There’s a new funded rugby program to keep an eye on – Grand Canyon University in Phoneix, Ariz. GCU is a Christian liberal arts college with an on-campus enrollment of about 15,000 and a larger online presence.
There was no rugby club at GCU prior to the approval of the new program in October. Former Arizona All American Ryan Kelly is the Lopes head coach and he’s assisted by Merrick Firestone.
While there are no rugby-specific scholarships and the program is considered a club sport, Kelly and Firestone are paid employees of the athletic department, recruits can be flown out for campus visits, there are a number of scholarship programs rugby recruits are being directed to, and the program will be funded by the university.
25 current GCU students have expressed interest in joining the team, seven of which have prior rugby experience. Kelly hopes to double that number with his first recruiting class. The Lopes will train this spring but not compete in any games until the next academic year.
Kelly is currently looking at a few different options for competition. GCU is considering aligning with some of the other teams in the Southwest, like UTEP, New Mexico and New Mexico State, and maybe even some teams in the DI-A West, to form a DI conference. GCU may also join the DI-AA Gold Coast conference or play as an independent.
The creation of a rugby team at GCU is the latest in a line that includes Davenport, Lindenwood, Wheeling Jesuit, American International College, Notre Dame College and Spring Hill – all private schools, many liberal arts and Christian, looking for a way to widen the recruitment net and raise awareness of their school.
Kelly, who teaches part-time at GCU and has been heavily involved with the University of Arizona program the last few years as an alumni advisor, just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
“I was never interested in coaching kind of a casual college rugby team. It’s not really my makeup,” said Kelly.
“I kind of grew up in that University of Arizona model, which is very organized and serious. Of course they have fun, but they take the game seriously. I just didn’t think there was a place out here, because ASU has Gary Lane and he’s got a full staff over there.
“We figured there’s not really a place to coach out here, so when this came up, I said, ‘Great. If you guys want to build a serious rugby program, I’m up for it’. And they were. It was just happenstance that I was teaching again and actually knew somebody in the athletic department.”
Kelly has aspirations for the GCU program to compete nationally and hopes to land a handful of High School All Americans in his first recruiting class.