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Author's note: This column felt redundant. I've written many, many stories over the last five or so years about college rugby's awkward restructuring period, but seeing as college rugby changes with every fall freshman orientation and spring commencement, I figured I'd revisit it. Plus we know more now than we did one, two or five years ago. This story contains a short history lesson, some perhaps harsh truths and, of course, opinions. Now for the disclaimers: I am a full-time head coach at a new varsity program competing in DII, Lindenwood-Belleville. I am also an employee of Rugby Today, which is owned by the group behind the Varsity Cup.
From 1980-2012, explaining men’s college rugby’s national championship structure was pretty easy. We all knew who the best team in the country was. Now the exercise requires spreadsheets and thorough research. Heck, a Venn diagram could even come in handy.
The Way it Was
There was one real postseason tournament encompassing all of college rugby until 1998, when the field was split into two divisions. For a handful of years we accepted two national champions – DI and DII. What’s now known as the National Small College Rugby Organization sprouted up in 2002, effectively creating a DIII championship.
Then in 2011 we split DI and had four divisions – D1A, D1AA, DII and NSCRO. That lasted only two years before discontent bubbled over and forced the current landscape.
Now the only “true” national championships, meaning everyone in the same division plays toward the same postseason, exist in DII and NSCRO. As for DI, well, it’s tough to imagine something more confusing.
The Way it is
Penn Mutual Varsity Cup. This is an exclusive postseason tournament promoted by United World Sports, the same folks behind the USA Sevens, Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships, Rhino and this publication. It boasts 16 teams, many of whom are traditional blue bloods of the college game.
There were 33 years of the title of best-team-in-the-country being undisputed at the end of the season. 31 times it belonged to a program that now plays in the Varsity Cup – Cal won 26 titles, Air Force three and BYU two. The only non-Varsity Cup teams to ever win in those halcyon days were San Diego State and Harvard, who claimed one a piece. SDSU is now a middling team in the California Conference and Harvard competes in the Ivy, where it’s Dartmouth and then everybody else.
D1A boasts 40 teams across seven conferences. This is where the Venn diagram comes in handy. While seven conferences are D1A, several teams within those conferences either consider the Varsity Cup their primary competition or don’t participate in the D1A postseason.
Only Air Force, who along with Utah participated in the D1A playoffs last year only after being eliminated from the Varsity Cup, and San Diego State won an undisputed national title, giving D1A four of 33, three of which it shares with the Varsity Cup.
There are also teams under the D1A umbrella not interested in playing the competition’s spring playoffs. For example, last year Kutztown finished second in the Rugby East. The Golden Bears opted out of the D1A playoffs, and Wheeling Jesuit and Penn State, who finished below them, played in the D1A postseason.
D1AA served a purpose for three years. From 2011-2013 it was a sensible level between the top and DII. There was a wide number of participant conferences and colleges representing the whole country then. Teams didn’t have to be begged to participate in the playoffs. Davenport won the first two titles and Central Florida the third.
How it Happened
D1AA has since jumped the shark. Fewer teams and conferences are interested in chasing this trophy, defeating the purpose. The tide began to turn in 2013, when the seasonality schism took full effect with the creation of the American Collegiate Rugby Championship. Teams in the eastern half of the country had long complained about spring championships, and they finally did something about it.
The ACRC’s championship lasted just one year. 2014 ushered in a series of bowls, as teams continued to look for cost-cutting answers. Games were played. Some were more exciting than others. This fall it appears the bowl series will have less shine than its first run, with few match-ups being announced less than a month before kickoff.
Seasonality is the singlemost divisive issue in college rugby, but without teams being given the power to determine their own futures, the fall or spring conflict never would have come to a head. It was the conference movement that gave teams that power.
Prior to 2010, for the most part, colleges were beholden to the old union system. Below the United States Rugby Football Union were seven territorial unions, and below them were 30-something local area unions. These unions ran regionally based leagues that fed into territorial and national playoffs.
Made sense for a long time, but under the jurisdiction of the unions fell every aspect of rugby, from the youth game up through the senior clubs. Often you would have senior club people dictating to college teams when they had no skin in collegiate rugby themselves. Colleges wanted autonomy, and needed it to grow the game commercially.
