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AIC ready for battle. Lorrie Macy Photo.

Editor's Note: The author is the former head coach of Lindenwood-Belleville, one of the independent programs referenced in the column. 

It all started back in 2010 with the creation of the Atlantic Coast Rugby League, the first collegiate rugby conference. Prior to the ACRL, everyone belonged to a local area union, which was overseen by one of seven territorial unions. These bodies not only governed college rugby, but everything from high school through senior club.

Eventually, USA Rugby would issue an edict to usher in state-based organizations for high schools, conferences for colleges, and geographical unions for senior clubs. LAUs and TUs were dissolved. The state-based organizations were relatively easy to figure out, as they almost exclusively follow natural borders. The GUs were a touch messier, but essentially some TUs just became GUs, while other LAUs were smushed together to create new entities.

In college rugby, all hell broke loose. It became the Wild West, with teams, coaches and administrators able to draw up conference lines, erase them, and draw them again Etch-A-Sketch style. That’s exactly what’s happened the last seven years. Even the ACRL, the original conference, was erased after the 2014/2015 competitive cycle, with its teams scattering to different leagues across several divisions.

Conferences, both in theory and practice, are a welcome creation. Now college stakeholders are the ones making decisions about the college game. Conferences add meaning to the regular season – winning the Big Ten sounds a lot cooler than winning the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union. Likeminded programs can pick and choose who they want to play. A DIII men’s club rep isn’t dictating which college team has to travel where. An unending series of double-game weekends is no longer needed to help us boil 30-something LAU titleists down to a national champion. All good things.

But with newfound autonomy comes the potential for abuse, misuse and tomfoolery. You don’t have to go far to find an example.

Let’s look at the case of American International College, a varsity program in Springfield, Mass. The Yellowjackets used to belong to the East Coast Rugby Conference, a league established in 2011. AIC joined in 2012. The conference dissolved over the offseason last year, with almost its entire membership joining the newly formed Liberty Conference.

AIC and New England College, another varsity program, were two of the only ECRC teams not included in the Liberty, making it easy to draw the conclusion that the Liberty exists in large part as a way for non-scholarship programs to avoid having to play the likes of the Yellowjackets and Pilgrims. Fearing being left out in the cold, AIC coach Rob Guiry sought help from USA Rugby collegiate director Rich Cortez to find a new conference home. He didn’t get any. He tried to get AIC into the D1A Rugby East, but the conference told him not this year, providing little guidance on how to proceed going forward.

Guiry was assured by Cortez AIC would be given a fair pathway to a postseason. Like most teams east of the Mississippi River, AIC plays fall 15s and spring 7s, so the Yellowjackets opted to vie for an at-large berth into the fall D1AA playoffs. As the ECRC champ, it had made a run to the semifinals two years prior.

Cortez organized a selection committee made up of one person tied to a spring conference and four fall-playing D1AA conference representatives. They picked the second-place teams from their own four conferences instead of AIC, which finished the regular season 4-2, citing AIC’s weak schedule.

AIC’s only wins were over New England College (twice), Endicott and UMass, but its average margin of victory was 67.5 points. The only losses were a competitive one to Notre Dame College, the reigning D1AA champion, and Iona, both competitive members of the second-toughest D1A conference in the country, Rugby East.

Ever since the beginning of the conference revolution, discerning observers have been concerned about what could happen if these new entities decided to create a really exclusive sandbox, going against rugby’s inclusive ethos. Until the AIC decision, it was a hypothetical, but it’s now been proven that if you aren’t in a league, there’s a very real chance you’ll get screwed by those who are.

AIC isn’t alone. Blueblood BYU was nearly shutout of conference inclusion by the Rocky Mountain, seemingly because they’re too good. The Cougars applied for entry for this season and were denied by teams it has a long history of playing and beating handily. After some uproar, the Rocky Mountain thought better and let the Cougars in. NEC also sits alone outside of a conference, but the Pilgrims’ record was legitimately unworthy of playoff consideration this season. Lindenwood-Belleville has recently made attempts to join the Red River, Heart of America and Big Ten conferences, being denied by them all.

It may seem as though it’s all about the haves being excluded by the have-nots, non-varsity clubs who can’t give scholarships not wanting to be in the same league as those who are and can. But that’s not the whole story, either. Geography is an issue, too.

Florida is leaving the SCRC, which may start opening its doors to non-SEC teams. The Gators may well join a proposed new Florida conference involving the southernmost teams from the South Independent, potentially leaving it with just a handful of teams across Georgia and Tennessee.

Geography can shape divisions as well. Wisconsin-Whitewater won its second-consecutive DII national championship last fall. The Warhawks have won the WIIL Conference every year of its existence, usually in runaway fashion. They’ve made five-straight final four appearances. By all rights, they are good enough to be playing at a higher level. Same could have been said about Minnesota-Duluth, which reeled off three-straight titles before suffering some coaching shakeup and coming back to the pack.

They, like Salisbury, another traditional DII power, having won two national titles and made six final four appearances, grew weary of complaints that they should move up to D1. Salisbury was able to, but only by creating its own conference, pulling some other competitive D2 teams up with it and soaking up some of the remnants of the ACRL. For Whitewater and Duluth, that’s not an option.

