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Lions Forever

Wednesday Apr 1, 2009 in Magazine

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By Katy Rank Lev

Building Champions, Shaping Futures: This motto graces every piece of correspondence associated with Penn State Rugby. It seems well earned, considering the women’s program has won four National Championships and made more than 10 final four appearances, and the men’s program has been in four National Championship matches and made eight final four appearances. Penn State has also produced a combined 81 All Americans and more than 18 US National Team players (several of whom have captained the Eagles). Neither team has missed more than one trip to the round of 16 since 1995. Penn State has firmly established itself among America’s rugby elite.

I am a product of Penn State Rugby (PSR) having  played there from 1999-2003. I was a freshman when my teammates defeated Princeton for the 2000 Women’s DI National Collegiate Championship. This was back when conditioning, led by our team captain, was sort of optional, when our team president washed our jerseys on spring break, and we shoveled garbage out of Beaver Stadium to earn money for club operations.

A lot has changed since then in assuring Penn State’s permanent place in the top tier of collegiate rugby. To understand how it all developed, you have to go back 47 years to when the club was first formed by players who to this day still help with its administration.

Like many American rugby clubs, Penn State’s was formed in 1962 by foreigners looking for a rugby program when they landed in Happy Valley for graduate school. Since there wasn’t a team on campus, they created one from scratch.

Even in those early days, when American players were figuring out how to play and developing their passion for rugby, these founding fathers had the foresight to ensure the club’s permanence. By October of ’62, the team was an official member of the then Eastern Rugby Union, with an official constitution and elected officers. The club’s leadership immediately set about creating player contact lists and making friends with key University personnel, including the director of athletics (who gave them their first set of rugby jerseys) and the dean of students.

Charlie Smith, one of those early players who stuck around to coach the women’s team in the 1990s and head the University’s Accounting Department, wanted to make sure there “weren’t just a few people contributing in the short run so the place would fall apart when they left. I can look back today and . . . I just can’t believe we thought of those things.” Smith points to little things like securing buses for away games in an era when most families had only one car, and the team had to travel short players if they couldn’t secure enough rides; or establishing award banquet traditions that have continued for four decades, where rugby supporters earn honorary membership in the organization.

“We knew, even then, that our foundations would establish a healthy organization that was seeking long-term legitimacy as a meaningful entity on campus,” Smith says. “The beauty was when I left [for a few years] in 1967 to take my first teaching job, there were guys who took over. It worked.”

At a time when few teams had coaches, let alone referees to officiate matches, PSR produced an annual photo newsletter for players, parents and alumni. In those first few years, founding  member Marshall Sturm began tracking former players, a process that remains a vital part of connecting the alumni association. The tight-knit rugby family at Penn State inspired players to find jobs within the University and establish their lives near the team.

Rugby alums now populate the campus as professors, housing directors, and department heads, either coaching or helping administer the team not for a few seasons, but for several decades. “That continuity of coaches and administrators is the biggest asset of Penn State Rugby,” says Smith.

By the time the men made their first final four in 1989, the founding coaches and alumni had established a system of communication, donating to the teams, and supporting the players both financially and administratively. All that was missing was a women’s program equal in organization to the men’s.

Women had been playing rugby at Penn State since the 1970s, independent from the men’s club, but that social side fizzled out by the early ‘90s. In 1991, several players approached Smith about restarting the team. As he did with the men’s team in the ‘60s, Smith had the women draw up a club constitution and all attended the University Senate meeting to see the club reinstated and officially recognized. Smith drew upon friends and former teammates from the men’s side in securing assistant coaches and laid the groundwork for the relationship between the two teams, both in terms of facilities and coaching resources. When the women went to the 1993 final four in Houston, he knew Penn State now had two sides committed to competitive rugby for the long term.

As the club progressed, there was a nagging fear that PSR was one coach’s retirement away from disintegration. Countless school rugby teams across the country have gone from final four teams to barely established social sides when they lost key leaders. So in late 2003, a team of alumni and administrators established a strategic plan to formalize the goals for PSR’s longevity. The objectives seemed kind of basic: Consistently field national championship caliber teams, develop successful people beyond rugby, build and leverage the alumni network, build or access world class facilities, optimize University resources, and grow the PSR brand.

These goals, particularly seeking a permanent home on campus, were the launch pad for moving the group from a highly successful club sport to its current achievements, both on the field and as an organization.

“We started by establishing the alumni association, because alumni clubs drive Universities,” says Assistant Director of Rugby and Women’s head coach Pete Steinberg. While the members had been keeping lists and spreadsheets for years, everyone had different lists and few people knew alumni players’ real names, let alone where they lived. Within a few years of the strategic plan, PSR has achieved objectives players barely dared to dream of just a few years before.

In 2001, several years before the strategic plan, a former prop, now Bucks County Judge Honorable Albert J. Cepparulo, donated his legal services to incorporate Penn State Rugby Football as a non-profit organization. Alumni and other donors could now feel comfortable donating to a group that appears online in Pennsylvania’s charitable organization database. And donate they did. Encouraged by a generous endowment from Jim and Susan Mathias, the alumni club gathered enough seed money to make some serious moves.

For many years, the alumni board of directors closely monitored every decision made by PSR; from modest coaching stipends to dispersal of funds for team travel. The board decided that if the rugby program was serious about getting professional on the field, they needed to hire pros to work for the team. Penn State Rugby (the corporation) hired several part-time employees who worked to market the team, seek sponsorships, and handle the administrative tasks that would free up the coaches and players to coach and play competitive rugby.

