Black Knights make a mountain out of a mole hill
"In that final game you could tell by the look in peoples’ eyes, you could tell people were just ready to die for each other."
The University of Central Florida rugby program has been around for a quarter of a century. The team was originally formed by student athletes and run on a shoestring budget. Not much has changed in that regard over the decades. Team founder Ken Lindsay is still involved in the program and helps out with coaching. The Black Knights are an old school-type college team. The players pay their way, buy their own kits, struggle to schedule classes around practices, drive themselves to games and still find time to study. Many of the players also hold down part-time jobs. Loads of college players have played under similar circumstances but few of them have risen to play championship rugby.
Over their history, the success of the team has fluctuated within the ranks of Florida’s college rugby clubs. Some years they’ve come out on top and in others they did not fare so well. The 2011-12 season was unusual for the team, as they finished the season in the Division 1-AA top-20 and were getting noticed. When the head coach stepped down, the players turned to Orlando RFC for coaching help. They invited an active Orlando player to come and check out some practices and consider stepping up to coach. They chose well.
The player in question cut his teeth on rugby as a young lad in New Zealand. Jason Granich grew up playing the game. When he came over to America he continued to play and a group of the UCF players were familiar with him as a player. Granich had hoped to become a coach at some point. He always wanted to give back to the game and already had some experience helping out with coaching duties with other clubs. He wasn’t expecting his big opportunity to come while he was still an active player.
When Granich arrived at that first practice, which was located alongside a busy campus road, he saw a number of the players weren’t wearing shirts. He saw a team of fit athletes but they weren’t disciplined. Setting expectations and creating an environment where the members of the team are accountable to the club and each other was his first priority. He insists that the team respect the game of rugby, just as he does. Proper rugby attire for practices became a club rule that day. Other expectations were also set and if there was a breach of those expectations then there would be consequences. If a player made a mistake it would be considered a team error and the entire team ran extra fitness drills together after practices. The new standards for accountability began to shape the team.
The coach implemented something that he calls a Hinemoa: the team starts off in one corner of the try zone. They sprint together to the far corner of the opposite try zone. They then have a short recovery jog behind the goal posts to the far corner of that same try zone. With no rest, they sprint to the far corner of the opposite try zone. The pattern of the drill forms an hourglass shape in the pitch. A mistake during practice results in one Hinemoa at the end of practice. Many times he adds a ball handling drill after the team’s fitness routine. He knows that most players can handle the ball well when they are fresh but making good passes and catches when exhausted is a valuable asset.
Granich sees that many of the top rugby nations are starting to play a more basic style of rugby with an emphasis on keeping possession of the ball. He decided to follow suit and keep the Black Knights focused on the basics of the game. He simplified the team’s offense and worked hard on short passing skills, running straight, and running hard. He incorporated drills into practices that required the players to hit the ground and get up quickly. He stressed that each player be responsible for his own personal fitness and inspired individual pride in completing tackles.
The team responded to the coach’s philosophies. When he called the first practices of 2013 in early January, he pointed out that most of the teams they were going to play that year had not even stepped on to the pitch yet. The team recognized the opportunity they had to work hard and get ahead of the competition. The team believed him.
As the team progressed through the season, the edge they had in fitness, team unity, and performing the basic skills well was showing. However, entering the playoffs the coach noticed that the guys were preoccupied with some of the better-known players they were to compete against. One particular player’s name was being mentioned a lot at practices and coach Granich didn’t like it. He made a rule that no opposition player’s name could be mentioned at practice. He didn’t want the team to concentrate on one particular person—he knew they couldn’t control what a player from another team did during a game. Instead, he wanted them to think about their own game plan and the job that each of them had before them.
Since this was the first time that UCF had gone so far into the playoffs, they had some psychological hurdles to overcome. In fact, leading the players to believe in themselves and believe in the team was one of Granich’s most impressive accomplishments in 2013. Here is a great example of some of the small but smart ways that the coach encouraged a sense of confidence.
UCF is a team that does not have access to locker rooms normally. In Bowling Green, they were given the use of a locker room. Before the team arrived, the coach and some of the parents went in and hung the jerseys on the lockers along with a laminated name plate for each player. Small but powerful gestures like that helped to instill the team unity and confidence that was needed to run for a championship.
Some of the other playoff teams scoffed at the Black Knights because they didn’t have a complete team travel kit, track suits, and travel bags. Some opposing players were once overheard commenting on the way the team was dressed when they arrived for a playoff game. Those opponents soon found out that what this 100% American team lacked in flash, they more than made up for in grit and determination.
If you have seen the videos of UCF’s playoff games or the D1-AA National Championship, you will recognize that the team stuck to the coach’s game plan through the season and the coach’s ideals were well engrained for the final. Jason tells me that his team was not the most skilled team in the playoffs but he feels like they were the best at running straight, running hard, and tackling. It was a recipe for success that resulted in a 19-0 season record and the team hoisting the D1-AA National Championship trophy. It was a moment that will remain with the coaches, players and fans forever. The shame of it is that the University wasn’t more a part of it and celebrating with the team.
