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It’s time I break my silence on the removal of Todd Bell from his seat as USA Rugby’s collegiate director. And make no mistake about it, no matter what the USA rugby press release said, Bell did not leave on his own volition.
Was the Todd Bell era a success?
In some areas, yes. He moved forward with the restructure plan. He did a pretty good job of it, too. DI, now DI-AA, is as sorted as you might expect at this point in the process. Some ambitious conferences have done really well for themselves, and others have at least had the chance to compete for meaningful titles and a spot in the USA Rugby playoffs.
Bell took some bullets in this process. There were a number of people, territorial or local administrators, coaches or observers who were not a fan of the restructure, and Bell had to deal with those people and shoulder some criticism, warranted or not.
The inaugural USA Rugby 7s National Championship was a good event. Some of the qualifiers were less than robust, and several teams choosing to abstain tainted the event, somewhat, but the championship in College Station, Texas was a well-run, entertaining, high-quality tournament. And, for the record, the timing mistake and venue, which led to several teams being unavailable, were not Bell’s fault.
The competitions committee set the weekend for the 7s championship. They did so under the impression they’d have the money to put the thing on television, so they tried to pinpoint the weekend which might give the event its best chance to succeed ratings-wise. For reasons which go higher than Bell, the budget for the 7s championship ended up being a fraction of what the competitions committee thought it would be. The venue choices were limited by the timing of the event.
In some areas, one in particular, Bell was not successful. The drive to get enough varsity women’s programs to become and NCAA sport was stagnant under Bell. Ultimately, Bell’s inability or unwillingness to advance this endeavor was cited by USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville as the main reason for his termination. But, to be fair, the NCAA initiative has been relatively stagnant for over a decade.
In one big area, the College Premier Division/League/DI-A, it’s hard to tell whether or not Bell succeeded. Before judging Bell’s success with it, we must first try to understand his role in it. The CPD was not a Bell invention. It was handed to him when he took the job in Boulder. So his role was not founder.
It’s clear his role was commissioner. He led the charge of drawing conference lines, devising the competition and coming up with its structure. For all intents and purposes, he succeeded. Conferences made sense, and games were well played and well staged. Leagues were fairly drawn up, and the record-keeping part of operation was a big step forward for USA Rugby. Matt Trenary, the father of the Competition Management System, deserves a big pat on the back for that.
There were two major complaints about the CPD’s first go-round, both surrounding the playoffs: the travel scenario was unfair and costly for Eastern teams, and the playoffs weren’t profitable or fiscally responsible for the teams involved.
The former has to be considered a wash. The semifinals were held in Colorado to make them cheaper and easier to broadcast. The latter is a valid complaint, but not one I believe Bell had anything to do with. When it came time to either cut Cal and BYU in on the gate from the final at Rio Tinto or not, I find it hard to believe Bell was the one making the decision.
Another CPD problem was a severe lack of sponsorship. Some CPD coaches have said they were told significant sponsorships would help subsidize increased costs. Those sponsorships didn’t come to fruition. But, Melville is on record saying Bell’s job was not to get sponsors, but create the product to be sponsored. I believe he did that.
In all, I think it’s fair to say the Bell era at USA Rugby was neither a failure nor a resounding success.
How Does USA Rugby Make the Post-Bell Era a Raving Success?
Take the load off of one pair of shoulders. The high school/youth department at USA Rugby has three full-time staffers. The college department needs at least two.
Bell and the Women’s Strategic Committee suggested hiring someone to specifically oversee the NCAA initiative. I think that could be a good idea, with a tweak. I would hire someone to oversee the varsity initiative, as it pertains to both men’s and women’s programs.
Men’s faux-varsity or full varsity programs have been growing at a faster rate than women’s lately. That’s OK. Men’s varsity programs are a great thing, too. Dan Payne recently told RUGBYMag that he’s contacted regularly by schools considering creating a varsity rugby program. He should field those calls, but USA Rugby should have someone to take that interest and run with it. Especially now, when colleges are looking as hard as ever for new revenue streams. Low-cost sports programs are just that.
If the DI-A competition should continue to exist next spring, which many don’t believe it will, the coaches need to form their own committees to handle some of the day-to-day business, or allow the competitions committee that deals with the rest of men’s college rugby to take part. A college director shouldn’t be bogged down with things like scheduling or social media.
A college director’s job should be championing the great sport, and helping move it forward. Bell’s successor should be hands on when it comes to the restructure, helping teams get into conferences, helping conferences solve their problems, etc.
What are some things almost every college program in America struggles with? Recruiting, facilities, funding and liaising with their campus administrations. A college director should be finding ways to help teams help themselves in these areas.
Finally, marketing and shopping the college game needs to improve. College rugby is the most marketable product, other than maybe 7s, USA Rugby has. There is value in it, but that value is untapped. USA Rugby’s new college director can’t be solely responsible for this. The signers of checks and budget makers need to be heavily involved, surely. But, the college director should be an asset in the process.