Clearly one of the main college rugby stories of 2011-2012 has been the growth of men’s varsity rugby in low-profile schools.
Life University, Davenport, Lindenwood, Wheeling Jesuit, and Notre Dame College appear to be just the beginning of the trend. As colleges and universities jostle for attention from potential candidates, they want notoriety, and they want a way to attract diverse pools of students.
Rugby, for some, has become one of those avenues, as the demographics likely show that rugby athletes are generally good students, and aren’t necessarily looking for a big handout. They just want a good program to play rugby in at a good school.
Varsity, though, is only part of the trend. The trend of quasi-varsity exists, too. Many bigger name college programs have established some kind of niche between recreational sport and full-on varsity, where they can enjoy some prestige and some funding. That pathway is especially open at colleges where football is on the way out.
That’s what happened at St. Mary’s, where the demise of its football program opened the door for rugby. It was a perfect fit in Moraga, where rugby provides a steady stream of smart Catholic school kids who don’t have to be on scholarship and who play a sport where the per-player equipment outlay remains minuscule compared to football.
And the door is opening in Bellingham, Wash., where Western Washington University eliminated its football program in January of 2009. WWU rugby continued to operate as it had before, as a good club side. They didn’t pounce immediately, when Vikings football ended, and in the end, that was smart.
The alumni spent a couple of years getting their ducks in a row. They wanted the program to have funding. They wanted the right coaching. And they wanted the ear of the administration. WWU rugby is not varsity, and won’t be anytime soon, but it’s status has changed on campus nonetheless.
Paul Horne, who has been president of the Chuckanut Bay Rugby Club in the Bellingham area, and has coached Canada at age grade level, was brought in from an assistant position at University of British Columbia to be head coach. He is working closely with 7s coach Adam Roberts. Horne brings a no-nonsense gravitas to rugby coaching. His experience helped sell the idea of WWU being more serious about rugby.
When Horne accompanied UBC to campus last season, he told the school, the experience included no place to shower – like almost every college Western has locker rooms and showers, but like a large percentage, they didn’t allow access to the rugby team. And there was no medical staff; UBC’s staff had to attend to an injured Western player during the game.
“We have developed a good relationship with the administration,” Horne told RUBYMag.com. “The dropping of football certainly helped, and the alumni saw an opportunity and kept developing that relationship. The school saw the notoriety from their basketball winning the [DII] NCAA championship, and with rugby becoming an Olympic sport, that also helped.”
Western Washington is in an interesting geographical situation. It has a long history of accepting Canadian students, and in fact Canadians started the rugby team decades ago. The school operates a Canadian-American Studies Center. British Columbia residents get a break on out-of-state tuition.
So that connection was useful is discussing how high school rugby is strong not only in Washington and Oregon, and growing in Idaho, but very strong in BC.
So now the WWU program is different. Horne has already been recruiting, signing on two top prospects from BC, as well as some from the Washington all-star program.
“This team will not be dominated by foreigners,” he said. “But the school has a strong connection to Canada, and we will continue to have one.”
Horne is on salary, paid through the alumni group, while the school has provided more support in terms of access to facilities and services. In addition, the $4.2 million soccer stadium being built on campus is now a soccer/rugby stadium. The facility, for which $1 million was donated by a soccer-supporting family, and $2.6 million will come from a bond, is still short $600,000 in funding, but will be built. It will provide a clubhouse and locker rooms for teams, with space for one international-size field or two, slightly smaller pitches, as well as stands, parking, and a beautiful setting right on campus.
“The main thing is that we have support and cooperation from the administration,” said Horne. “We have some young talent coming in that will make a huge impact. Down the road we’re looking at the possibility of varsity status, and the possibility of bringing the women’s program into the same situation. But this is a good start, a new start.”
Already the enthusiasm is catching. Horne says kids on the team are in the weight room early in the morning, and excited about the prospect. The team qualified for the USA Rugby College 7s Nationals, and hopes to do so again. Then they have their eyes on a Northwest Collegiate Conference title.