Earlier this month, Notre Dame College became the sixth private school in the last three years to add a varsity rugby program, following the trail blazed by Davenport, Lindenwood, American International College, Life and Wheeling Jesuit.
The suburban Cleveland school is a small, enrollment-driven liberal arts college, much like Lindenwood and AIC, and it’s men’s and women’s rugby programs will be run by the club sports or student life department like they are at AIC and Lindenwood, but will be given scholarships, an operational budget, paid coaching and all the perks of a team run by the athletic department.
“This an institutional commitment where the institution will also make a financial investment to make this successful,” said Notre Dame Dean of Student Affairs Brian Emerson.
“We’re pretty serious. When we start a program like this we want it to be successful…I think that we can stand out in this area, and we’re going to invest into it where they can be successful, bring in some great players and put together a competitive schedule.”
Increasingly more enrollment-driven colleges are looking to rugby to boost interest in their college, as it equates as a cheap sport with a high return on investment.
Practically every college in America has a football or soccer field that’s suitable for rugby, so there’s no need to invest in a facility when you start a program, and equipment is minimal compared to many other team sports.
Here’s the model:
A private college with a tuition cost of $25,000 offers a $3,000 scholarship to bring in a rugby player, and does that 30 times over to create a team. That team generates over half a million dollars in new revenue for the school. Pay a part-time coach $10,000 a year and give the team a $20,000 travel budget, and now you’ve got a rugby program that’s head is well over the water financially, is boosting enrollment, providing a service for students already on campus and has the resources to compete on a national level instantly.
Notre Dame looked at the above model and decided to implement it, but, says Emerson, they chose rugby for other reasons, too.
“We’re not just starting it because rugby’s cheap and let’s make a bunch of money off of this deal. We want to do something that provides a valuable experience for our students and contributes to what we’re about as a mission-driven school,” he said.
“We’re also really attracted to the value side of things. People are very passionate about rugby, the people who play it and are involved in the sport. They want it to be successful, there’s a lot of energy connected to that, and from the people that we’ve talked to at USA Rugby and from the coaches that we’ve brought in and the guys around town, people want it to be successful and they believe in it.
“We’re a value-based institution, we’re mission driven, so things that are tied to a strong vision like that are attractive to us as a college. We don’t want to just do something just because it generates revenue. Revenue’s great, but it’s got to be something that fits in the mission, and this I think does.”
Emerson said the growth of high school rugby in Ohio and Notre Dame's recruiting footprint is a pro, too.
"A number of the schools that we have established relationships with, where we recruit students play, rugby, and a lot of the schools we would like to develop stronger relationships with do," he said. "Around here, there are a lot of really, really strong high schools that play rugby. A number of those are catholic schools and it just makes sense, it’s a good fit."
Notre Dame has hired a director of rugby in Brian McCue, who will coach of the men’s team. McCue has over 30 years of rugby experience as player and a coach.
He started playing in 1981 with Pittsburgh Rugby Club, became an All American and played on many select sides throughout his playing years. Most recently, he’s been building the Hudson High School program in Hudson, Ohio. He started the team from scratch in 2000.
“We just this year got to be a varsity sport,” said McCue of Hudson. “Had 102 kids playing between high school boys, girls and our middle school program.”
McCue has brought in two of his Hudson coaches to fill out the staff -- Mark Andrade and Justin Fetko. Andrade, who ran the girls team at Hudson, will be the head women’s coach, and Fetko will serve as a grad assistant. Andrade got into rugby as a parent and has been on the Hudson staff for seven years. Fetko played at Hudson and Dayton University. Last year he coached the Hudson middle school program.
“I was really impressed with the level of school support behind this,” said McCue of Notre Dame. “My goal is to help get them off the ground, get them started. I think I can help them administratively and with rugby connections.”
McCue, with the ink not even dry on his contract, is in a mad rush to get players on campus and men’s and women’s teams formed to begin play this fall. If he can’t get a team together immediately, Notre Dame will look to begin play in the spring.