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Cal vs Dartmouth - Alex Ho / hoiho.net

What a wild few weeks that’s been. Hashtag campaigns were formed, conspiracy plots cooked up, and lots and lots of discussion about what happened, why it happened, and whether or not it should have happened.

I am going to weigh in on all of the above, and I have new information and insight to bring to the discussion. More importantly, though, we’re going to get past the symptoms of the issue at hand and attack the core ailment.

Iowa Central and the CRC
Iowa Central Community College participated in and won the Heart of America Classic, a tournament I ran (and broke my leg running, slipping in rare April snow after day one. This accident, and the metal plates, wire and 14 screws required to surgically repair the injury, are largely why you haven’t heard from me on these topics until now).

The Tritons are really good. If you’re surprised a community college team in its third year of existence was able to beat Clemson, Davenport, AIC, etc. en route to the title, it’s only because you haven’t been paying attention.

A year after mowing through the competition all the way to the NSCRO Challenge Cup final, where it lost to another scholarship-toting, coach-paying, varsity program in Bethel, ICCC moved to the NSCRO Champions Cup division. This season, the Tritons have hung 100-plus points on seven different NSCRO opponents, including against three of their four playoff foes. Sunday, they won the NSCRO 15s title 64-11.  

They stepped out against really good DI competition three times, beating Lindenwood-Belleville (the team I used to coach). They also played the other Lindenwood, yeah, that one that hung more than 80 on Red River champ Texas A&M in the D1A round of 16, to a 31-point game. That's only 10 points worse than the Lions beat St. Mary's by in the quarterfinals.

It's a better score line than the following D1 programs were able to notch against the Lions this year – Texas A&M, LSU, Lindenwood-Belleville, Delaware, Clemson and Davenport. And they played Arkansas State to within 20… in Jonesboro… twenty!

No, Iowa Central isn’t the little team that could. It isn’t some miraculous Cinderella story. It’s the same story that was told at Life, Davenport, Lindenwood, AIC, Wheeling Jesuit, Notre Dame College, etc. – put resources like scholarships, access to facilities, paid coaching and full-time training into a program, and have it play against a whole bunch of teams who don’t enjoy the same frills, and the cream will rise quickly. It’s a proven template.

That’s not taking anything away from what head coach Brent Nelson has done at ICCC. In fact, if anything, what he’s accomplished has been more impressive. It wasn’t the school that decided it needed a rugby program to boost enrollment and sought out a coach to run it. It was Nelson, who played basketball at ICCC and was employed on campus already, who convinced administration to go down that road. Kudos.

ICCC’s rise is also an example of another story we’ve heard before – get a whole bunch of players from tier-one countries who have been playing since they were tykes, and pit them against teams largely made up of American kids who have no more than a couple of years of experience. Worked for Arkansas State. Worked for Lindenwood. Worked for UCLA. Worked for Mary Washington. Works for virtually everyone.

Yes, the majority of Iowa Central’s overall roster is from Iowa. On game day, though, the starting 15 usually isn’t. If you’re reading this and you’ve watched more film on Iowa Central this season than me, chances are you either attend ICCC, live in or near Ft. Dodge, or you’re related to someone that does.

So, either take my word for it or sort through the tapes and rosters yourselves, but when the Tritons play someone they might lose to, like a Lindenwood or Arkansas State, you could use one hand to count the American starters and often be left with spare fingers. When they line up against a team they have to work hard to only hang 60 points on, as opposed to 160, there will be a much more American side on the field.

This is not an insult. It is not an attack. It is just the truth.

Back to the story. Before the tournament, heck, before Iowa Central loaded its bus for the four-hour trip (a light commute for Midwestern collegiate rugby) to the tournament, I personally called and made Nelson aware that executives of United World Sports, owners and operators of the CRC, deemed the team ineligible for the CRC because it was a two-year school. Nelson was obviously chaffed, but understood.

ICCC was allowed to come play in the Heart of America knowing that if it won, it wouldn’t qualify. The rest is history, and now the Tritons will continue steamrolling their way toward an NSCRO 7s championship this spring after slaughtering everyone en route to a 15s crown.

The D1A Bracket
What you already know: semifinal and final venues were set way in advance for broadcast purposes. The campuses of St. Mary’s and Life, who have met in every D1A final since the inception of the Varsity Cup, were chosen, as the Gaels and Running Eagles were favored to return to at least the semis, assuring some kind of crowd for the broadcasted matches.

Lindenwood upset St. Mary’s, and that would have sent Cal to Life, leaving LU and Penn State to meet in a presumably empty stadium really close to Cal. We can squabble about the rank of the reasons, but money and concerns over empty seats for a broadcasted final led D1A’s executive committee to switch the pairings in the hopes that Cal would be able to draw some paying fans to the Moraga semifinal. (Nevermind the fact that the Bears didn’t have a great draw in a similar NorCal neutral venue a year ago for the Varsity Cup final, prompting NBC to drop the competition.)

