College Try: Running With the Torch
Thursday Apr 2, 2009 in Magazine
By Eric Raney
For 23 years the Bowling Green State University RFC (OH) had been one of the top clubs in the nation, and for every one of those years the head coach’s last name had been Mazzarella. As the team prepares for the 2009 spring season (in its 40th anniversary year), they will still be led by a Mazzarella. Only this year the coach’s first name will be Tony, not Roger, as the son will be guiding the team his father built into a Midwest rugby power.
Tony Mazzarella has a tough act to follow. As head coach from 1985 to 2008, his dad Roger recorded more than 1,200 wins, leading Bowling Green to four Midwest Collegiate Championships and eight National Championship visits—including a trip to the final four. Roger also served as coach of the Ohio Select Side and as an administrator with the Midwest Rugby Union, ultimately rising to become a member of the USA Rugby Board of Directors.
But there is no hint nepotism at work here. Tony Mazzarella brings his bonafides to the rugby coaching fraternity. As a fullback for Bowling Green from 1993-1998, Tony was a three-time club MVP and a team captain who still holds the club records for tries (135, 36 more than the next highest) and points scored (1,016). In 1999, he was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd,” as MVP of the Mid-America Conference. After graduation, Tony played with the Sydenham Rugby Club in New Zealand.
When he returned to the States, Tony played occasionally in summer 7s tournaments and in 15s with invitational teams such as the Motown Blues. He intermittently worked with his dad and his old college club, but wasn’t prepared to trade in his boots for a whistle. Tony finally returned to the team as an assistant coach in 2004, but even then taking over for his dad wasn’t necessarily part of the plan.
“I never really thought about it,” Tony says. “As a captain, I worked with a lot of the new guys and always felt I was a pretty good teacher. Coming back to work with the backs as an assistant was a natural fit—but I never really planned to take over and it just kind of snuck up on me.”
Roger had always hoped his son would follow in his footsteps and would be successful if he did. “You could see the potential when he was playing,” Roger says. “He had great field vision and a tactical understanding for the game.”
While Tony impressed on the field, it was his actions off the field—and outside the US—that first led Roger to think of his son as a coahing successor.
“We toured England in 1995 when Tony was in his second year with the club,” Roger remembers. “We had been beaten badly by Birmingham and were invited to dinner with their coach and captain to discuss the game. Tony got there ahead of me, met with them and 20 minutes later had designed the offense we run today. I didn’t have to do a thing and that’s when I had an inkling he would be a good coach.”
Tony hasn’t disappointed. In his first fall season as head coach, Bowling Green went 13-0 to claim the league championship, defeated arch-rival Ohio State, and is the host team and top seed for the Midwest playoffs this spring. BG will play Indiana U. in the semifinal with hopes of another trip to the National Sweet 16.
While Bowling Green’s on-field results have been incredibly consistent, the coaching styles of the two Mazzarellas are very different.
“Roger is a great coach, but his real strengths are recruiting and administration of the club,” says senior captain, Rich Hines. “Tony is a very strong player’s coach. He is more focused on rugby and running the practices.”
Tony’s indoctrination into rugby started when he was a toddler, dodging pillows thrown by his Dad as he carried a rugby ball around the house. Although he grew up tagging along with his father to practice and played in some 7s tournament in high school, hockey was Tony’s sport of choice. He won All-State honors as a defenseman for Bowling Green High and helped lead his team to a State Championship final. It was on the ice that Tony developed much of the coaching philosophy he eventually used in directing a rugby team.
“Ohio hockey is divided into Eastern and Western divisions, and at the time I played we were one of the best teams in the West,” Tony recalls. “Our coach, Dan Dewitt, was always more focused on how we played rather than the final score. In terms of rugby knowledge, my dad is my source, but in terms of how I want the team to approach the game, that is something I learned from Dan. How are we practicing? How are we executing? To me, those measures are just as important as the scoreboard.”
And Bowling Green can make the scoreboard sing, regularly running up big scores with their wide open style of rugby. While BG’s players may be but small, they are fierce, and the team places a focus on defense and physical rugby. Their approach is more than a strategy, but rather a matter of necessity.
Bowling Green’s rugby club is one of the biggest organizations on campus, with well over 100 players regularly turning up for fall try-outs. The team runs up to four sides through the course of the season. The university built the club their own pitch with lights, scoreboard and storage facilities, and the team has a strong fan following on campus. But while Bowling Green is a proven winner and an accepted part of the school’s sporting scene, it still labors through the same trials as many rugby clubs across the nation.
“We aren’t a varsity sport, so we take what we can get,” says Tony with a shrug. What the club can get is access to the school field house, but only when it is not being used for school-sponsored sports. This means practice may be at 7 in the morning, or 10 at night. On top of that, the reality of snow covered fields and sub-freezing winter temperatures means travel for a northern club committed to pursuing a National Championship. Bowling Green will hit the road to play East Coast powers Navy, Georgia Tech and Clemson this spring.
Bowling Green’s triumphs on the field, however, have recently been tempered by tragedy off it. In October 2007, Tony’s wife Marny, six months pregnant at the time, was rushed to the hospital. A sonogram showed fluid around the baby’s heart, necessitating an immediate C-section. Diagnosed with leukemia and weighing only 4 pounds, the baby died a week later. The following day, Bowling Green had a match against budding rival Notre Dame.
“The whole team wore pink armbands for the game, and every single player came to the wake or funeral,” Roger recalls. “I’ve devoted my life to this sport as a player, coach and administrator—and it has cost me a lot, including my first marriage—but in that one moment I saw all the good in the game.”
“That was a very rough time,” Tony admits. “We had a game and I didn’t know what to do, but Marny told me to speak to the team. I told them that the way they supported me showed the club’s true character.”
That character will be tested again this spring as the club vies for a spot in the National Championship, and Tony Mazzarella feels his team has the potential to break though.
“We have the building blocks to take this team to the next level,” he insists. “We have great players, great alumni and I want us to be in the Nationals and competing for the final four every year.”
Eric Raney profiled former US Eagle star Dan Lyle in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue.Return to Home | More articles in “Magazine” | More articles in “”