If you’re a Memphian, you’re likely a fan of or at least have heard of the Memphis Tigers basketball or football team.
What gets less attention is the university’s club sports – and it’s not just due to a lack of fans. Most of the university’s 19 club sports are currently inactive for one reason or another, usually a case of disinterest among the student body.
But, of those 19 programs, three programs have managed to withstand the test of time and remain active. The Daily Helmsman spoke with Dr. Robert Cole, director of the rugby team, to discuss what it has done to keep going while many other clubs have fallen out.
The e-sports team and ultimate frisbee teams are said to still be active but representatives either didn’t respond or weren’t available to talk before this article went to print.
Cole currently serves as the head of the program and a trustee on its foundation that raises money to keep the program afloat.
Twelve years ago, before serving as director, he was the team’s head coach. As head coach, he wore a lot of hats. Not only did he help develop the team and its infrastructure, but he also helped with fundraising and managing the team’s website, as well as communicating with the national rugby conference the team plays in.
Cole said it’s common to see a school’s rugby team be the most active club sport, but he pointed to a few things that specifically have helped the U of M’s team stay afloat.
“We opted to keep the players focused on personal development,” he said.
Like with the university overall, the rugby team was not spared from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And because they couldn’t play when the pandemic hit, Cole said that the team instead focused their energy on training and practicing in order to prepare for when they would be able to play again.
He said that they also continued to recruit players during that time and that the only ones they lost were those who graduated while they were still unable to play.
“We were growing at the same time that everyone was dying,” Cole said.
The team lost the entire Spring 2020 season to the pandemic, but was able to go back to playing games in Fall 2020. One of those was against a combo team of Ole Miss and
Mississippi State. Those teams were in combo because the programs had to scrape together enough players for a match.
One of the things that also helped growth, he said, was the advantage that Memphis has as a city in terms of how many rugby programs it has.
In addition to the university team, Memphis has several other high school and middle school programs. So, during the pandemic, Cole said that many of the high school players decided to go to Memphis and naturally joined the team.
Even though rugby is a niche sport in such a basketball and football dominated town like Memphis, Cole said that keeping interest and recruiting players hasn’t been that difficult.
He said those that get into rugby also tend to just fall in love with the sport and stick with it.
And of course, making it through the pandemic and recruiting good players that stay on the team and help lead it to victory requires good leaders, another reason Cole said that the team has remained active for so long now.
“Part of what makes any successful rugby club is to have some older adults connected to the club,” he said.
Cole said that, similar to fraternities that have advisors or leadership composed of former alumni to help guide and make decisions for the chapter, having this same kind of structure has been imperative for the team and has been one of the factors that has helped remain together.
Cole played rugby in college and the two current head coaches, Dave Hill and Phil Beck are both rugby veterans as well.
According to the team's website, Hill began playing in 1983 at the University of Texas at Arlington. He joined the navy soon after and played for its team overseas. In 1987, he enrolled at what was then Memphis State University – where he played for its team until 1991.
He officially retired from the sport in 2001 and moved towards coaching three years later.
In 2014, he founded the first girls middle school tackle rugby team in the U.S. and, in 2019, he joined the University of Memphis team. He has served as head coach since last year.
Beck started playing in 1976 and has been coaching since at least 2007. He coached for several teams before joining the university’s team in 2020.
Looking at the future, Cole said he doesn’t see the rugby team being an official university team anytime soon.
Part of that is because rugby doesn’t generate a lot of revenue. Unlike with football or basketball, Cole said that bringing rugby up to the level of those sports would be more costly than cost-effective.
With the rising interest in rugby that he said is happening, however, as well as the fact that rugby requires little to no gear, he remains hopeful about it one day having a bigger status at the university.
“I think it could become a revenue generating sport for those who want to come watch the game,” he said.
Alec Sisco prepares to launch towards the other team during a scrum. Sisco is one of the longest active players on the roster.
The Memphis Tiger Rugby team celebrates after their victory against MTSU. The Tigers beat the Blue Raiders 27-15 to advance into the playoffs.
Will Allen misses the pass in a lineout. Memphis lost their season opener against Missouri S&T 34-17.
Memphis Rugby poses after their fall season concludes in the Elite Eight last year. The Tigers have rescheduled their fall season to the spring in 2021 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.