It’s been somewhat overshadowed by the college restructure this offseason, but Matt Sherman’s move north up the California coast could, in time, turn out to be a significant point on the college rugby timeline.
Sherman spent the last two seasons as San Diego State's head coach, steering the Aztecs to the Elite Eight in 2010 and the National Semifinals in 2009. But the chance to return to the Bay Area and revive a once-formidable program was one Sherman couldn’t pass up.
“There are a lot of reasons Stanford was attractive to me. One of them was they have a storied program there with a lot of tradition and roots in the Bay Area, and on top of that I’m a Bay Area guy myself. My family, close friends are in the Bay Area, I went to school in the Bay Area, so it’s nice to return home,” said Sherman.
“There’s a lot of great resources at Stanford, be it facilities, tradition and history, really invested alumni who want to see their program succeed, so that program has potential for long-term success, and I’d like to help bring that to fruition.”
Of course, Sherman is taking over a program often overshadowed by the big, bad Cal, but he, who captained the Bears to national titles as a player and coached as an assistant under the venerable Jack Clark, won't be easily intimidated. No, the Stanford alumni foundation Sherman answers to doesn’t expect him to knock off his alma mater right away, and neither does he, but the thought of challenging Cal on a yearly basis has to be in the back of all their minds.
“I’m pretty familiar with the program. If you’re a competitor, and you play a sport, you want to play against the best, and the Cal-Stanford rivalry is very special in any sport...It goes over 100 years, so that’ll be great to take part of,” said Sherman.
“I’m under no illusion that we’re going to walk out and start competing with the best. We need to get focusing on just improving our program and we can make great strides in improving who we are and how well we play the game and maybe at some point we’ll talk more about competing directly, but right now I think the focus is on us getting better.”
Sherman announced his move to Palo Alto in October, but hasn’t had much time to settle into his new digs since. Sherman, USA Rugby's Age Grade Director and assistant on the Eagles coaching staff, has had a busy fall between the America’s Rugby Championship, November tour and High School All-American camp, so he’s still playing catch up in terms of getting familiar with his new surroundings.
“It’s going pretty well. I haven’t really done too much because I’ve been gone most of the fall with the tour, so I’ve really only had a week under my belt,” he said. ‘I’m excited. I’m enthused about it, for sure.”
Having played and coached at Cal and heavily recruited the Northern California area while at San Diego State, Sherman is familiar with the talent the NorCal high school and U19 competition cultivates each year, but Stanford is a private university with the reputation of being quite selective in terms of admission, so Sherman will likely have to extend his recruiting efforts beyond the local pool.
“I’m still learning a lot about Stanford as a university and Stanford rugby as a program, but my understanding is Stanford is one of the top private institutions in the country. It literally is made up of kids from all over the country, and from what I can tell, there is no stronger affiliation with Northern California kids,” he said.
“I think you’ve got to be creative. I think the first thing, and this might be a chicken and egg thing, is trying to build a program that people want to be a part of. Athletes congregate with other athletes and success and performance environments. If you can create that, I think you’ll attract other athletes.
“I think probably the first process is just working with what you have; a campus full of athletes. Some play varsity athletics, other varsity athletes stop playing part way through school and are looking for another endeavor. There’s other athletes playing club sports and whatnot and you need to be proactive in terms of recruiting those guys.”
In SDSU, Sherman left an entrenched, proven program set to play in the inaugural College Premier League season for a program that’s struggled in recent years and even dipped into DII within the last decade, so it seems like a downward move, but Sherman believes he’s at the right place now in an environment that could have Stanford enjoying new heights in the not-so-distant future.
“I felt it was really kind of bittersweet,” said Sherman, whose former Aztecs have been supportive of his decision. “They were great. Those are fantastic guys down there. I’ve got tons of respect for those guys, and it was bitter to leave a great group of guys, but it was sweet to get a new opportunity. It was something that I wanted to try and had my eye on for a while.”
Trying to revive a program in Cal’s backyard will not be an easy task, but with his pedigree, success at SDSU, nationwide network of friends and old teammates and knowledge of the Bay Area landscape, Sherman sure looks like the right man for the job.