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College rugby in Utah has been thrown in a blender over the last handful of years, and whether it’s able to come out on the other side whole remains to be seen. The University of Utah is still reeling from the program’s 2013 suspension, while four-time national champion coach David Smyth has left vaunted BYU for Utah Valley.
The upheaval has shredded two of the best rivalries in all of college rugby, as the Wasatch Cup, like the Utes, has never recovered, and question marks surround BYU’s ability to ever get back to the standard which saw the Cougars compete in nine-straight national championship games, eight against dynastic Cal, winning five.
The Cougars dominated the Holy War of rugby most recently, but the Utes were superior in early part of the century. Twice Utah fell to Cal in the national title game, in 2002 and 2005. The Utes made the final four again in 2006, but Smyth’s Cougars swung the rivalry their way thereafter.
The annual fixture remained competitive, drawing big crowds, until Utah was suspended in 2013 for violating probation from a previous suspension for the assault of a female trainer by a player during an alochol-fueled road trip for an away game in 2012. The Utes had also gotten in trouble in 2011. Head coach Blake Burdette resigned in the aftermath, and the 2013 Wasatch Cup game was never played.
The team was reinstated in 2014 but remained on probation for two years. The program also lost some on-campus support, hampering the Utes from rebuilding completely in recent years. Utah’s coaching staff opted out of the 2017 rivalry game. BYU beat Utah 77-3 this spring.
Utah last won the Wasatch Cup in 2005, but after that it was replaced as the most important game on BYU’s calendar by the annual meeting with Cal. From 2006-2015, the Cougars and Bears met in the national title game all but once. The Bears won the first three meetings before BYU, by the boot of Eagle scrumhalf Shaun Davies, claimed its first championship in 2009.
Cal then went back-to-back before abstaining from USA Rugby’s playoffs in 2012. The Cougars beat Arkansas State that year, and then Cal the next three in the finals of the newly formed Varsity Cup, a private postseason spawned by Smyth and Cal’s Jack Clark. The rivalry became the subject of Rugby Rising, a 30-minute NBC Sports special and the closest thing collegiate rugby’s ever gotten to a 30 for 30.
As Cal was en route to winning the 2016 Varsity Cup, beating BYU 40-29 in the title match, it was uncovered BYU had fielded an illegible player in the 2015 final. The Varsity Cup, run by a popular vote between coaches, chose to strip BYU of the ’15 title and suspend the Cougars from the 2017 postseason.
As a result, BYU left the Varsity Cup, returning to USA Rugby’s D1A. Cal beat Arkansas State in the ’17 Varsity Cup final, but without the anchor of BYU’s fanbase the competition dissolved, and all of its participants rejoined the Cougars in D1A this year.
As Smyth’s relationship with administration continued to sour and BYU wiped the leftover egg from the eligibility incident off its face, the Cougars missed the final for the first time in 10 years in 2017, falling to Life in the semifinals. This spring, Smyth’s last at the helm, the Cougars were knocked off by Penn State in the quarterfinals, launching the Nittany Lions to their first final four since 2007.
Smyth, longtime assistant coach Wayne Tarawhiti, and oddly, their spouses on social media, pointed to changes in the way the university categorized and supported the rugby program as reasons for the departure.
BYU has not yet named Smyth’s successor, but there’s a deep well of alumni who’ve gone on to be very successful in rugby both professionally and internationally from which to draw. If the school provides the new coach with the support and autonomy required, there’s no reason to believe the Cougars won’t remain relevant and competitive.
They were at their best when there was little oversight from the university and the program was generously fueled by alumni and donors. The timing of Smyth’s exit won’t help in getting alumni to rally around the new head man, whoever it ends up being.
Meanwhile, Smyth and Tarawhiti have set up camp in Orem, just 12 minutes from their old digs in Provo, where they’ll try and turn potential into trophies for the Wolverines. It won’t be an easy task, and it will certainly be a new challenge for Smyth, who may be just down the street from BYU geographically, but open-admissions UVU is a world away culturally.
The Wolverines have experienced fits of success over the years, most notably beating UCLA in the opening round of the Varsity Cup playoffs in 2017 and reaching the D2 final four in 2012 and 2008. They’re known for extreme talent, but they’ve struggled with eligibility, fitness and consistency issues.
UVU is not only open enrollment, it’s affordable, with in-state tuition at under $6,000 a year. With a legendarily fruitful Utah high school scene, Smyth is well positioned to stock his roster full of homegrown talent. Theoretically, every kid in the state of Utah can academically qualify for UVU and afford it, as the tuition amounts to less than a full Pell grant. Every out-of-state talent in the country can get in academically and play for a four-time national championship coach if they can figure out a way to afford it.
However, Smyth won’t likely be able to recruit internationally at UVU the way he was able to at BYU, where he also benefited from admissions assistance. All five of BYU’s national championship teams, including the one with its championship stricken in ’15, were powered by foreign halfback pairings. The South African duo of Davies and Dylan Lubbe led the Cougars in ’09 and ’12, and South African Luke Mocke and Kiwi Jonny Linehan drove the ’13-’15 teams.
The money won’t likely come as easy this time around, either. BYU is to the Church of Latter Day Saints what Notre Dame is to Catholicism – a universal flagship institution with an international religious following. BYU also tends to produce wealthier alumni with greater giving power, and a legacy of success and consistency within the program helped weave together a strong alumni network. BYU charges several hundreds of dollars in dues, as well. Raising money at UVU may prove more difficult.
But If Smyth can get some financial means and engender some support on campus, the sky is the limit for him and his Wolverines. For BYU to maintain its perch atop the Bee Hive State throne, it needs to tap one of its talented products as coach and put some resources behind the team. Utah needs to keep rebuilding brick by brick and re-establish some of the connections that brought out-of-state talent in to supplement the local haul.