In announcing the Golden Bears' withdrawal from the premier division, the release indicates the decision was based on several factors and the result of internal planning. Can you elaborate further?
There is much that has gone into our planning, but the strategies have been anchored in the specifics of our situation at Cal. Like all collegiate rugby programs, we have our advantages which need to be built upon as well as obstacles which need to be negotiated. We are also striving to strike a balance between near-term considerations and the longer term. Finally, we need to fold our specific strategies at Cal into the rugby opportunities being presented to us via the Olympic Games and an increased media profile for the sport.
Specific to the premier withdrawal decision, our discussions have centered on better aligning our competition schedule with our academic calendar, building a Sevens component into our program, commercial planning, budgetary requirements and the areas where we want to increase our activities -which we see as investments - and finally, our concern with the premier competition's direction.
Among those factors, what was the issue with academics?
For Cal, pushing the postseason beyond the first weekend of May was a compromise to help establish the premier division. As it turned out, we played during our reading week, final exams and graduation. It was an unacceptable compromise. It was difficult to explain to parents why they weren't going to see their son in a cap-and-gown ceremony. Competing one of these weekends during this exam period is do-able, but less acceptable on multiple weekends.
Were there budget implications to the withdrawal?
In 2011, most of our Pacific conference games were only expense; the matches were without commercial merit. In the postseason, we spent considerable funds traveling to Colorado and Utah. The Colorado semifinals were poorly attended, but our final with BYU generated significant income; however, the two finalists didn't participate in the profits and we paid our own expenses to participate. It was less the expense incurred and more the lack of income that was disappointing. The competition will eventually find some sponsorship and USA Rugby has indicated it will partially fund some of it, but the model has a ways to go to better what teams can do on their own.
Are there immediate program-related priorities for Cal rugby?
There are three primary areas of focus: first, facilities - finishing Witter Rugby Field as a boutique, world-class facility; second, developing one varsity rugby program which competes in both forms of the game, Sevens and 15s; and third, re-establishing the California Rugby Advisory Board.
Can you give us more details of what you envision for the Sevens component of the program?
Beginning in 2013, we will use our fall term for Sevens, competing in three to four tournaments within a three-month window. The plan is to build all the appropriate training and competition systems required for developing our players.
We have enjoyed playing Sevens as a one-weekend-per-season activity, but the Olympic opportunity dictates that Sevens should be offered more of our focus. Spring will hold our priorities for 15s and fall for Sevens. The one outlier in this seasonal plan is the NBC Sevens invitational (USA 7s Collegiate Rugby Championships June in Chester Pa., www.usasevenscrc.com - Ed), which currently takes place in June. It is such a good opportunity for the growth of the game, Cal will continue to participate whenever we are invited.
What was Cal's overall experience in the College Premier Division in 2011?
First it is important to remember that we played the same teams in the CPD that we had in previous years. We didn't switch opponents. After that, it was a mixed bag. The competition itself was mostly efficient in proving a national champion through match play, but I don't think the management was as good as it could have been.
How do you expect the remaining premier teams to feel about Cal's departure?
We have spoken with several of the coaches and they have been understanding, most very supportive. At the end of the day, all the teams have a duty to do what is best for growing rugby on their campuses. Originally, teams opted in or elected not to opt in based on this responsibility. Once opted-in, five teams, now six with our withdrawal, have said no to a second season. If the premier competition is the right vehicle for college rugby, it will carry on through 2012 and beyond. If not, better methods of competition and events will be used. A point worth noting, we made clear we intend to honor our Pacific fixtures for 2012. We don't want our withdrawal to leave a hole in any team's schedule.
You are on record as believing in the commercial value of college rugby. Does Cal's withdrawal from the premier competition indicate a change of heart?
My belief in the commercial value of university rugby is unchanged and evidence based. On our campus, we have enjoyed a strong commercial footprint. We get better attendance than three-quarters of our fellow intercollegiate sports. Same with merchandise and concession sales among our 29 teams. Our rugby stakeholders have also been loyal corporate partners. In total, these income streams are significant.
Look at what USA 7s LLC has accomplished commercially with the college invitational championship on NBC. The commercial market for university rugby has been established at both our local level and the national level. The question is, what is the best way to propel this media and commercial energy forward? Many teams are on record stating traditional sport conferences are the best way to direct our competitions and, in doing so, grow our game. To a degree, this makes sense to me. Converting athletes, fans, administrators and media might be best accomplished through a traditional American sports model.
What is the likelihood that we will see Pac-12 rugby competitions?
I think it's highly probable that rugby will fill some of the programming needs the Pac-12 has. In this regard, our conversations with the Pac-12 office have been very encouraging.
