer points of college sailing at the same time. It’s consuming. Nevertheless, our people are at the top, academically, and it’s amazing what a high level of tactics and boathandling college sailors achieve—but that does not get them any closer to a medal. For a medal, you have to sail Olympic-class boats, and not many people can afford that, either the money or the time. To be a fall and spring All-American and an Olympic campaigner is almost impossible.
“Olympic boats have changed dramatically, except for ILCAs. College boats have remained the same, and I don’t see any big changes coming. Another thing too: Our colleges produce people who make six figures right out of the gate. That’s after working hard through high school and then working like bandits to get through college. They’re not going to give that up to finish second at the Olympic Trials.”
So, how did Ken Legler become Ken Legler? Not by following the path of his students.
“I wanted to go to Tufts,” he says, “but my dad told me I’d have to make up the cost difference between Tufts and URI. That meant I’d be working all the time instead of sailing, so I went to URI and sailed every day. I was not a good student, but I was a good sailor. I took over as coach as an undergraduate, and I was running the team or trying to. When I came out, I was more prepared for coaching than anything else.”
That led to a first job at the Naval Academy, and soon to that head coaching position at Kings Point, and the success levels and impact of the total career we are celebrating here.
Personal challenges weighed in. Legler returned to his coaching job—it’s a mission, let’s be real—after each cancer recovery, and recovery was never guaranteed. Today he says: “I’m down to the same weight as in college, but not with the same metabolism. I eat so slowly that I spend five hours a day eating.”
That was simple sharing, not a sympathy play, and the conversation that produced this writing quickly turned to starting and speed as the first two elements of racing success. Here’s Legler: “We run lots of practice starts and acceleration drills. Lots. That’s how you learn to pay attention and really see what’s going on. Do you notice a header hitting that boat at the other end of the line? Are you ready to react before it gets to you? A coach can talk about those things, but internalizing them, making them instinctive, is all experience. This year was my third winter back frostbiting on Boston Harbor. We sail Rhodes 19s, and those boats are slow to accelerate. It’s not as though I don’t have experience, but I’ve had setbacks. It took a while for my starting chops to kick in. I had to learn to listen to my coaching voice.”