IOWA CITY – Steve Pritzker sat in his office on the third floor of Carver Hawkeye Arena. A mesh navy Nike baseball cap with a faded white ‘Swoosh’ covered his head. It complimented his navy collared shirt with vertical and horizontal white stripes, that was tucked into his jeans. A Hayden Fry bobblehead looked over his shoulder and onto a desk cluttered with papers.
He fit the role of a first year Hawkeye head coach.
Today he’s looking to make Iowa women’s rowing relevant as the team heads into the Head of Iowa Sunday. Ten years ago he had a much different look. He walked the streets of New York City, in a suit and tie. He needed to look like a million bucks, because he dealt with billions.
“We managed about $4 billion. I covered retail companies,” Pritzker said. “…I think we had probably three, four-hundred million we traded. I did that for two years. It was an interesting time.”
A Yale graduated, Pritzker, dealt with hedge funds on Wall Street from 2001 until 2003. He was good at it too. He had an offer to work in Hong Kong, as he put it, “travel the world on someone else’s dime.” The opportunity to work with Chief Executive Officer’s at companies like Wal-Mart, Target, Abercrombie and Fitch, to name a few, trumped it.
But he was almost too good.
“It sounds bad, but I kind of got bored with it,” Pritzker said. “It was kind of like trading numbers. I think I’m a fairly numbers based person, it wasn’t that complicated per say. Now it’s complicated to be really good. But what most people did, it was a day in and day out (job).”
So like any confused, bored, mid-twenties college graduate Pritzker went back to school to try to find his passion at the University of Virginia. He found it at the boathouse.
“Yeah I took a large pay cut. Not what I was paid rowing wise, but I did a lot of things and I love doing a lot of things,” Pritzker said. “But I also, like I said wanted to wake up and really enjoy (my life).”
He volunteered as an assistant in 2004. There wasn’t much of a job application. He called the Cavaliers’ head coach Kevin Sauer, who agreed, if Pritzker had time as a business student he could help.
“I don’t think he really believed me. He had no reason to. And then I kept coming back and was coaching a boat because they needed someone to do it. It was a younger version of me, which wasn’t impressive at the time,” Pritzker said. “I think I had one girl say to me, we didn’t really know who you were. You kind of kept coming. You seemed like a nice enough guy. And then suddenly you have a pretty aggressive personality. I’ve had that said to me more than once or twice.”
The personality stuck and he signed on for a paid role in 2005 as an assistant. During his tenure at Virginia, Pritzker saw his tutelage lead to four NCAA titles for his Varsity 4 boats. It’s a personality the Hawkeyes want him to bring to Iowa.
Just like Iowa isn’t New York City, it isn’t Virginia either. The Hawkeyes are perennial bottom feeders in the Big Ten. Iowa finished better than sixth in the Big Ten championships once – fifth in 2009 — since 2004. It’s something Pritzker doesn’t sweep under the rug.
“We’re the last place team in the Big Ten. It doesn’t matter what I had to do with it, whether I was here or not. I’m in charge of it now. I’m responsible for that,” Pritzker said. “I don’t think we’re suddenly going to be the national champions next year so, I have a knot in my stomach probably every minute of every day.”
That knot might tie a bit tighter before it loosens. In rowing there is no RPI system. The bids are automatic so strength of conference means nothing. Four teams make the postseason. The weaker the competition, the better it is for the teams at the top.
“It was made clear to me early on that nobody wants us to be good outside of here in the rowing world. I mean that again in a respectful way,” Pritzker said. “But I’m quite aware that people have made comments already about they’d like us not to succeed.”
But Pritzker hasn’t failed in many things in his life. He lost his sixth grade spelling bee, but at the event, he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. His response, “An investment banker.” Check.
When he accomplished that, he sat at table with his friends – a doctor, lawyer and architect – it wasn’t a joke but it sounded like one. He would leave the millions in Wall Street for regettas in Virginia hopefully leading to a head coaching gig. Four national titles later Iowa hires him in July of 2012. Check.
Now he looks to fill one more empty box on his check list.
“Like someone or not, the culture wasn’t succeeding. And I think everyone can say that. Even (former head coach Mandi Kowal) would say that. My job is to now get the culture where people believe we can be better,” Pritzker said. “That’s hard. And it is nail-biting. Yes. I like what I do. Have I had some frustrating days? Yes I have. But you know my job is to be frustrating, then five minutes later say ‘OK’ and find a way to get to the next step.”