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Rugby coaching as a profession in the United States is still in its infancy. Like players here and there, coaches have been paid under the table for years, and that’s still the way some clubs operate. Extremely rare are club coaching gigs where tax paperwork is involved or the pay equates to a livable wage.
But as the game makes gains on college campuses across the country in terms of legitimacy and administrative support, more and more full-time professional coaching jobs are being created.
Some schools pay stipends or part-time salaries. Other positions are funded by alumni. And a collection of coaches are paid by a combination of both. At many of the newer programs with varsity status, coaches hold second jobs on campus, as is common in small college athletics beyond rugby.
In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen some movement amongst the college coaching ranks. Tony Pacheco is out at Central Washington. Former Clemson coach Justin Hickey has filled the vacancy at Notre Dame left by Sean O’Leary, who is now with PRO Rugby’s Denver team. And current Wheeling Jesuit coach Tal Bayer will be moving on to replace Jeremy Treece at New England College by next season.
In most other collegiate or professional sports, you hear and read about a coaching carousel, with coaches leaving one program and filling a vacancy at another. In rugby, that’s not traditionally been the case. But it’s a growing trend, with Bayer and Hickey being the most recent examples.
Army and Penn State are two of the more high profile jobs to come open and be filled recently, and both positions were taken by professional coaching veterans. Army’s Matt Sherman was at Stanford and San Diego State before moving east, and Penn State’s Blake Burdette was the head man at Utah before taking over the Nittany Lions. Central Washington head women’s coach Mel Denham held the same post at American International College before moving west.
There are even more examples of coaches moving about between collegiate and club jobs. Former Arkansas State coach NeMani Delaibatiki coached Palmer Chiropractic before moving to Jonesboro, Ark., and he’s since landed at Life West. Before him, Alex Houser was an assistant at Life before taking the job at Arkansas State. And after his time at ASU, Houser moved to San Francisco Golden Gate. His predecessor at SFGG, Paul Keeler, took up a job at Santa Clara, and he’s now coaching PRO Rugby San Francisco.
As well, a couple of former high-profile collegiate coaches have parlayed their experience into higher-powered jobs within their institution. Dan Payne coached at San Diego State before becoming the head men’s coach and director of rugby at Life, starting the undergrad program, and he’s since become athletic director. Matt Huckaby was Arkansas State’s first full-time paid rugby coach, and he’s now ASU’s executive director of student wellness.
This is an encouraging sign for those aspiring to carve out a living as a professional rugby coach Stateside. Perhaps alarming, though, is the seemingly high turnover of coaches who start fully funded programs.
Lindenwood’s first head coach, Ron Laszeweski, is no longer with the program. Same with Wheeling Jesuit’s Eric Jerpe, Notre Dame College’s Brian McCue, Spring Hill’s Mollie McCarthy and Davenport’s Kruger Van Biljon. In some cases, these coaches were paid part-time, and their replacements have been made full-time, which is positive progression for rugby in general. But there seems to be either a lack of jobs for them to move to or a lack of desire to continue to pursue professional coaching.
Rugby’s rapid growth has seen many firsts in the last 10 years – Olympic inclusion, full-time training contracts for 7s national team members, college scholarships at all sorts of schools, and even a professional league. If you tell a young person he or she can make a living as a professional rugby player in the United States, you’re no longer lying. Now, you can tell that player as he or she ages that a professional coaching career is a realistic possibility.