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John Mitchell has four games left on his plate before taking off for South Africa, or before he stops commuting to America from his home in South Africa, you might say. It was announced Thursday that Mitchell would leave USA Rugby after less than two years at the helm to coach the Blue Bulls of Super Rugby.
The move doesn’t come as a surprise, as Mitchell had been linked to multiple jobs over the last several months – the sign of someone shopping his resume around. He was also being paid a whopping $260,000 a year in a time when his employer was enduring a more than $1 million budget shortfall and the women’s national team had to revert to crowdfunding to prepare for the upcoming World Cup.
Mitchell could very well go down as the winningest head coach in Eagle history in terms of winning percentage, as he sits at 7-5 in full tests and 7-6-2 overall, with two draws against Argentina XV and a loss to the Maori All Blacks. He’ll also be remembered for delivering the USA its first major tournament win since the 1924 Olympics, the Eagles having won the 2017 Americas Rugby Championship.
And if he can make his swan song an aggregate defeat of Canada in the World Cup qualifiers this summer, he’ll be the first coach to punch the USA’s ticket to the RWC before Canada earns its. The Eagles have always qualified as the third team from the Americas behind Argentina and Canada. As well, Mitchell stands to be the first American coach to hold a winning record over the Canadians.
However, Mitchell will also be remembered for leading his team to a loss to Brazil – the biggest upset since the inception of World Rugby’s rankings. Mitchell’s teams also lost to Uruguay, Romania and Tonga. They never beat anyone ranked higher than them.
Mitchell never moved to the United States. He kept his home in South Africa and spent less than three months a year in America, employing an entirely foreign staff while spending very little time helping develop domestic coaches, something many believe is a part of the job.
Remember how USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne, Mitchell’s boss, cut his teeth. He did it as an assistant under a highly paid overseas coach whose job was to not only win rugby games, but help develop the sport and coaches in America. He was an assistant under Eddie O’Sullivan, who had a very American staff, and he also coached under Mike Tolkin, who also assisted O’Sullivan.
Mitchell never attended a National Development Summit. He wrote in his book before taking the job that he didn’t want to work for a Tier 2 nation. While his old rival Eddie Jones, who coached Australia while Mitchell ran the All Blacks, can be seen at an Aviva Premiership game nearly every weekend as the head coach of England, Mitchell spent less time in America than a tourist on a holiday visa. He never went all-in. And USA Rugby needs someone who is fully invested in the American game.
So, to the question at hand. If not Mitchell, then who? Scott Lawrence. Wednesday it was announced that he would be joining the Eagles staff for the summer. Thursday it was announced Mitchell would be vacating the job. While Mitchell mentioned Payne's predecessor by name, Nigel Melville, and not the current CEO in the release, indicating the two never saw eye to eye, Payne and Lawrence have a long history of working harmoniously together at Life University, where Lawrence succeeded Payne as the director of rugby. If you think that’s all coincidence, PRO Rugby’s got a paycheck waiting for you.
“Scott is the most diligent, detail-oriented person I have ever known. Full stop,” Payne told Rugby Today this week. “Those that know him would concur.”
In 2015, Payne was very complimentary of Lawrence when putting him in charge of Life’s rugby programs after Payne himself moved to administration at the university.
“The first person I wanted to converse with about the future of our program when the current situation presented itself was Scott. He and I have had a great relationship over the past seven years and it's not uncommon for us to bend each other's ear when looking for ideas, advice and input,” said Payne then.
“The meeting started out with us discussing his availability for this coming year, discussing candidates that we might consider to fill this role and gauging how much time Scott might be able to offer the program this year. It soon became clear that Scott's current schedule and, most importantly, his intent and interest moving forward, will allow him to step up and take an extremely expanded role in the very program he has been so instrumental in building. There is no one better suited for this position than Scott Lawrence."
Just update that quote a bit and you get the feeling it could be Payne talking about Lawrence taking the Eagles job sometime in July.
At Life, Lawrence helped the Eagles win multiple national titles, with both the undergraduate and the club sides. In 2016, he was the head coach of the D1A national championship team. In 2012, Lawrence delivered the Junior World Trophy as the head of the U20s program, which at the time was the biggest win for an American men’s national team, age-grade or senior, since the ’24 Olympics.
Coaching changes are never easy. Maintaining continuity through them is always hard. But two years into the World Cup cycle, there’s no one better suited to take the reins from the departing Mitchell than Lawrence. Expect that to happen.