There is no D1AA or D1A league anywhere near them that would accept them. The only logical option for either would be the Big Ten, which isn’t going to open its doors for hyphenated state schools which compete in DII and DIII in traditional intercollegiate sports.   

There are rumors the Mid-South, the toughest conference in the nation, is on its last leg and will be broken up after the end of the season. It’s full of teams that can offer significant financial aid and have paid coaches. But even for programs like that, a conference footprint that spans Michigan, Missouri, Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia isn’t sustainable. Financially it’s a massive burden, and it takes players out of school for inordinate amounts of time.

Who is going to let them in? The South Independent isn’t going to sign up to get whipped by Arkansas State and Life. They let them play 7s in that league for a while, and they were happy to get rid of them. Is the Heart of America going to take Lindenwood in? No, they were relieved to be done with 100-point hidings after the Lions’ lone year in the league. Davenport is probably too far west for the Rugby East and not a realistic option for the MAC or Big Ten. Clemson, a non-scholarship, big-brand program, will be a more attractive add for whatever conference it chooses, should it choose to join one. Perhaps the SCRC or Chesapeake would consider opening their doors.

This doesn’t make these conferences villains. The Big Ten is the Big Ten for a reason, and that works for them. The Heart of America is perfectly justified to want to keep its league competitive, just like any would be. I can’t imagine a scenario in traditional college athletics that would see the Sun Belt admit Alabama, thus signing up to basically hand every trophy in every sport over to the Crimson Tide for the rest of time.

What happens if these Mid-South programs, nearly all of which have been pumping out Eagles over the last half dozen years and provide precious daily training environments, are thrust into the ether as independents? Will they be gerrymandered out of postseason opportunities? D1A is a bit of a different beast, as it employs its own commissioner in Kevin Battle and coaches have more of a vehicle to affect policy. To date, the D1A postseason has been fair to independents. But since it relies on a ranking system for at-large postseason berths, and most of the pollsters are conference- and team-affiliated, there’s the potential for collusion and exclusion like we appear to have witnessed in D1AA.

So, it’s okay for conferences to say no, whatever their reasons. But what’s not okay is allowing the gerrymandering of conferences to cause the integrity of national championships to be called into question. In the old days, if someone was too good for D2, they could move up within their local LAU/TU structure, and the teams they were moving up to join could do little to prevent them from doing so.

Now whose job is it to adjudicate these scenarios and assure competitive fairness? There is no privately-run postseason college 15s anymore. This is all under USA Rugby’s purview, which means it’s all on the desk and shoulders of Cortez, the collegiate director. D1A indirectly so, because of the presence of its own commissioner, but Cortez is still the top administrator in college rugby, period.  

In 7s, the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship reigns supreme. Last year, it slammed the door shut on any debate about which tournament was the real national championship with the addition of a second open qualifier in the Heart of America and the inclusion of St. Mary’s, Lindenwood and American International College.

However, In the Olympic code, Cortez and USA Rugby haven’t done themselves any favors. Last season, they literally never named or revealed their qualification process for their D1 7s championship. There was an application conferences and independent tournaments could fill out to be considered for automatic qualification status, but they were never notified if they were actually granted said status. USA Rugby just released a field of 16 teams with no explanation of its composition. So it remains a complete mystery which teams qualified and which ones got in on an at-large basis.

Cortez said he used a committee to pick the teams, but at least one member of his “committee” characterized it differently, saying it was more like Cortez showed him a list and asked him what he thought. Teams were left to just randomly pick some tournaments to play in, hoping one would be considered a secret qualifier.

It’s still relatively early, but it appears by the lack of communication and published information that Cortez and USA Rugby are on the path to repeating this mind-boggling process for the 2018 championship. And DI men’s 7s is the area which needs the most guidance, because D1A and D1AA are lumped together. With 18 conferences across D1, and the championship tournament being reduced to 16 teams, you can’t just assume every conference that applies for an automatic qualifier will get one. And if most of them do, you’re left with no or few at-large spots, again screwing who? The independents who don’t necessarily control whether or not they get in a conference.

The blame and buck stops and starts with Cortez, the one person paid to figure it all out. The College Management Council has a say, as do a number of other volunteer committees, but these committees all answer to Cortez, and it’s Cortez who typically seats them. So, did Cortez make the unilateral decision to keep AIC out of the D1AA postseason? No, but he did oversee the seating of the committee, which had zero independent representation and was dominated by men from conferences who had dogs in the fight. In this case it wasn’t a conflict of interest – Cortez helped orchestrate a symphony of shared interests. It’s just that interest wasn’t competitive fairness.

Is Cortez directly to blame for a completely opaque, nonsensical 7s qualification process last season? Show me where else the finger should be pointed.

Nearly a decade into this college restructure, here’s what we know – conferences are good, conferences should be able to make their own decisions, but not all teams are going to be able to get into conferences. We also know that sometimes people make decisions based on what’s best for them and theirs, not the game’s greater good, and therefore, a strong leader is needed at the top to assure competitive fairness and integrity. Right now, college rugby in America is devoid of that, leaving a real threat of conferences running the game unchecked.