Mike Waszkowski is the President of the University of Illinois Rugby Football Club. Illinois recently moved up from Division 2 to join the Big Ten in D1-A. Their development has been a great success and they have qualified for the Big Ten semi-finals this spring where they will play Ohio State. Mike was kind enough to answer a few questions about how his team has made the jump and how other teams in their situation could do the same.
Why has joining the Big Ten helped your program?
Having big name competition every weekend has given our guys something to train harder for. Going into the fall we weren’t sure how we would do but we did know that we would get crushed every weekend if we didn’t have full commitment from all of our guys. I’d say that the Big Ten has given us something to fight for. Additionally, our Alumni like to see us play against the well known schools of the Big Ten. They now follow our games more closely and Big Ten rivalries give them an extra reason to pay for the things we need to win.
Could you have changed the direction of the club without joining the conference?
I don’t think so. Our club was making improvements but I believed everything would have reverted back to mediocrity if we remained D2 with playoff ineligibility. Our players don’t like meaningless seasons, when we are winning games in the fall we have 40+ guys at each practice. If we don’t make playoffs in the Spring, our numbers often drop to less than 20 guys.
What change has had the biggest impact on the field?
Organization. To be successful, you have to be organized in every way possible; plan for the worst, hope for the best. We planned out everything: practices, strategies, transportation, budgets, possible substitutions, EVERYTHING. I made sure that everyone knew what we were going to do before we even had to think about doing it because I believe that knowing what you are going to do is the first step of doing it well.
Who initiated the changes?
I did the initial pushing, however, our officers got on board fairly quickly. When I knew the direction that I wanted the team to go, I let the team decide. I laid out the pros and cons, and explained my hopes, fears, and goals and we had a team vote. Our players unanimously voted to move up.
Did alumni support precede winning or was it the other way around?
The two came at about the same time. As we kept winning they kept giving.
If there is a team out there, whether in a name brand conference or not, that is struggling in Division 2 and wants to make a leap to success at Division 1, what’s the first step?
I would say you need to get the leaders of the team to all be on the same page with the move up. I’ve learned that any one person will receive flack when alone, but when all of the team’s leaders are aiming in the same direction, they will be taken seriously. After you get your leaders in order, you’ve got to get the whole team on board but once you do that there is no stopping you.
So you’ve gotten everyone on board, then what? Do you now organize everything, schedule harder games, get in the weight room, expect better practice attendance, add an extra practice, or some combination of all of that?
The first step is establishing a single goal for the leadership of the team to accept and strive towards. For us it was to play rugby to the best of our ability. The next step for us was to have the rest of the team buy into that one goal wholeheartedly. You have to get everyone to believe in the potential of the team and then make them work for success. Buying into our program meant harder games every weekend. We added a third practice on Mondays as well as a walk-through on Fridays all of which attendance was mandatory. The penalty for missing was not getting selected for that weeks game, if you didn’t show up and you did not have a legitimate excuse then you did not start. If you regularly had attendance issues then you would not play A side. Attendance was not really an issue for us this year because our guys took success seriously and were willing to put the time in.
What was the first step in getting support from your alumni?
We had a few recent graduates that were upset with the support from the Old Boys. They caused quite a ruckus among the alumni. We made the claim that we were not like the past teams at Illinois, we wanted to win and were willing to do everything that it took to do so. Our alumni asked us why we deserved support and we showed them budgets, practice schedules, dues structures, itemized needs lists, and team goals both short term and long term. We got the leadership of the Alumni to want to support us and then they got the rest on board.
What’s your strategy at engaging your alumni and organizing their support?
I like to bring the alumni back to Illinois Rugby by pushing them to watch our games either live or on YouTube. A lot of them are long removed from Illinois and it helps to show them that we are still competing. Also, I feel that our club is not entitled to anything from our alumni, I like to show them how organized we are, how successful we are, and how hard we work so that they want to give back. If you get money from an alum, you better do whatever possible to show that you appreciate it and that their decision to give was a good one.