After the Championship game, an Orlando radio station conducted an interview with Granich. Marc Daniels, the voice of UCF football, conducted the interview. Days later, Daniels called Granich and informed him that the recording of his interview was the most downloaded interview in the radio station’s history. So the interest in UCF rugby is there. Imagine what this team could do with the support of the University’s administration behind them.
So how did this Cinderella team win their national title? It was a perfect storm of a capable and determined group of athletes, a coach with a simple but good game plan, a dedicated and supportive group of parents and fans, and a club president who isn’t afraid of doing a lot of work.
It was a tight-knit group of parents and fans who supported the team all season. Like Don and Jane Irion who attended every game the team played and brought Gatorade for the entire club every time. The parents contributed money to meet the team’s travel expenses. The parents ordered team shirts for the team to travel with. And the parents were the ones standing on the touch-line on game days cheering the team on. They were a big part of the team and the Championship.
Club president Jason Ross is a prop in his senior year of eligibility. He plans to go on to law school. Granich points to Ross as a key man in the team’s success. Ross took all of the administrative responsibilities on his shoulders. He makes sure the team complies with University and RFU requirements, accounts for funds, purchases equipment and uniforms, makes all travel arrangements and is the team’s fundraising guru. Granich says, “We wouldn’t have made it to Bowling Green if it wasn’t for Jason Ross. We wouldn’t have been able to fund or manage the trip.” Ross personally covered much of the team’s airfare to Ohio. The money was eventually reimbursed through the donations that came in, but he didn’t know that would happen when he paid for the tickets. It was a gamble that paid off.
It was Ross who handled the marketing responsibilities to raise money to finance the team’s travel for the playoffs and championship. He used social media and a Go Fund Me account to give supporters a chance to get behind the team. Funds poured in from everywhere. Donations came from friends, other Florida-based rugby clubs and players, and strangers. Amazingly, donations were given from people in other countries such as the UK and New Zealand. Some gave $5, others gave $100 or more. It all added up to cover the team’s travel expenses and let them focus on rugby.
When asked about the season, Ross’ comments go immediately to his coach and the confidence he inspired in the team. “Everybody worked in unison. [Granich] came on board and helped the team with discipline.” He credits the coach with giving the team the fitness they needed to be able to play better than their competition at the 75th minute.
The head coach also credits his team captain, former Northeast Nomads U-19 captain, former Florida Juice U-19 All-star, former USA Rugby High School All-American, and current USA Rugby Collegiate All-American Gerhard Viet as an important character in the championship season. Granich says of his outstanding back row player, “He is an ultimate captain. He leads by example and he knows how to get the best out of his teammates.” He has a motor that does not quit. Viet touched the ball four times in the final attack that resulted in the winning score during injury time in the D1-AA Championship. It was Veit’s pass to teammate James Boozer that resulted in that final try.
Viet talks about team unity too. He said the team camaraderie made the difference. “Everyone hangs out together. In that final game you could tell by the look in peoples’ eyes, you could tell people were just ready to die for each other. I’ve never felt that with any other team.”
The 2013 championship season is certainly one to remember for UCF Rugby. Not just for the success of the team on the field, but also for the way the team made the best of what they have. The coach and players have great expectations going into the 2014 season. Only four starters have graduated from the first 15. That leaves 11 guys on the squad with a national title under their belts. A local fitness company, Pound 4 Pound Fitness, has signed on as a sponsor. Pound 4 Pound’s support is already being felt by the club. However, the question that remains is one that only the University of Central Florida administration can answer. What support will the UCF rugby program receive from the University that they represent on the pitch?
Currently, the rugby program is partially funded through the University’s Sports Club Council. All of the University’s sports clubs (such as the S.C.U.B.A. club) compete for funds from the council. The clubs earn points by participating in service projects around the University. In a typical year, the Council will provide around $4,000 to the rugby club. This money usually covers the dues that the club must pay to the various governing bodies but not much more. Generally, the club members have to come up with the funds to pay for uniforms, equipment, travel, and other expenses that every college rugby team faces. In terms of student enrollment, UCF is one of the largest universities in the country. There must be a way to engage the administration to obtain a greater level of support for a proven team such as this.
Is there anything that USA Rugby can do to help open doors for the rugby club? Should it be USA Rugby, USA Rugby South, The South Independent Conference, or the Florida Rugby Union that reaches out to the administration? No matter what the future holds, one thing is clear: these student athletes are willing to do their part. Just like a breakaway runner streaking toward the try line, having some support would go a long way to ensuring the continued success of the team.
For more information on the Black Knights rugby club, check out their website.