Rugby Club Pokes a Hole in the N.C.A.A. Bubble

 Zach Schonburn

KUTZTOWN, Pa. — There are only a few dozen international students at the medium-size university nestled here in the Berks County hills, where the clacking hooves of horse-drawn Mennonite buggies can be a more familiar sound than a car horn on the local streets.

But on weeknights at 11, the turf field at the center of campus transforms into something like a model United Nations. There, Kutztown students from England, Scotland, South Africa, Australia and Jamaica, along with American players from 22 states, gather to take part in a common affinity: rugby.

Despite the odd practice times, there is nothing ragtag about the Kutztown University rugby team. It crisscrosses the country every year for tournaments, and often wins them. The players take yoga classes and perform community service. Their coach, Gregg Jones, a retired chiropractor and former Marine, enforces a curfew, mandatory study halls and an all-too-serious requirement that players make their beds each morning.

“This is a varsity program,” said Paul Presinzano, the director of Rugby United, the program’s fund-raising arm.

Kutztown rugby is a club, meaning it is not run out of the university’s athletic department, not provided access to varsity support staff members or trainers, and not governed under the wide umbrella of the N.C.A.A., the organization synonymous with intercollegiate athletics.

Yet, last Saturday and Sunday, Kutztown was one of 24 teams — most of them clubs — competing in the eighth annual Collegiate Rugby Championship at Talen Energy Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer. More than 27,000 fans showed up for the weekend games — exceeding the attendance at 10 college football bowl games last year. And the event was televised nationally by NBC’s sports networks.

Yet there was a conspicuous absence at the college showcase: the N.C.A.A. Rugby, considered one of the fastest-growing sports in America, is a prime example of the proliferation of club sports at many universities that otherwise fail to compete on the increasingly tilted playing fields of college athletics. In 2015,

Kutztown, which plays other sports in the N.C.A.A.’s Division II and boasts a football stadium named after its most famous alumnus, the N.F.L. Hall of Famer Andre Reed, has found that certain club sports can be more vital than it ever anticipated. And in rugby’s success, a glimpse is offered into a future for college sports outside the N.C.A.A. bubble.

It has done so on a shoestring budget that is made up largely of fund-raising by passionate alums like Presinzano, who set a goal of raising $100,000 in 2017. (The team is about halfway there.) The university supports the program, which has more than 50 players, with a modest contribution — $20,000, through its department of recreational services — and players pay dues of $200 each semester, which covers their uniforms and travel bags.

Jones, who goes by Doc, is a volunteer, as has been the case since he founded the program in 1986. At the time, college rugby was known for its mostly fraternity party-boy culture, heavy on the drinking and hooliganism. Jones’s team was composed of whoever was already on campus and had expressed even a passing interest.

“We were constantly coaching kids who never saw a rugby ball,” he said.

Now, Jones and his assistant coach, Larry Chester, scour the world for talent, starting with prospects as young as 13. And their recruiting pitch — come play for Kutztown — does not get as many raised eyebrows as it used to.

“Everything we do, the attitude, the culture, the facilities,” Jones said, “it’s all varsity.”

Eligibility Freedom

There are two N.C.A.A. Division I men’s rugby programs (California and Army) and a smattering of others across Division II, Division III and the lower-profile National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Other colleges, like Penn State, give men’s rugby a quasi-varsity status, with paid coaches and access to trainers and support staff in the athletic department.

But Jack Clark, the longtime coach at Cal, which has won 27 national championships since 1980, said the lines between varsity, quasi-varsity and club teams were becoming significantly blurred. "Some teams that are not intercollegiate, you wouldn’t know it by looking at them,” Clark said. “They’re pretty well put together outfits.”

B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University, writes about the growth of so-called hybrid models of club sports in a coming book. The teams are affiliated with the university for marketing but do not have the connection to eligibility and “all the things I think are more problems than actually educational benevolence, as we claim,” he said.

“Rugby has put us on the map,” said Kenneth Hawkinson, the Kutztown president.

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