The conference movement was spearheaded by the Atlantic Coast Rugby League, which jumped into the new era with both feet during the 2010/2011 season. Others came along slower, taking longer to detach from the union nipple. Some still haven't stopped nursing. In many ways college rugby is much better off foraging for its own sustenance, but one relic from the old days many still long for is a unified DI national championship.
What Could Be
Recently the Varsity Cup trumpeted the acquisition of Army and Penn State, and with good reason. Those two programs had previously been staunchly in the D1A camp. Under new leadership they’ve morphed.
In the era of undisputed champs, only five teams ever won it all. Penn State and Army never did, but only Cal made more final four appearances in those 33 years than the Black Knights. Only Cal, Army and Air Force made more than the Nittany Lions. So it’s not out of school to say that a few weeks ago the Varsity Cup boasted the three most successful college programs of all time and now it has the top five. Really the top six with Navy.
Last year Arkansas State brought its three final four appearances to the Varsity Cup. In 2013, the competition’s second year, Utah chipped in its four. Every year the Varsity Cup has folded in more and more of the country’s top programs while D1A has lost interest from them.
Money moves mountains, especially in college athletics. Rugby is far from a revenue sport, of course, but that means pennies are more paramount than ever, as if you have less, you have to be more prudent in spending them.
D1A was started on the back of a large high performance grant from World Rugby. That money’s been burned through, and the highly touted partnership with IMG has apparently born no fruit, at least not yet. Meanwhile the Varsity Cup added a major title sponsor last year and continues to have enough commercial appeal for its final to be carried live on national television. All that’s to say the Varsity Cup appears to be on solid ground, though crowds have to get bigger and the games themselves have to become more self-sustaining, while D1A appears to be dying on the vine.
The bowl system is the cheapest option on the DI postseason menu, but also the least appealing – paltry crowds (outside of other participants), poorer facilities, minimal broadcast exposure, no title per se, and little cachet. It's low-risk, low-reward, but there’s usually room for the cheap option.
What Should Be
If USA Rugby wants to stay relevant in the college championship business it needs to either open sustainable cash streams to subsidize postseason travel and purchase fancy trophies or sell its soul to the fall.
The autumn is begging for a true championship. Yes, there are finals, football and finances to factor in. But for 33 years teams fundraised, studied on the road and finagled their way around gridiron in the quest for a national championship (most teams played a split season, even when the only playoff was in the spring). They can juggle it all again, and the vast majority of DI teams can or do play fall 15s, anyway. Don’t fight the tide. Ride it.
The Varsity Cup has the opportunity to beat USA Rugby to the punch, end the discussion and drop the mic. Either cut some fat with less competitive teams to make room or bloat to 20, but get the likes of St. Mary’s, Life, Lindenwood and Davenport in. All of those teams have experienced sustained success, possess infrastructure and displayed a desire, or at least willingness, to play spring 15s, which is where the Varsity Cup looks set to stay. Without the Mid-South trio, there’s no substantial postseason to keep the Gaels, which could be in the Varsity Cup right now if they wanted to be, out.
And there’s an argument to be made that you should both trim fat and expand at the same time, making room for the likes of Wheeling Jesuit, Notre Dame College and Iona, too. Don’t turn your nose up at these institutions and end up drowning in a nose bleed from the altitude. These programs have their own value, even if it’s not brand power.
(Look at the photo at the top of this page. Two no-name universities met and played a little quality rugby. Some people turned up to watch anyway.)
If USA Rugby doesn’t get smart and move to the fall, teams should exercise their newfound autonomy and do it themselves. If the Mid-South, South Independent, Red River and West all committed to the fall, which they could, only the west coast teams would be left to fit in or fall out. Varsity Cup teams could choose to participate in an autumn postseason along with the spring tournament, and without having to rob a bank or be knocked out of one playoff to find time for the other. If the Mid-South were to jump into fall play alone, just the D1A final against St. Mary's would be missed. Postseason blowouts over Colorado State or some other western team could be replaced by friendlies or autumn playoff games with Wheeling, Alabama or some other eastern team of an equal or greater standard.
At some time in the future, and probably not so far off, the best teams in the country will reside in the east, anyway. Full-time paid coaches, scholarships and athletic department infrastructures are popping up on more and more campuses, and they’re usually located closer to New York than Los Angeles. These programs should recognize their own value and be proactive in this landscape instead of passive.
That's the advice for everyone, be it USA Rugby, the Varsity Cup or the teams themselves: be aggressive, not reactive.