Power 20! Women’s rowing coach welcomes 20th season with Sac State

Coach Mike Connors is the second-longest tenured coach on campus


Laura De La Garza Garcia

Coach Mike Connors poses on some boats near Lake Natoma on Saturday, April 2, 2022. Connors began rowing in 1979 when he was a high school walk-on at Santa Clara University and has been continuously involved with the sport since.

Sitting on a picnic table on a sunny afternoon near Lake Natoma, coach Mike Connors reminisces on his journey leading to his 20th season with Sacramento State women’s rowing team.

Long after finishing his student-athlete rowing career with Santa Clara University, Connors said he could not imagine letting go of the sport that he grew to love. When the women’s rowing head coach position at Sac State became available, he saw it as an opportunity to share his teachings with the next generation of rowers. 

Connors said he did not picture himself coaching at Sac State this long. He is the second longest-tenured coach at Sac State following the men’s soccer coach Michael Linenberger.

After high school, Connors headed to SCU to begin his own rowing career. Before coming to Sac State, Connors was the head coach for the university’s women’s rowing team.

“I learned to row [at SCU] just like most folks ‘cause back in that day, any high school rowing was mostly in the Northeast,” Connors said. “There was very little high school rowing in the West Coast.” 

Connors was a walk-on freshman in his first year at SCU in 1979. He was four-seat all four years in which he rowed and has continued to be involved in the sport ever since.

The Santa Clara University Broncos practice at Lexington Reservoir in 1981. Connors was always at four-seat in the boat, which is the fifth rower from the end of the boat. (Photo courtesy of: Mike Connors)

When one of his friends became head coach for SCU men’s team, he asked Connors if he would help coach, he said. 

“That is how I started coaching, by just volunteering,” Connors said.

After two years of helping his friend coach the men’s rowing team, the women’s rowing head coaching position at SCU opened up and Connors managed to get it. 

Connors was the head coach for SCU team for seven years, in which he helped establish a foundation and build competitive rowers. After those seven years, he decided to take a break from coaching and row on his own. 

“At that time, most of the coaching jobs were part-time,” Connors said. “So I was working full-time, went to grad school and got my MBA.” 

Coach Connors joined the Sac State community in 2002 and said his tenure has had a lot of ups and downs since then.

“The COVID thing was crazy to deal with, so that was a new twist,” he said. “ What I always enjoy about this school in general was that it was always a friendly campus and that our department always reflected that. Everybody was always just very supportive of each other.”

Natalie Banford is a senior who has been in rowing since her freshman year. She is a part of the varsity eight, the fastest boat on the team, and came into the team with no rowing experience. 

Banford moved up to varsity from novice her freshman year. She said coach Connors and coach George have very different coaching styles which made it intimidating at first to move up from being a novice. 

During Banford’s first time on varsity, she said she remembers coach Connors assuring her that she was not messing everything up on the boat. 

“I remember being like, ‘well, if Mike is saying that I’m probably not messing everything up then maybe I’m doing okay’,” Banford said. 

Senior rower Jordan Smith said that when she was getting recruited, Connors was very enthusiastic and open to letting anyone have a fair shot when joining the rowing team.

Mike Connors coaches the women’s team on Lake Natoma on Saturday, April 2, 2022. Connors led the women’s rowing to place in the top three for the American Championship in 2015, 2017, and 2021. (Laura De la Garza Garcia)

Smith is a port and starboard on the rowing team and has been rowing a total of eight years, with four of them being at Sac State. 

“It wasn’t about seniority on the team, it was about how hard you were willing to work,” she said. “That’s why I chose Sac State. [Connors] seemed like a coach who really prioritized us being students and athletes and really wanted us to improve at our own pace.”

Smith said one of the things Connors does to set the rowers up for success is breaking the mental barriers and helping them not think that they are ‘“small.”

“He told me that anywhere I want to be on the team is where I will end up if I put in the hard work,” Smith said. “He helped lead me there by showing me that I can be faster than I previously thought I’d be.”

Mikaela Smyth is a senior at Sac State, who has been rowing at Sac State for five years. She said Connors has established a family-oriented environment within the team.

Throughout the season, there has been trust generated within the team, while rowing out in the water, Smyth said.

“I think it’s really special what we have here just because everyone is like, ‘my sister’ sort of thing, you know?” Smyth said. “I can go to anyone for help or anyone can come to me. He [Connors] has created a good team culture.” 

Fourth-year port, Willow Goddard has been rowing for a total of six years– with four of them at Sac State. Goddard previously rowed for a local club in Washington prior to coming to Sac State and at the time she wasn’t sure if she wanted to go to college.  

“I wasn’t really planning on going to college ‘cause I didn’t really have a way to afford it, and [Sac State] is beautiful and I have always wanted to come to California,” Goddard said.  “Mike was the only coach who would offer me any kind of aid considering that I had only been rowing for two years,” she said.

 Goddard said Connors is a quiet and generous person who can be strict with his athletes. 

“He has always been understanding that we are athletes and students,” Goddard said. “With all the stuff outside of rowing, he is always very understanding. You just have to talk to him and tell him what is going on with you. He will listen, he is very easy to talk to.” 

Connors led the women’s rowing to place in the top three for the American Championship in 2015, 2017, and 2021. According to Connors, he hopes for his team to be as fast as possible at the end of the season.

“As long as we do that, wherever we end up we end up,” Connors said. 

The next regatta for women’s rowing will take place on Lake Natoma on Saturday, April 30.