For Erin Neppel — the newest UNC rowing head coach — returning to her alma mater is surreal. A Tar Heel through and through, the class of 2001 graduate is one of the most decorated rowers in the program’s history.
Twenty years after her departure from UNC, things have come full circle for Neppel.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to come back to your collegiate program,” Neppel said. “I have wonderful memories here and to be back just feels really unreal.”
In her undergraduate career at UNC, Neppel was a Second Team All-American in 2001 and earned All-ACC and All-Region status in her final two seasons. She is one of only three athletes in the rowing program’s history to earn All-American status.
Neppel comes to the Tar Heels after four seasons as an assistant coach for the Virginia Cavaliers, who, with her guidance, earned ACC titles in 2018, 2019 and 2021. With no 2020 championship due to the pandemic, UVA has won 11-straight conference titles.
“We’re really excited to have her, especially because she’s seen a successful program at UVA, and hopefully she can replicate that here at UNC,” junior rower Amanda Perez said.
Neppel said returning to UNC Rowing was an easy choice, and she looks forward to this next challenge in her career.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” she said. “I felt like it was a great time and the timing couldn’t have been better.”
Neppel will be just the third head coach in the program’s history since it began in 1997, following behind Joel Furtek and Sarah Haney. UNC rowing had been led by interim co-head coaches Emilie Gross and Thomas Revelle for the last two seasons following Haney's resignation in 2019 amid a University Title IX office investigation which alleged emotional abuse, injury negligence and sexual harassment within the rowing program.
UNC Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham said in a press release that he was excited to welcome Neppel back to North Carolina, remarking on her success as both an athlete and coach.
"It's truly exciting when a head coaching candidate is someone who cherishes her experience as a Tar Heel student-athlete, has gone on to success in the coaching ranks in both the ACC and NCAA Championships, and has tremendous passion to come back and raise the level of our program, and Erin Neppel checks all of those boxes," he said in a press release.
Neppel said serving as head coach will play a major role in releasing untapped potential in the rowing program athletes.
“I’m so excited because this past year was pretty hard for us between COVID and a couple of coaching turnovers,” junior rower Sarah Catherine Niles said. “We haven’t really had the consistency that’s necessary to be successful, and I think Coach Neppel will be instrumental in bringing the consistency and experience that we need.”
While UVA has excelled in the ACC championships with Neppel for the last few seasons, UNC has struggled. The Tar Heels placed second-to-last in the 2019 championships and last in 2021.
Still living in Virginia at the moment, Neppel said the reality of being the new head coach for UNC Rowing still has not fully hit her. However, she knows that as soon as she takes her first step back on campus things will feel more real.
“Being back in Chapel Hill and all of the things that come along with that is just really exciting,” she said. “Getting back to the University, going to games again and just being back in Chapel Hill are some of the things that I’m really looking forward to.”