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Everyone knows George Washington as the first, George W. Bush the last and Barack Obama the current. Outside of those with a little too much time on their hands, few can recall all the presidents between and their unique, distinct stories. To stand out in the annals of history, you’ve got to be a little more special than your company.
The 27th president of the United States, William Taft, might be best remembered today for his rotund figure. When, decades from now, people look back on Cal’s national championships, the 27th will stand out for its merit.
Moments after Cal secured a 40-29 comeback win in the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup final over BYU on the Cougars' hallowed South Field in Provo, Utah Saturday, with NBC’s cameras affixed on him, Cal head coach Jack Clark, who’s presided over all but four of the Golden Bears’ titles, referred to this one as legendary.
“I used the word legendary, because I think that’s what it is – a victory for the ages,” he told Rugby Today.
The modern age of college rugby began in 1980 with the creation of a national championship. Cal spent most of the next 36 years as the odds-on favorite to win it all. Harvard in 1984, San Diego State in 1987, Air Force in ’89, ’90 and 2003, and BYU in 2009 were the outliers, the Cinderellas.
That all changed with the emergence of BYU. For 17 years, USA Rugby’s playoffs included Sunday matches, and BYU prohibits its teams from competing on Sundays, keeping the Cougars from postseason play. In 2004, the Sunday matches were done away with, and five years later BYU won its first title, upsetting Cal.
The Bears reclaimed the throne the next two seasons, eclipsing the Cougars in both national finals before opting out of USA Rugby’s playoffs in 2012. BYU won its second title that year, beating Arkansas State in the process. Then in 2013, the Varsity Cup was created, reuniting the top two teams in the land. Ever since, BYU has owned the series, winning the next three championships to put Cal in the role of underdog for the first time.
Coming into Saturday’s final, BYU had won an astonishing 44 games in a row and four-straight national titles. They’d never lost to a collegiate opponent on South Field, where they were going to be the apple of a sold-out, heavily partisan crowd's eye.
“We had a few family and friends stuck up in the corner, and you could hear them try and give the boys some support, and they were just immediately drown out. It’s a difficult place to play,” said Clark. “We use a lot of hand signals, but we had to make new hand signals for new things. In the run of play it was even louder than we thought it was going to be.”
Cal’s goal going in was to just be within reach in the final 20 minutes – get there, and you never know what can happen. They almost didn’t. BYU was up 10 with 11 minutes to play, and it took 21 points in that span to claim victory. It helped that Cal had been under the pump the previous two rounds, which, along with the upset nature of the final, is what makes this year’s title run so remarkable.
In the semifinal, it took three missed penalties by Central Washington, including one at the death, for Cal to escape with a one-point victory. In the quarterfinal in West Point, N.Y., Army led by 15 in the first half and was ahead late in the game, forcing Cal to come from behind to advance. Never before had Cal, or really any national champion, had to clear so many hurdles to get to the finish line.
“It’s never happened,” said Clark, recalling his 32 years at the helm in Berkeley. “There’s always been a challenge either in the last game or at some point heading into the last game, but never three games that difficult where the result was in the balance the entire time.
“Two things come to mind – that’s good. That’s good for what we’re trying to build in the Varsity Cup postseason, is for it to be really hard and to have really competitive games. That’s good, and the second thing is it probably helped us a bit. Taking nothing away from Army and Central Washington, we didn’t play that clean. They were just good lessons. Those contests were really lesson rich, and it kind of helped us build our approach and what the victory conditions were going to be to the final against BYU.”
Cal’s bumpy road to the title, the first of its kind, prevented another first. Since the inception of the collegiate national championships in 1980, no Cal senior class had ever gone its entire career without winning a 15s title. Save a furious comeback Saturday, the 2016 class would have. Cal’s last title before this one came in 2011, when all current Bears were preps. The four-year championship drought was the longest in program history.
“It’s a great accomplishment by those young men, and I was so thankful and grateful and pleased for them. I told them there would be Cal men everywhere walking around their living rooms giving speeches and talking out loud and trying to explain to their families what this meant,” said Clark.
“The senior class was pretty fantastic, really. What a great group of young men. They were really significant leaders on the team, as well. As your seniority rises within the team, there’s a spotlight put on your leadership abilities. Those guys, they always spoke from the team’s voice. They almost can’t say I and we. They were always saying we and us.”
Cal’s entire front row – Scott Walsh, Michael Bush and George Vrame – graduating seniors. Outgoing lock James Kondrat stole a couple of BYU's balls at lineout time, an important battleground in the match. Reserve center Ea Okusi came on when the Bears were down and helped facilitate the comeback. But perhaps no senior had a bigger day than scrumhalf Nicklas Boyer, who set up two tries and scored his own.
“Boyer was immense in that game. It had to mean so much to him,” swooned Clark, who recalled the 2013 title match when Boyer was thrust into action because of an injury to then-starter Paul Bosco.
“Bosco had gotten hurt, and Nick was kind of forced into duty, and [BYU’s Luke] Mocke really got the better of him. It was a pretty shaky start for him and [flyhalf] Russ Webb, both. They weren’t up to it. And for them to go out and better their opposites after that performance in 2013,” the ole coach pondered with a pause, brimming with pride, a pride he shares with those men giving speeches in their living rooms.
"I’m reluctant to compare championships because every one of those championships means so much to the players that were involved with it. I just think it’s cool that so many of those players right now are reaching out and have so much pride in the team winning [Saturday], which is really remarkable. There’s not one jealous bone in any of their bodies. They’re just so happy to have their legacy protected a little bit, I guess is what I believe. They’re just so proud of the team like I am. Just a great victory for a lot of reasons."