The club also got serious about keeping track of its alumni. “This is critical,” says Mathias, a former assistant coach who is now the alumni president. “You can’t make a program like this work without the centerpiece of a living, breathing database.”

The alumni board set up a system to track not only locations of alumni, but financial information, donation records, positions played—any details that would link potential donors to opportunities appealing to them.

This database allows people like Director of Rugby and Men’s head coach Don Ferrell to send out regular communication geared toward specific groups of players, parents, or supporters. “This creates an energy and excitement around the current teams so we can tap into that resource,” Ferrell says. “Our alumni association is a phenomenal part of our continued success.”

The regularly-updated alumni website provides everything from team news, to job boards, to chat rooms for alumni from different eras to communicate about PSR. The success of the far-reaching database was apparent when the program reached out to a group of women players from the 1970s. These formerly “Lost” Lady Lions came to an alumni weekend in 2008 for the first time in 30 years, participating in a full day of matches, a banquet, and socializing with current and former players. They now wear PSR apparel and keep aware of activities through emails and newsletters.

PSR now boasts former players and coaches throughout the country involved at every level of the game—from youth programs to international play—a fact that the Penn State coaching staff values more than victories.

“The huge number of former players in the coaching ranks bodes well for our program,” Ferrell says, “It is all part of giving back to the sport that we encourage. It proves that everyone, even those players who can never be Super League players, can feel involved in the family here.”

Penn State’s men’s and women’s rugby teams have been building a close-knit relationship for nearly 20 years. The teams have always shared practice space, coaching resources, and enjoyed combined alumni functions. In the past decade, the leadership has also made a concentrated effort to run the programs as a co-ed sports organization, scheduling home and away matches together as often as possible and taking buses to competitions as one large PSU Rugby family.

“Our men will stop to cheer for our women and the opposition looks at us like we’re crazy,” Ferrell says. The parents of both teams combine to run food tents at matches, attend brunches with the coaches, and cheer for each other’s kids. The “one program” merge is also a financial union, as every dollar that comes into the program is earmarked for Penn State Rugby, not a specific faction of the team.

Mathias says that this kind of unity must be a coaching and administrative policy.

“Success breeds success,” he insists. “The model makes sense from a business perspective as well. When the alumni association began to push for more investment from the University, they had 100% of the rugby program involved in helping, rather than just half. The strength in representing your sport as one voice within the university is significant.”

Within the Penn State athletic department, rugby seemed to exist in a sort of limbo. Like ice hockey, rugby didn’t quite fit the club sports model because of its tremendous alumni support, coaching staffs, and administration, but the sport wasn’t right for the varsity model either.  So the rugby and hockey alumni groups combined with influential personnel from both teams. In 2007 they encouraged the University to put the two sports under the direction of the athletic department, creating a new category for ice hockey and rugby on campus: Team Sports.

The switch made a profound and immediate impact on the teams. For starters, there wouldbe a full-time Director of Rugby, a part-time Assistant Director of Rugby, and paid administrative positions separate from head coaching jobs. These positions have been filled by Ferrell and Steinberg, respectively, transforming them from unpaid coaches to full-time staff.

For the students, the new status meant supplemental university health insurance, with no out-of-pocket payments for anything having to do with rugby. It meant academic advisors and tutors to work with all freshmen players and those students whose GPA dipped below 2.0. While both teams already had trainers at practices and games, one medical trainer would now be assigned to rugby long-term instead of the teams getting a new trainer each fall.

Team Sports status also means the players get the benefit of a Team Sports Director in Dayna Wenger, who helps the club navigate the daunting NCAA rules and makes sure they avoid the ones that don’t apply. (For example, rugby coaches can give players a ride across campus or visit with a recruit over several days, while varsity teams cannot.) Wenger also arranges the teams’ travel arrangements. “My role is to manage the teams in terms of budgets, fundraising and  paperwork,” Wenger says.

Wenger’s support frees up Coach Ferrell to do things like order kit, seek sponsors, plan camps and clinics, or spend time recruiting new players. “Now I have time to do all the things I was squeezing in on Sunday nights,” says Ferrell. And now that Ferrell has an office in the athletic department, players have a place to visit when they have a problem or need help.

While the dream of an on-campus rugby stadium is still unrealized, the sport gets priority scheduling on an all-weather turf field. The players might not have locker rooms or changing facilities, but they get team kit provided by Under Armor and can walk through the Kabala Hall of Rugby (celebrating the history and culture of Penn State Rugby) on their way to administrative offices or to take advantage of physical therapy for injuries.

But for all the perks, one thing remains unchanged from my experience as a Nittany Lion rugby player. The Sunday morning after Penn State’s final home football game, the ruggers drag themselves out of bed before dawn. They put on their oldest workout clothes—things they don’t mind getting covered in tobacco juice—and trudge over to Beaver Stadium. They spend the next seven hours picking cigarette butts off the ground, plucking liquor bottles from the stands, and scraping nacho cheese off bleacher seats.

For all the advantages PSR has earned, cash from the University is not in excess of what most club sports receive (currently about $10,000 per year for the program plus another $10,000 for cleaning detail). This is a drop in the bucket for a successful program, considering that flights, hotels, and food to the round of 16 and Nationals cost around $20,000 per team, per trip.

In 2008, taking two teams to Albuquerque and one to Stanford, PSR had to pay the bulk of their $65,000 bill the way the club has been paying it for decades. They relied on their alumni, who give back to Penn State Rugby because they wake up after every home football game remembering what it felt like to haul that stadium garbage.
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