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When Mike Friday arrived in 2014, he was told by the United States Olympic Committee’s people who analyze these sorts of things that his team had a 10-percent chance of qualifying for the Rio Olympics. Expectations for the women were more fluid – they were much closer, routinely finishing in the top six on the World Series, but coaching turnover and player unrest were key ingredients for inconsistent results.
Both made it to Rio but fell multiple wins short of the medal rounds. Now, they’re both ranked second in the world, both have secured early bids and top-four seeds for Tokyo 2020, and there’s no reason for anything other than unbridled enthusiasm.
Why? The short answer – the improvement of the player pool. Go back five years for both teams, and you’ll find rosters filled with players who couldn’t break the top 12 now. Both have bevvies of generational athletes who’ve elbowed their way into the fabric of the team one at a time, both feature players who’ve improved greatly through the years, and everyone has flexed mental toughness through some level of team turmoil, struggle and strife.
Maybe most miraculously, though, both programs have managed to improve through a potentially fragile coaching change. Chris Brown first started working for Mike Friday in 2012. Friday needed a strength and conditioning guru, and a confidant recommended Brown. Friday brought him in to assist with Kenya, and they worked together for a year before leaving the union.
When USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville came calling after the 2013/2014 season, Friday got the band back together. Brown’s hire was actually announced first. He’d be the lead coach on-site at the training center in Chula Vista year-round, and Friday would come in periodically throughout the season. That dynamic produced results immediately, but eventually grew stale.
Toward the end of last season, visa issues came to a head for Brown, so he couldn’t leave the country. Friday took other coaches with him on tour, leaving Brown in Chula Vista with idle hands. He started working with the women, and someone in Lafayette, Colo. hatched the plot for him to replace Richie Walker as the head women’s coach. Who knows which came first, the chicken or the egg?
From the outside, the move seemed troubling. Ahead of an Olympic qualification year, the women were undergoing yet another coaching change and the men were losing their day-to-day taskmaster.
Now, with a season all but in the rearview, the timing appears optimal. Brown had worked under Friday for five years, four of them in the USA. The team’s ascension had stagnated. Both men were ready for a change. The team needed a change. And Brown was ready to be a head coach.
The USA men and women would not be sitting at second in the world with tickets to Tokyo in hand if not for Mike Friday and Chris Brown. That take feels obvious, though there’s certainly an argument to be made Alex Magleby could have gotten the men here had he never stepped down, and it’s possible McCoy or Walker would have had the women here, too.
What we know for sure, though, is neither Friday nor Brown could have done it without incredible players. The freak talents of Danny Barrett and Ilona Maher. Alev Kelter and Carlin Isles. Perry Baker and Naya Tapper. The tenacity and leadership of Nicole Heavirland and Madison Hughes. The grit of Abby Gustaitis and Ben Pinkelman.
Both teams can feel really good about where they stack up in the bigger-stronger-faster category. There is obvious evidence of upskilling and improved decision making. They're equally feared. The Tokyo to-do list, then, appears to start with managing player welfare, rest and recovery and end with continuing the race against time to get better before the plane takes off.
This turnaround, though, goes deeper. The timeline goes back much further than Friday’s hire in 2014. People who don’t wear track pants and tank tops to work everyday had their hand in it. Luck was definitely involved. See a timeline of seminal moments below.
Al Caravelli becomes head coach of the men’s 7s national team, steadily increasing its professionalism and competitiveness for seven years.
That same year, USA Rugby sold 90-percent of its stop on the HSBC Sevens World Series to A. Jon Prusmack, a grassroots rugby man turned successful entrepreneur. The sale ensured the USA would remain a part of the World Series for years to come, giving the Eagles a home – the USA 7s.
Under Caravelli, the Eagles are granted core status for the first time, seeing them play in every stop of the World Series.
7s is voted into the Olympics, beginning with Rio 2016.
Prusmack doubles down on his investment to grow the game, launching the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship. The tournament all but invents college 7s, showcasing stars like Cal’s Danny Barrett and Ohio State’s Nate Ebner.