What you may or may not know, though, is this – part of the financial burden for the D1A’s final three games is a knock-on from the downfall of Rugby International Marketing, USA Rugby’s subsidiary which has seen its CEO and numerous USA Rugby and RIM board members resign in embarrassment.

RIM signed an agreement with D1A and was charged with putting on its postseason for 2018 and 2019. The Rugby Channel, one of RIM’s failing properties which will either be bought by Flo (negotiations currently ongoing) or close its doors, would air the first two rounds, and RIM would pay for CBS Sports Network to air the semis and final, as well as sell sponsorship for the broadcasts to help cover the costs.

RIM failed to do the latter and is in danger of not being able to fulfill its promise on the former. So saying every penny is paramount for D1A right now, as it might have to foot the production of the last two rounds largely on its own, is an understatement.

Should things happen like this?
Of course not. No one is arguing brackets ought to be reworked mid-competition for any reason. But this is how things currently work in college rugby. These are not isolated incidents. And the decision makers in these incidents, the D1A executive committee and United World Sports’ current executives, aren’t alone.

The CRC has changed its bracket, too. It was a handful of years ago. The exact particulars escape me, but the gist is this – Cal and either Life or Kutztown were to be on one side of the bracket, and UCLA and either Life or Kutztown were to be on the other side. This meant a potential final of Life versus Kutztown – two very good rugby programs from schools virtually anonymous to the casual sports fan NBC and UWS were hoping might be channel surfing that day.

Dan Lyle, the head of UWS’ competitions at the time, made the decision to switch things around to all-but-assure Cal or UCLA, at least one marketable brand, was in the final. Lyle is no longer with UWS – he now runs AEG Rugby.

What’s worse than changing a bracket mid-competition or telling a team before it competes in a qualifier that it isn’t eligible? How about staging a 7s national championship by publishing a whole list of “potential qualifiers”, allowing the entire season to play out without actually acknowledging which tournaments were qualifiers, seeding the tournament, playing it to its completion, and still never divulging publicly which teams qualified automatically and which were invited on an at-large basis, leaving everyone (including those who were selected and those who weren’t) scratching their heads. That was how USA Rugby ran its D1 men’s 7s championship last year.

Another potential example of “worse” is seating the committee which will choose the four at-large bids to the playoffs with conference reps from the four leagues who stand to benefit by having their runners-up receive bids, then having that exact scenario play out. Literally, one of the conference representatives was sitting on the small committee deciding whether the team he coached would get a bid, and they got the bid. This is exactly what happened with USA Rugby’s fall D1AA playoffs this season.

The Root Issue
All of the aforementioned are symptoms. The real problem is this – there’s very little money in college rugby. We all want robust, democratic, united knockout championships played in successive weeks. We don’t want to go back to two matches in a weekend. We want travel to be sensible, and when it’s not, to be subsidized. No team should not be able to participate in a postseason because it’s too expensive. And we want to be able to watch it all on our computers, phones or televisions, but preferably televisions, without paying extra for it.

Simply put – that’s impossible. We can’t afford it. USA Rugby can’t afford it. Individual teams can’t afford it. The events themselves don’t turn enough profit (insert crying-while-laughing emoji) to make it work. The only way it becomes a realistic possibility is if commercial sponsors swoop in to subsidize costs, or a wealthy individual or commercial third-party opens its checkbook. Really, you need at least two of the three.

USA Rugby has never been the answer, isn’t currently the answer, and never will be the answer. Not by any name – DI, College Premier Division, D1A, RIM or The Rugby Channel. USA Rugby has too many mouths to feed – high performance, member services, governance, youth, etc. – to ever give college rugby the attention it needs. USA Rugby [read RIM for as long as that’s a thing] has to go out and find sponsors for all of the national teams, events and other programs. The colleges are an afterthought.

College rugby, if it’s ever going to realize its potential, if we’re ever going to really know whether we can leverage college brands to drive the game to the masses and the bank, needs to be selfish. It needs to worry first and foremost about itself. It needs someone, or something employing multiple someones, to act solely on its behalf.

And, as we’ve learned, it can’t be simply thrown to the coaches to figure out. Who made all the decisions for the now-defunct Varsity Cup? The coaches, and ultimately, it was certain coaches who couldn’t play nice with other coaches that led to the competition’s demise. Who populates the D1A executive committee which signed a deal with RIM, is left holding the bag after RIM (predictably?) couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain, and ended up changing its final four around? Coaches. Who populated that self-serving D1AA committee? Coaches.

This isn’t an indictment on coaches. It’s just an acknowledgment that their expertise is just that – coaching. It’s also a nod to the fact that because of the very nature of their role as coaches, they will always carry an inherent bias. Coaches should be valuable resources, they should have the head seat at the table, but they can’t occupy every seat.

What college rugby needs is its own governing body whose mission is to grow, govern, administrate and commercialize college rugby. It needs to be run by people who don’t have a stake in the wins and losses. Those people and that organization need to have laser-focus on the college game, and the college game alone. Until then, and only then, can we expect to move out of the muck and into the sun.