A pair of San Francisco coaches are leaving nationally prominent senior teams in favor of school posts, moves that are no longer obviously a step down.
Ray Lehner has wound up his time as head coach of the Olympic Club to focus on Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School, according to people familar with the matter. Separately, Paul Keeler last week resigned as San Francisco Golden Gate's director of rugby in order to head up Santa Clara University.
Though the moves are independent of one another and personal matters play a role in any decision, they suggest that school roles are becoming more attractive to experienced coaches than club rugby. This implicitly raises questions about the state of the senior game.
School sides, definitely the fastest-growing segment of American rugby, look to be more stable than senior outfits. The underlying institution is often better established in the local community, commanding more recognition and resources. This has led to more densely populated, and increasingly competitive, leagues.
By contrast, the Rugby Super League is designated America's top competition but has been shedding teams, and the leading proposal for restructuring USARFU's division 1 all but advocates RSL's disbandment. The uncertainty is aggravated both by the union's lengthy 'competition review' and the simultaneous but separate goal of converting territories to 'geographic unions'.
The Pacific Coast, which houses both SFGG and the Olympic Club, has announced it's winding down -- without declaring what comes next. Meanwhile, Santa Clara competes in division 1A's new California conference, which also includes St. Mary's, Stanford, Cal Poly, and UC Santa Barbara, while Bishop O'Dowd competes in the 'single school' division of the region's fast-rising Northern California Youth Rugby Association, home of national champion Dixon.
School players can better focus more on rugby than young adults. Daily training times are before or after class and often on campus, much like varsity sports. Club players, looking after jobs and sometimes new families, start out scattered and need to assemble. Adding a third weekly session can be a major commitment.
Moreover, where school teams draw from the student body, club worries are not limited to recruiting but also that their best will be encouraged to go overseas, without any consideration for their development efforts.
It turns out that over the past two decades, when they have come from domestic ranks, USARFU's top men have frequently come from the schools. Both 15s coach Mike Tolkin and 7s head man Alex Magleby have academic backgrounds, at New York's Xavier high school and Dartmouth, respectively, while previously Tom Billups and Jack Clark (both Cal) worked from a collegiate base.
(Tolkin of course also led the New York Athletic Club, as well as the proto-high school All American team; the primary exception is Al Caravelli.)
In his stint at SFGG, Keeler nabbed a pair of RSL titles, coached USA 'A', and was a finalist for the Eagle post. Lehner helped O Club to a trio of division 1 final four berths and lead USA Under 20, even as he was launching the Bishop O'Dowd program, where he teaches.
Assistant Grant Wells is expected to step up the head coaching role at SFGG, according to people familar with the matter, while the Olympic Club intends to name Lehner's replacement by the end of September. The Winged O recently named Stanford 15s and All-American coach Matt Sherman as its 7s supremo.