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Coaching Changes Sad New Normal in College Rugby

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Coaching Changes Sad New Normal in College Rugby

Navy's new stadium is part of the rugby team's big future. But did it prompt a coaching change? Colleen McCloskey photo.

With the increased incidence of varsity men's college rugby teams, and University-funded elevated club teams, we are inevitably going to run into coach turnover.

What was once a domain where if a coach was moderately successful and willing to do the job (usually for no pay), he or she would stay in the position for as long as the coach wanted, we now have more and more coaches leaving "stepping down," "pursuing other interests," and, of course, "going a different direction," even if they do really well.

It's not fun. It's not fun the the coaches or the players, but it's a fact of the new normal.

So we come to two examples from this month. The US Naval Academy announced last week that Mike Flanagan will be stepping down. Now, Mike Flanagan has put pretty much everything into the Navy rugby program. Twelve times he took the team a national-level final four (this includes the old DI, and the Varsity Cup). He coached hundreds of young men who became outstanding officers in the US Navy and the US Marine Corps. 

Navy pulled off an impressive upset of Central Washington this season in the Varsity Cup, but also lost to Army on a late comeback. Overall, Navy played well, and it's difficult to think that it's performance that moved the Academy to go a different direction. What is not difficult is to link the development of the new rugby center at Annapolis, and a larger role in the program by alumni and the institution. New field, new approach ... so new coach? Seemed like that was the direction, and Flanagan, who is a big reason there's a fancy new rugby stadium at the Academy, will - after coaching the team at the CRC - be moving on.

To underline this, the Naval Academy Athletic Association has now announced it is looking to hire a Men's Head Coach and Director of Rugby. After decades of having a volunteer coach, they are now paying for it. This isn't the USNA Administration paying for the coach - it's a separate alumni association - but clearly a powerful group that has made a fairly radical change..

Of course, having the administration pay for the rugby coach isn't protection. After less than one season at Wheeling Jesuit, Tommy Duffy is no longer th coach. WJU has now gone through three coaches in as many years. Eric Jerpe left in the summer of 2015, and Tal Bayer left for NEC last year. The reasons seem to be about money. WJU has often had their coaches hold other jobs on campus. Rumors have circulated that the programs budget is being cut.

We spoke with WJU Sports Information Director Chris Myers, and he wasn't in a position to tell us much, but when we discussed WJU dropping out of DIA and moving to a lower division, Myers said he did not know, right now, what the program's plans are. He did not dismiss the idea that WJU might move divisions. A new coach is expected to be hired at WJU, but that hire could well be for a part-time salary, or on that requires the coach to do more than one job.

The dream for many coaches is to coach at a high level, or be a professional, or both. But those dreams come with a cost, and one of those costs is the stress of knowing it could all disappear. College administrations, athletic departments, and even alumni associations, are fickle. A new head person can come in and - whoosh - there goes that carpet out from under your feet. That's the way of serious college sports. We wanted to be there, and now some are seeing how it works, and it's not always pretty.