And so ends, most likely, the tenure of the USA Men’s National Team Head Coach, Eddie O’Sullivan.
It’s unlikely he will return because three years is often long enough for a coach these, days; because O’Sullivan has some other jobs offers to pursue in Ireland or the UK; and it seems likely that USA Rugby will pursue a more even salary structure among its coaches, meaning that one coach won’t be paid 78% of the entire salary budget for all four national team head coaches.
Later on this fall we’ll provide a detailed analysis of O’Sullivan’s performance. Instead I have decided to draw on the experiences I have had with the five Eagle head coaches I have worked with since the end of the 1999 World Cup, and let loose on some aspects of what I think 15s Eagles head job should be, and what type of person the coach should be:
Knowledge of Players
The biggest problem with coaches from overseas isn’t that they are foreign, or have accents. The biggest problem is that they don’t know the players, don’t know the clubs and colleges, and don’t know where to find them.
As a result we’ve seen an awful lot of wasted time. Games that should have been played in order to win a championship were played instead so a coach could see players. This happened under Eddie O’Sullivan’s watch, under Scott Johnson, Peter Thorburn, and, to a lesser extent, Duncan Hall.
So it doesn’t matter what country the next USA coach comes from or was born in. What matters is that he doesn’t waste our time getting up to speed. He needs to be familiar with the teams and the feeder systems. He needs to understand how young American athletes learn and think. He needs to be familiar with his player pool the day he starts work.
More than Just a Coach
The next Eagles coach has a job to generate fans, get sponsors and boosters interested, and to reach out to the existing fans. Wherever they go, but especially in the USA, the USA National Team should make appearances at schools, youth rugby events, or charity activities. And the coach has to lead them there.
Working with Sevens
The incoming 15s Head Coach doesn’t have to be a fan of Rugby 7s, but he has to live with the animal. Sevens is the Olympic sport. It will bring in Olympic Committee funding. Sometimes, 7s will take priority over 15s. The key is for there to be communication about player usage and availability, and the communication needs to be a two-way street.
Win Now, Plan for Tomorrow
The USA National Team, when it takes the field, should be the best available group of players. A test match should not be a time to develop players. It should be the USA’s best against the other country’s best, playing to win.
In the last four years since Tom Billups stepped down, that has not always been the case. Coaches have run out a group of experiments, rugby league players, unseen prospects and players of dubious potential in the USA jersey. That cannot happen. Our next Eagle coach should put out the best team to win now.
Because of that, everyone in USA Rugby needs to stop thinking in terms of a World Cup cycle. The cycle is an artificial construct which has prompted coaches to ignore other trophies there for the taking, with the idea that winning one or two games at the World Cup is more important.
(Believe it or not, this isn’t a dig at Eddie O’Sullivan. Sure O’Sullivan took that approach, but so did Peter Thorburn, and so would have Scott Johnson had he stuck around, and so have other coaches around the world.)
But at the same time a Head Coach will have to think of the future. He can’t just look for the 30-50 players who can help him now, he has to think about how to develop the players who can help in 2012, 2013, 2017, and even 2019.
He does that by assuming more of a Director of Rugby role.
America’s Director of Rugby
The Men’s 15s National Head Coach should have a smart and effective staff. That staff should help in scouting and communicating with players. A good Head Coach should delegate, thus freeing him up to provide more leadership on a national scale.
It is the Head Coach who should be traveling the country, meeting with teams and discussing his philosophy of play, what he likes in a player, and the benchmarks of skills, athleticism, and fitness. It’s the Head Coach who should involve the entire country by running training sessions, or simply visiting clubs to explain what the national team is all about.
In addition, the Head Coach will need to create a development vision. Rather than wasting test match opportunities to blood players, he needs something else. There’s the Americas Rugby Championship, which is designed as a step below test status. That’s fine, but he needs something between the club level and the ARC.
Right now, the will to make something happen – a territorial or regional championship akin to the old NASC or the current Canadian provincial championship – lies with the national team Head Coach. Just as National 7s Head Coach Al Caravelli took some measure of control over the 7s NASC, so the 15s Head Coach could make a stand that elite players need a competition in which to play. He can do that by preparing a national team budget that uses IRB HP money to help finance such a competition (which, by the way, is what the HP money is supposed to be used for). Or he could simply start fielding a USA Selects team against top clubs, or a Selects vs. domestic foreign players, or some other series that gives these players experience away from the test arena.
The Head Coach can, especially if he knows the players and their needs, work with others to formulate a plan.
In 2005 Eagle Head Coach Tom Billups was paid $80,000. His replacement got 50% more than that, and his replacement 20% more than that. O’Sullivan’s annual salary is about three times that paid to Billups, and represents about 78% of the total monies paid to the four senior national team coaches.
Let’s not get into whether such a salary is worth it given the results – even if O’Sullivan’s teams were 25-0 the dichotomy is untenable. The four national team coaches should be paid more equally, and the US Olympic Committee will certainly expect the 7s coaches to be paid more.
If you take the current budget of about $325,000 for all four coaches, that means an annual salary of just over $80,000 per post. Obviously some of the jobs take up more time than others, but it’s clear the next men’s 15s Head Coach should expect to be paid somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000 – maybe a little more if salary budgets are freed up by USOC funds.
What good does a celebrity coach do for USA Rugby? Aside from, perhaps, Francois Pienaar, what overseas rugby personality would the average American sports fan recognize? Would a former All Black or recent Super 15 coach bring more fans? No, of course not. If you want to get someone because of the name, you’re better off getting Haloti Ngata to be Special Assistant to the Head Coach, or a high-profile college football coach to be Assistant Coaching Director. At least then they’d bring some notoriety.
No, that won’t happen, so don’t bother with it.
So your next USA Men’s National Team Head Coach should be:
1. Familiar with how young American athletes learn sports
2. Extremely familiar with the players available – enough to be able to produce, from memory, a depth chart of 75-100 players
3. A resident of the United States
4. Willing to travel to various clubs to expose players to Eagle standards and ideas, and to make a tangible connection between players and the national team
5. Paid commensurate with current budgets and involved in how the team's budget is used
6. A good communicator, and one who is willing to help the game through appearances, marketing, and public relations
7. Someone who understands that sometimes 7s competitions might have priority, and who communicates with the 7s programs to develop and share players.
8. Someone who is given the freedom to develop young players through non-test-match competition, and who is encouraged to look to win now, not just concentrate on the World Cup cycle.