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BYU, Utah and Air Force are out of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup, replaced by Harvard. Rumor has it Arizona State will be out, too, if not on its own volition, because of the well-publicized, on-pitch assault involving someone who wasn’t a student at ASU punting an Arizona counterpart in the face while he was kneeling to tie his shoe. More teams might be in the fold as replacements, as well. The D1A final will be televised by CBS Sports Network.
This is the news du jour in college rugby, but, really, just the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of a splintered collegiate landscape. The purpose of this column isn’t to rehash everything that’s happened in the last seven years to lead to this point. I’ve written that one. It’s to fill in some holes with information and add some insight.
The fact that D1A is airing its title game live on CBS Sports Network is fantastic. Anytime rugby gets on TV, it’s a great thing. Live is even better. And college rugby getting on TV, you could argue, has more impact because of the built-in brand awareness of universities across America – maybe they catch a few more channel-surfing eyeballs than something more obscure to the average sports fan. However, to trumpet the airing of D1A on TV as a turning of the corner would be premature, if not ignorant.
This isn’t the first time the D1A final has had a broadcast partner. In its six-year existence, the D1A final has been streamed live every year. Four times it was streamed live by ESPN3, and twice by USA Rugby’s own avenues (YouTube and The Rugby Channel). Four times it was shown in tape delay days later on ESPNU. So USA Rugby’s announcement of CBS Sports Network’s live coverage of the 2017 final is an improvement and something to be excited about.
However, that other competition, the Varsity Cup, has had its final broadcast live on NBC Sports Network each of the last three seasons. The inaugural title game was streamed on YouTube, but every championship since then has been front and center on national television, like D1A’s will be this spring.
It’s also worth noting that prior to the big schism, college rugby had enjoyed national television coverage in fits and spurts. During the National Guard’s short-lived but colossal sponsorship of the college game through USA Rugby, several regular season matches were shown on ESPNU. Now the Pac-12 Network airs select regular season games.
So college rugby has had days in the sun before, but the only competition which consistently, without interruption, put the game on national television is the Varsity Cup. That’s largely why the competition was so attractive for its competitors.
What is more notable is that a sponsor ponied up a large chunk of change to put D1A on TV. Canterbury reportedly chucked in $60,000 to make it happen. That’s amazing, as the only significant benefactor of D1A prior was actually a grant from World Rugby. That Penn Mutual’s sponsorship of the Varsity Cup and Collegiate Rugby Championship has been followed up by a smaller, yet-still-significant corporate partnership, is a good sign.
The other massive incentive for teams to join the Varsity Cup was autonomy. Ask different coaches why the Varsity Cup exists, and you’ll get a myriad of varying answers and maybe some revisionist history. The boiled down version is that it existed because USA Rugby did a poor job with the collegiate game before its inception, period. Anyone who disagrees probably fits into one of these categories – apologist, bearer of incredibly low standards, sufferer of amnesia or too new to the community to know otherwise.
The Varsity Cup put the power in the hands of its member programs, so they finally had a real voice in determining when they would play where and how they would be expected to spend their time and hard-to-come-by funds. It got the game consistently on national television. It put some standards to how the game could be showcased on campus in its pre-championship-game matches.
Yes, it was exclusive. And, like so many, I hated that part about it. I would have loved to see Arkansas State in sooner. The Red Wolves haven’t been the same since Matt Huckaby stepped aside in 2012, but they were still stinking good in 2013 (and the thought in Jonesboro is they’re back on the right track). Life would have won a lot of games in the Varsity Cup. St. Mary’s could have been in but chose not to participate, and the Gaels would have obviously competed every year. Lindenwood and Davenport could have made waves, too.
But the fact of the matter is that from 2013 through 2016, the two best teams in the country met in the Varsity Cup championship. And nearly all of the collegiate national championships in history were won by Varsity Cup teams. Now, with Air Force taking its three titles and BYU its four-and-a-half, the count is slightly down. But don’t forget, the inclusion of Harvard brings one, 1984, back to the competition.
Four-and-a-half? Let’s get into it. The Varsity Cup made its decisions by a popular vote of the coaches. While United World Sports, the company which also owns Rugby Today, puts on the final, the Varsity Cup has no real owner. The teams decided, as loosely and casually as they saw fit, to run the competition their way. That worked to some degree, but it ultimately helped lead to the competition’s current state.
