Recently, Wake Forest announced they would be hiring a paid head coach. As professional coaching is still rare in our game, we thought to ask a few questions on how they are making this work. Pat Kane, Head Coach Emeritus, and Andrew Gentles ’05, President of the Wake Forest Rugby Foundation were gracious enough to provide some answers.
First, how much is this person a coach and recruiter vs an administrator and ambassador to the university?
Kane – All of the above. How much is Coach K a coach and recruiter vs an administrator and ambassador for Duke University? A head coach is a head coach is a head coach. Certainly we will strive to provide support for whoever we hire in all of these areas-help get qualified and dedicated assistant coaches and specialty coaches, continue to build a budding network of alums who serve as recruiters, give administrative assistance through our faculty advisor, student-athlete leadership, and alumni (for example I hope to remain on in a supporting role in both a coaching and administrative capacity), and everyone associated with the program considers him/herself an ambassador for Wake Forest. But the head coach needs to be the captain of the ship, and that covers all aspects of running the program.
Why do you see the need for a paid coach at this time?
Gentles – We’ve been lucky enough to have essentially had a full-time volunteer head coach for 9 years. He no longer could devote the same amount of time that he had in the past because of growing professional and family commitments, and without a large network of other available volunteer coaches to step in and share the load (Winston-Salem is not exactly a hotbed of rugby coaches), the only way to realistically get someone in who we could expect to do all the things we had come to take for granted were being done for the program for free is to make it a paid position.
How have you come up with the funds for this position?
Gentles – The money is coming from alumni, parents, student-athletes, and the school. We took a hard look at our operational costs after this past semester when the team was essentially coachless and went 0-7 in conference play. We moved some funds around and prioritized differently. While we like to outfit our student-athletes with nice gear and travel to away games like our varsity counterparts do in buses, what good is looking the part if you step off the bus in your sweet warmups and then get waxed by 50 points because you don’t have a legitimate coach? So we’ll be cutting back for a little bit on some of the extra perks that come with being on the team. And everyone is ok with that-nobody associated with Wake Forest rugby wants a repeat of last season, especially the players who are giving their all on the field.
To that end we also are going to require some financial buy-in from the players. That’s a hard one, because Wake Forest is not a cheap school and we don’t want to make kids pay to play. But at the same time, these kids don’t hesitate to drop $1000 a year to be in a fraternity and we think we provide an experience that is at the very least equal to the fraternity experience. So players are going to be asked to contribute financially, whereas for the past few years we hadn’t collected player dues. We’re not talking a ton of money, but enough to cover an individual’s CIPP and required kit.
That’s pretty outstanding to have players not paying dues. How much do the foundation and university contribute to make that happen?
Kane – Between what we are provided now from the University and what we bring in from donations to the WFRF, we have an operational budget of about $25,000 per year. Now, you have to realize that this is all pretty recent, as in within the last 2 or 3 years. When I got here in 2004 we received $1500 per year from the school and had $0 in donations. It took a long time and a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people to get the school to gradually increase our budget and to get alumni and others to want to contribute to the program we were building. But we got to where we are and we consider ourselves very lucky. We know that there are other schools within our conference that don’t have nearly the financial support that we do. But the flip side of that is that they also have in-state tuition options, student bodies that are five times the size of ours, and higher acceptance rates for incoming students. So it evens out. Every college rugby team has its own unique obstacles.
I would say that the key to getting more financial support from both the school and the alumni is to present yourself as a program that is worth supporting. When we started holding high school showcases and bringing high school student-athletes to campus, the school took notice of the value and visibility we were providing, and we got more money. When we started providing scholarships (small though they are), alumni started realizing that their donations were going to go to something tangible and beneficial, and we got more money. And again, this didn’t happen overnight. It is a process that takes time and it is still on-going, as evidenced by the fact that we now are campaigning for funds to pay a coach.
If another team wants to make this happen for their club, where do they start?
Kane – Ideally you’d get the school to recognize the need for a paid coach and the attendant benefits to the student-athletes and university, and the school would allocate the funds. Unfortunately, that’s a difficult sales pitch at most schools right now. So we’re relying primarily on alumni. The key is to get the alumni to recognize that college rugby has grown significantly from when many of them played. A couple 2 hour practices a week run by a volunteer coach doesn’t cut it anymore. The top teams are doing something rugby-related virtually everyday and if you want to keep up, you need to be doing the same. And you need someone at the top in charge of making it all happen. Most alums have pride in their program and will be willing to contribute financially if they understand the need and the tangible benefits. I think the Wake rugby alums are much more inclined to donate to a coach fund now that they saw firsthand how much the program struggled when a lot of the coaching responsibilities were thrust onto the players this past spring.
How long has this been a thought for the program?
Gentles – I think we all knew that someday Pat Kane would have to step down as head coach, but it was hard to imagine that reality until it actually happened this spring. So it wasn’t as if we had been preparing for this and had a bunch of money squirreled away to hire a coach when it eventually became necessary. So like I said, we had to re-prioritize where our money was going to be spent. We also had to reach out to guys and say, “Ok, the team needs your help. If you had a good experience with Wake rugby over the past decade, now’s the time to show your thanks and give back.” Not surprisingly, guys are stepping up to the plate. We all played a part in building this program from a middle of the pack D3 team happy to beat Guilford College and UNC-Greensboro to a D1 team competing alongside our ACC rivals. Nobody wants what we’ve built to fall apart and we recognize that with Wake’s small school size, high tuition, and difficult admission and academic standards, we’re not going to go anywhere but down if we don’t have a head coach who is paid to do the job. But we also see schools like Dartmouth and Middlebury having perennial success and believe that with the right support and right people in place, we can be right alongside them.