What would be Cal's perfect schedule of opponents?
It would not be far off from what the team will play in 2012. Home and away with UBC, of course. Stanford is a historic and Pac-12 must. Saint Mary's is an important rival match. Sister school UC Davis. We need to continue to play the other Pac-12 schools we are playing in 2012: UCLA, Utah, Arizona, ASU. It would be nice to play Colorado more often. Cal vs. BYU simply sells. It not only needs to be continued, it needs to be commercially expanded. We also need a steady stream of opponents for our reserve and frosh/soph teams. Our 2012 match with Loyola is a good example of these types of fixtures.
Where our regular-season schedule is lacking is in not playing the Navys and Notre Dames, or the big, well-branded schools of the Midwest and Southeast. Not playing Dartmouth, as the perennial Ivy champ, is a loss for us. Cal has had epic matches with Dartmouth in the past. Finally, we need to play internationally against the best universities in Japan and the rest of Asia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Southern Hemisphere.
Does this imply that Cal is planning major international tours?
With our academic calendar, the only real opportunity to tour is after the end of the spring term. We are examining this initiative carefully. The commissioner of the Pac-12 has just completed a much-publicized visit to Asia reviewing sporting opportunities. Our own chancellor visits Asia often for campus development purposes. It is not much of a stretch to envision Cal rugby helping with this brand extension by touring. Everything needs to be on the table.
Does Cal's withdrawal from the premier division hurt the program's recruiting?
No, certainly not in a material way. Our recruits want a world-class degree and an authentic student-athlete experience. This remains our core mission. Very little will change in our recruiting methods or outcomes.
Do you think we will see competing national championships similar to what we are seeing in college Sevens?
It is likely we will see competing forms of regular-season and postseason rugby. Some teams are going to continue to play their regular-season schedule with a Local Area Union, Territorial Union or Geographical Union format; others will choose traditional sport conferences. I think future postseasons will offer all kinds of options. USA Rugby will continue to be in the national championship business, but they will continue to get competition from professional entities like USA 7s LLC. National invitational tournaments aren't going to go away. Postseason bowl games might even play a role for rugby. When I first heard that a series of rugby bowl matches servicing several levels of play might be an option, I was pretty dismissive of the notion. But on reflection, it might be a concept with legs. Clearly some very attractive and meaningful matchups could be created and the experience for the teams and the students could be first rate. If teams are going to play in traditional sports conferences, it isn't much of a leap to envision conference champions playing each other in postseason bowl matchups.
How does Cal rugby balance the responsibilities of serving its needs as well as those of American rugby?
As a philosophy, anytime a team executes a plan to grow or better develop their rugby, it expands all of our rugby. Cal isn't hurt by there being an Ivy League championship, we are assisted by it. Same could be said for an SEC or ACC rugby championship. At Cal, we have an obligation to the game at all levels with particular emphasis on university and high-school rugby. We have attempted to contribute to raising the standards of U.S. rugby for 130 years. We field competent teams and manage quality rugby events that enjoy media and fan interest. We have engineered a robust commercial platform which is good for all levels of the game. We have been successful at developing national team-caliber players and this has an aspirational influence on youth and high-school players.
What are Cal's 2012 postseason plans without the premier division?
Contesting the old Division I championship is an option, as the playoffs for qualification are at the end of April - no conflict there. And if we qualify, we could muster a team of available players for the championship. We're open to this option and other options.
The team recently moved into the Olympic Wing of the Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance, and Witter Rugby Field is due to come back online in January of 2013. How will these facilities benefit the team?
It continues to be difficult to be without Witter Rugby Field but it will be equally rewarding to reopen it next season. We have termed our planning process "The Next Hundred Years of Cal Rugby" and Witter Rugby Field as our commercial engine is a critical aspect of that future. Rugby's inclusion in the high-performance center will advance our abilities to develop teams and players in an Olympic environment complete with elite training capability, medical services, applied-science deliverables, locker rooms, meeting space, food service and academic support.
How will the withdrawal affect Cal's relationship with USA Rugby?
I will expand the question to include our local and regional rugby administrative bodies as well. We have always been a team in good standing with these administrations and we intend to continue to be.
Recently, two additional Cal players won their Blues while studying at Oxford while another signed a professional contract with Bath and still others have been offered USOC residency contracts. Do these postgraduate achievements represent the pinnacle of success for a Cal rugby player?
Those are the latest additions to Cal's postgraduate rugby success. They add to our totals of professional players, national team players and Oxford Blues. But it's the sum total of everything our graduates achieve that we are most proud of, keeping in mind most of this success is away from the rugby field.