Prusmack also moves the USA Sevens to Las Vegas, where attendance explodes with nearly a decade of year-on-year record-breaking crowds.
With NBC as a founding partner in the CRC, Prusmack’s United World Sports strikes a landmark network broadcast deal that would see both the collegiate event and the USA Sevens on national television for the next decade.
After being released by the Miami Dolphins, Miles Craigwell sees the inaugural CRC on television and decides to get into the game. Later that year, Caravelli pulls him on the national team.
Ric Suggitt is named head coach of the women’s 7s national team. He would go on to recruit and develop the likes of Alev Kelter and Kris Thomas.
The United States Olympic Committee and USA Rugby partner to offer full-time training contracts for the first time, ushering in the professional era. Craigwell is amongst the first to earn a contract.
Dartmouth wins the 2011 Collegiate Rugby Championship, led by head coach Alex Magleby.
With four CRC alums, the Eagles win Bronze in rugby’s debut in the Pan-Am Games.
Magleby and the Big Green repeat as CRC champions, led by freshman phenom Madison Hughes.
Sprinter and former college football player Carlin Isles, having qualified for the Olympic trials, sees highlights of Craigwell online, prompting him to reach out. Craigwell directs him to USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville, who sends him to Caravelli lieutenant Andy Katoa. He suits up for Katoa’s Gentlemen of Aspen that summer, donning a white Nike headband.
Midway through the 2011/2012 World Series season, Caravelli is forced to resign. He’s replaced by two-time CRC champion Alex Magleby, who signs Isles, just four tournaments into his rugby career, to a full-time contract.
Magleby organizes the Golden Eagles, a booster club for the men’s 7s national team, leading to a significantly increased budget.
Mike Friday hires Chris Brown to assist with Kenya.
Mike Friday and Chris Brown leave Kenya.
After leading the Eagles to their most successful World Series season to date in 2012/2013, Magleby steps down for family reasons. Despite former England and Kenya head coach Mike Friday expressing interest, Melville hires captain Matt Hawkins to succeed Magleby.
Senior Danny Barrett and Cal lift the Pete Dawkins Trophy as CRC champions for the first time. Barrett led the tournament in tries.
Dissatisfied under Hawkins, Carlin Isles leaves the 7s team for Europe in the middle of the 2013/2014 season, spending time with the Glasgow Warriors. He also played 7s for an invitational side, Samurai, coached by Mike Friday.
The Eagles narrowly escape relegation under Hawkins in 2013/2014. Melville replaces him with Friday and Brown.
Nate Ebner and the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl.
Magleby becomes USA Rugby’s director of performance, allowing Friday to focus more on coaching than his predecessors were able to.
Friday leads the team to its best-ever finish, sixth, and its first-ever tournament title.
After a fifth-place finish, Ric Suggitt is let go and replaced by former coach Julie McCoy.
Nate Ebner and the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl again.
Julie McCoy is forced to resign midway through the 2015/2016 season, after just two World Series tournaments, and is replaced by Richie Walker.
Ebner returns to rugby for the first time since the CRC, earning a spot on the national team.
With Hughes as captain, Barrett as the star forward and Ebner a media magnet in the midfield, Team USA returns to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro but misses out on the quarterfinals. The women lose in the quarterfinals to New Zealand.
Perry Baker is named the World Rugby 7s Player of the Year.
Baker is again named the World Rugby 7s Player of the Year, though Isles leads the world in tries, by now wearing a white headband as a Nike-sponsored athlete.
The men win their second World Series tournament ever, claiming gold at the USA Sevens in Las Vegas.
The women finish fifth, Walker is let go, and Chris Brown becomes head coach of the women’s national team.
The men repeat as USA Sevens champions.
Both the men and women clinch top-four seeds for the Tokyo Olympics by guaranteeing a top-four finish on the World Series. Both currently sit in second place in the world.
Carlin Isles again leads the world in tries, and Madison Hughes leads the world in points.