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Rugby Resurrection at Notre Dame

Tuesday May 20, 2008 in Magazine

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When you think of the University of Notre Dame, you think of football glory: 11 national championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners, legendary coach Knute Rockne, The Gipper (not the Ronald Reagan version) and Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana.Or you think basketball: The Fighting Irish have more than 1,600 wins and have made 28 NCAA tournament appearances. Or you think of its famous non-sports alumni: Condoleezza Rice, Regis Philbin and Phil Donahue, to name a few.

One thing you don’t connect with the Catholic university is rugby. That’s because for the 12 years prior to this past fall there wasn’t any. And before that the rugby club, which was founded in 1961, was twice put on “Animal House”-like probation, only it wasn’t “double secret.” Not that the Irish ruggers were alone in the 1980s for college campus debauchery, but with the prestige of Notre Dame at stake, school officials let the club know its behavior had to change.

It didn’t. Singularly “inexcusable misconduct” by members of the rugby club in the spring of 1994 was captured on video and copies were made as souvenirs for the participants. These copies found their way to school authorities and on Aug. 3, 1995, the rugby club was dissolved, no questions asked, and no one put up much of a fight.

Blame can be laid at many cleated feet, but the fact that the team lacked a firm authority figure (the coach was only slightly older than the players) may be the most obvious reason the college team was out of control.

Now, 12 years later, rugby has been resurrected at the Indiana campus with a coach—Sean O’Leary—who is not just an adult, but who is also the head coach of the US U17 Team.

Last June O’Leary was traveling with the New England Rugby Football Union’s U19 and U17 select sides to the Midwest High School Challenge when he was introduced to Richard O’Leary (no relation, but the name probably didn’t hurt) who is the Director of Intramural and Sports Clubs at Notre Dame. He was also coach of the lacrosse team for 18 years; in all, Richard O’Leary has been at the university for 37 years.

By the end of the tournament weekend, Richard O’Leary asked Sean O’Leary if he wanted a job as the college’s rugby coach.

As it happened, Sean O’Leary didn’t.

“I was pretty happy and secure in Boston,” he told the other O’Leary.

Sean O’Leary, 44, is one of the few people in America who makes a living coaching rugby. He moved from Dublin in 1987 to Boston and played for the Boston Irish Wolfhounds until 2001, when he began coaching Boston College High School. Always a dual-school coach, as an assistant coach at Harvard he went with the team to the National Championship final in 2002 and joined the staff of US U19 head coach Salty Thompson that summer. After Harvard, and while coaching Boston College HS, he coached Northeastern University.

“There’s not much money in rugby, but I don’t need a lot,” the single Irishman says. “I was happy. I had no intention of moving anywhere. But when I thought about it, the only reason I would move would be for an opportunity to build a program and this was the ideal opportunity for me.”

Why would a university that banned its last rugby team actively seek to restart the program? The answer can be linked to the explosive growth of rugby in the nation’s Catholic high schools during the 12 years Notre Dame’s program was dormant. High-achieving student-athletes with four years of rugby experience typically want to continue playing. Without rugby on campus—even as a non-varsity sport—Notre Dame was missing out on recruiting some of the nation’s top tier students.

“My assumption is [Notre Dame] doesn’t go off half-cocked and say, ‘Let’s have table tennis’ or anything else,” O’Leary says. “They’re well aware of the numbers and where the better students and better athletes are coming from and what their needs might be. We’ve known for the last couple of years that rugby is part of the decision regarding where these kids go to school.”

Still, there were some at Notre Dame who didn’t want the program to return for fear of besmirching the university’s reputation again. But as the coach says, “The kids here now had nothing to do with 12 years ago. And as a national team coach, I have as much to lose as the university if it’s not done the right way.”

Richard O’Leary says before rugby could be re-instituted, there were certain criteria the team would have to meet, i.e. rules regarding team travel and socializing with opponents. And, of course, someone—an administrator or coach—would have to travel with them. Says R. O’Leary: “Fortunately we were able to bring on Sean at the same time.” (Sean O’Leary also helps with risk management assessment in the school’s boxing program and helps with some sports administration.)

The rugby club was required to come up with a constitution and bylaws. While the school assisted with startup funding, the players needed to raise money to pay home game medical personnel and away game travel expenses. As it happened, the rugby club had an endowment, one that alumni had been paying into even without a club on campus. (As for the size of that endowment, rumored to be well north of $1 million, Coach O’Leary says, “I haven’t a clue. I’m just concerned with getting the program going in the right direction first. I’m not a money guy. A cold beer and a sandwich, and I’m as happy as a pig in muck.”)

The senior players, says Sean, made sure all the paperwork was correct. As a result, the rugby club plays on a full-sized, rugby-dedicated pitch with permanent posts, groomed for home games by the same crew that readies the 80,000-seat football stadium field. Next year they can draw from the Student Activities fund.

Still, the team must be on a short leash, yes?

“I would say so,” says Richard O’Leary, who has accompanied the team on their bus to away games, “but at the same time we’ve provided them with what we think is necessary for them to survive. That was an important part of what we wanted to do if we brought them back. If they can play, practice and compete under those restrictions, we’re going to be successful, and I’m not talking about wins and losses.”

That’s good, because after meeting the challenges of Division II (the club A-side was 6-1-1 in the fall and 2-4 in the spring as of late April), next fall Notre Dame enters the highly competitive Division I. Sean O’Leary looks at next year’s schedule—Bowling Green, Michigan, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State—and says, “Oh jeez. That’s a schedule. That will separate the men from the boys.”

And boys he has: The vast majority of the players this past spring were freshmen. But most of them have several years of HS rugby experience, and they know what they’re in for: High Performance Rugby, a la the
National Team.

“We have certain criteria, and one of them is it’s not a social club, that meritocracy is very important to me,” the coach says. “They know I’m not a fitness coach so they have to work on their fitness outside of rugby. We hope that they understand the importance of lifestyle changes—diet, nutrition, and keeping their body in the right condition to play high performance rugby.”

Already Notre Dame has the attention of the opposition. Tom Rooney, head coach at Ohio State for 17 years, welcomes the return of the Fighting Irish ruggers. “They have a big future in Division I,” he says. “They have school support and commitment; they have strong alumni, excellent coaching and motivated [and smart] kids.”

After their meeting in April at Notre Dame (OSU won the A-side and lost the B-side match), “we were provided showers and a very nice meal in their cafeteria,” Rooney says. “The teams got to talk with each other, which is really the thing that sets our game apart, isn’t it? We were then given a quick tour of the campus, told some ND stories, shared a prayer at the grotto, and went home . . . The sky’s the limit for them.”

Richard O’Leary likes hearing that about the rugby club.

“I think the kind of program we’re trying to run is not only well suited for our university, but we’re hoping it will act as a model for other schools in the future. That’s our hope.”

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