BYU won the 2015 national championship game, 30-27, over Cal in front of about 9,000 fans. Scoring the first try in that match was Cougar center Hoseki Kofe, and it was Kofe at the center of the eligibility issue which ultimately led to BYU’s exit from the competition it founded.
The Varsity Cup coaches had decided to go by USA Rugby’s old eligibility standards, which started a student-athlete’s clock when they first enrolled in college. Now, USA Rugby starts the clock when a student graduates from high school. That change in and of itself was a big driver for BYU to leave D1A and found the Varsity Cup, as BYU traditionally has older students because many choose to go on a religious mission.
Under USA Rugby’s old rules, which the Varsity Cup held onto, Kofe would have been ineligible in 2015. Coaches within the Varsity Cup figured this out and ultimately decided to strip the 2015 title from the Cougars and put them on probation. (I say BYU has 4.5 titles because the rugby team’s website still touts the title and there’s been no public recognition from the program of the championship having been stripped.)
There were months and months of discussions between BYU and those within the Varsity Cup, and there was incredible effort put forth to keep BYU in the competition, because everyone knew that its exit would significantly tarnish the Varsity Cup’s reputation, commercial viability and future.
I personally believe people within BYU’s rugby program wanted to remain in the Varsity Cup, but the school’s administration got involved, and it was taken out of the rugby people’s hands. The Varsity Cup got a lot more organized, creating committees and getting school administrators in the fold. But it wasn’t enough to keep BYU, which was ultimately upset with how the eligibility situation was handled.
That’s an incredibly simplistic account of what happened, but it’s enough to paint the picture accurately.
I have empathy for BYU in this situation. Like the vast majority of rugby programs in America, those within BYU’s weren’t privy to all of the information collected and processed by the university’s admissions office. It is reasonable for me, as someone who has worked in university admissions and been involved in both varsity and club programs at the collegiate level, to believe that unless Kofe volunteered (and why would he know he should?) that he’d enrolled in a community college years earlier, there was no reason for anyone within the program to dig around and discover otherwise. That’s what compliance offices are for, and all but very few in American rugby have a relationship with anyone dedicated to compliance on their campus. That’s just the way it is.
Still, BYU played someone who shouldn’t have been playing. Just like Arizona State did. (Believe it or not, I can see a scenario where a club rugby program plays a non-student, too. Remember that part of the movie when Rudy joins the Notre Dame football boosters even though he doesn’t go to school there?) And when you play someone in a game that isn’t eligible, there have to be consequences. It appears to me that those in power at BYU got too fixated on how the violation came to light and spent too little time figuring out how to put measures in place to prevent it from being repeated and moving on. Conversely, some within the Varsity Cup might have been a bit too ardent about holding BYU's feet to the fire.
The announcement of BYU’s exit from the Varsity Cup, though it had been bandied about and expected for several months, came in early February, around the same time Air Force issued a letter, sprinkled with some questionable, vague jabs at unnamed Varsity Cup teams and coaches, saying the Zoomies were leaving, too. The timing wasn’t great for a competition that starts in April, but gave the Varsity Cup time to sort things out.
Utah’s announcement that it was dropping, which came last week? Not so much. The Utes gave the Varsity Cup about a month’s notice, citing, among other things, cost and proximity of competition. For Utah, a program which competed in both the Varsity Cup and D1A simultaneously the last two seasons (very expensive) and discontinued a longstanding rivalry with crosstown rival BYU this season (very inexpensive) to cry budgetary and travel concerns at the 11th hour, which it did, doesn’t add up to me.
So this is where we are – we still have two postseasons, both of which will be aired live on national television, and the future is uncertain. Many are predicting 2017 will be the final year of the Varsity Cup. Maybe. Maybe not. If it is, it might be a good thing.
Over the years, people within UWS and teams within the Varsity Cup have had adversarial relationships with people in USA Rugby’s national offices. Given significant personnel changes all around, I think a successful marriage between all involved is more possible now than ever, and that aligns with a place in time where the top end of college rugby is more competitive than it has been in decades, and maybe ever.