If anyone wants to know the importance of good coaching in sports, they need not look further than the University of Dallas rugby team.
Long seen as more of a club than a serious sports team, the “Hoggies” have experienced a complete culture shift leading to a turnaround on the field that seems too cinematic to believe. After winning just one game last year, the team recently qualified for the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) round of 16, meaning they are now considered one of the 16 best teams in the NSCRO which includes, according to its website, more than 240 men’s teams.
Most of the credit for the impeccable turnaround goes to three new coaching hires: head coach Fillip Keuppens and assistants Dean Robinson and Bruce McGregor.
“They just completely changed the way the team worked,” manager Matt Kaiser said. “They killed any ego that anyone had.”
According to the players, however, most of the team was quick to buy in.
“The first day of practice, the expectation was so high that they didn’t even have to say anything, you could feel it,” junior Manny Salazar said.
Keuppens came to UD after having coached some of the former players, feeling like the philosophy of his coaching staff could lead to a successful team at UD.
“We felt that the culture of the program was the primary reason why it wasn’t having success,” Keuppens said.
Coming into the season, Keuppens said he didn’t know much about the current team aside from the fact that they only won one game last year.
“My expectation was that we were going to be building a program from the ground up,” Keuppens said.
When the new coaches arrived, however, they quickly discovered more talent on the team than expected.
“The first thing we noticed is that there was more talent here than we anticipated, so that was very promising,” Keuppens said.
Keuppens’ coaching style is to emphasize a positive team culture and to build good people, not just good rugby players.
“Better men make better rugby players,” Keuppens said. “We hold our players to a high expectation on and off the field. We reward them for positive work and hold them accountable for negative work.”
Salazar talked about how quickly everyone bought into the new culture.
“From top down, from our senior guys to our freshman guys, everyone was going to have the same mentality of being committed to the team, working out, [and] coming to practice on time,” Salazar said.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the culture shift is how quickly it has manifested on the field.
The Hoggies went 7-0 in league play and would make it to the LoneStar Conference Championship against Angelo State. They lost to Angelo State, but the top two teams from the conference advanced to the “Cowboy Cup.”
The Crusaders hosted the tournament, which included the top two teams from the LoneStar conference and the top two teams from the Rocky Mountain Frontier League.
On Saturday, March 25, the Crusaders knocked off Denver University 25-22 to advance to the round of 16. They are now preparing to travel to Claremont, Calif. to play Claremont College in the PacWest Region Championship this weekend, April 8-9.
When they first qualified, however, the team ran into another problem. As a club sport, the rugby club doesn’t have the same funding that the varsity teams on campus do. They estimated that in order to go to California, they would have to raise about $20,000.
“It’s kind of like we cleared a hurdle, and [then] we [had] an even bigger hurdle,” Kaiser said.
The team never doubted that they would be able to raise the money, however, despite the daunting task of needing at least $10,000 within two days and the rest of it soon after.
“Not going never crossed our mind,” Keuppens said. “We were certain that we would do what it takes to get the boys there.”
Kaiser spearheaded the fundraising movement, starting a GoFundMe page and encouraging the team to spread the word. They were extremely successful, finding an overwhelming amount of support from the campus. In eight days, they raised more than the needed $20,000.
“We’re overwhelmed that the student body and alumni are so eager to donate towards us,” Kaiser said.
“I was impressed and humbled by the amount of … far reaching support that we [were] getting,” Keuppens said.
The most impressive thing to them is the amount of people not directly related to the team who have been willing to donate. In other words, friends of the rugby players have gotten their friends and their friends’ friends to donate.
According to Salazar, the team took their mentality from the rugby pitch and applied it to fundraising.
“It all goes back to a mentality that if we really want[ed] it, we were going to do everything we could to get it,” he said.
The team is now looking forward to their trip and hoping to extend their run.
“Hopefully we have more than one game remaining,” Keuppens said.
“We’re definitely going to have to raise the bar in our performance,” Salazar said.
After this season, the next step in changing the culture will come with the next generation of players.
In the past, the rugby team has been made up exclusively of regular UD students, rather than players who were recruited to play rugby. But according to Keuppens, next year the team is expecting 10 new players for whom rugby was a deciding factor in their choice to attend UD.
For now, the team is excited about their upcoming game.
“We really hope that we can represent UD really well in California, because rugby culture is not just the players, it’s the coaches, it’s the fans, it’s the players that came before us, and we just want to represent UD the best way we can,” Salazar said.
Keuppens is grateful for the support as well.
“I really want to take this opportunity to thank the student body, the administration, the student life department and everyone who supported us all year,” Keuppens said. “We’re humbled and genuinely appreciative of the entire University of Dallas.”