Well congratulations to USA Rugby and its Board of Directors for making a great pick for the USA Men’s 15s team coaching job.
Mike Tolkin is not the only candidate who I think would do a good job, but he is one of them, and one of the best. (Big surprise, right? He was RUGBY Magazine's 2010 Coach of the Year.)
I have spent a lot of time discussing the Eagle coaching position with various coaches, players, observers and candidates. They all seem to have the same idea of what is good for the Eagle coaching position:
The coach needs to have a working knowledge of the available players.
He needs to know what the pipeline is, and either have faith in it, or know how to change it. Just saying “the pipeline doesn’t work” isn’t good enough.
The coach has to be good enough at coaching and knowledgeable enough about the game to communicate his vision to the coaching community (and he has to be willing to do it).
He has to be able to speak the right language to the players.
He has to bleed red, white, and blue enough to understand that getting a cap is a privilege. A cap is not when a player gets a look, it’s where he represents his country.
The head coach needs to know that coaching the Eagles is less about formulating a game plan than it is about so much more. It requires plenty of scouting, player tracking, player development, specialized coaching, PR and marketing, and sharing in the pride we should have for the Eagles.
The great thing about Mike Tolkin is that he gets all that. He is smart, articulate, and thoughtful, but also down-to-earth and accessible. He understands that the biggest thing the Eagles could do in a week might be visiting a school on the Thursday before a game.
Right in the middle of trying to get the Eagle job, Tolkin was also serving as a volunteer head of the committee to set up the new invitational system for the High School National Championships. That doesn't sound like someone above it all, and certainly does sound like someone who cares about the game in America at all levels.
And on the top level, he understands two important things: losing sucks, and setting up your players to lose not only sucks, it’s an insult to the jersey.
While it may be true that Tolkin’s appointment was also an economic one - an American coach is expected to be paid less than a high-profile foreign one (but do more work) – it’s also a monumental step forward for the game in this country. He is clearly not the only American candidate capable of doing this job. And in a few years there will be even more who could and should apply to coach the Eagles.
The appointment also is important for the players, many of whom wanted a coach of his ilk, and wanted a coach completely invested in the game in this country.
And that, I guess, is it. It is difficult to pursue rugby at a high level in American for a long period. Tolkin has been dealing with those difficulties for years. The players know this. The fans know this. And all the other coaches who will interact with him know this.
Now, of course, there’s the matter of making the team come together and perform. But I think we know it will, because if you look at the record of Tolkin and the men he will bring into his staff, you will see the Eagles are led by someone who doesn’t back down from obstacles.