When news first broke earlier this month that the entire BYU men’s rugby coaching staff was resigning, BYU spokesperson Natalie Ipson released a statement explaining that the previous coaching staff left for “individual reasons.”
Former assistant coach Wayne Tarawhiti told the Daily Universe on July 14 the factors leading up to their decision were not as personal as BYU claims. Tarawhiti said he does not agree with Ipson’s statement. “I don’t know where they got that from,” he said.
Tarawhiti’s reasons for leaving were far from personal; not even his battle with cancer was enough to stop him from coaching.
“I managed my health and that risk to teach something I love to do and for a program that’s proven to be one of the best in the country,” Tarawhiti said.
Tarawhiti’s wife, Kendra, reiterated his love for the game and immense commitment to the players and the program.
“If only people could have seen Wayne during the 2017 season as he sat on a hospital bed fighting for his life, watching every one of their games live streaming and jumping on the phone to coach while still hooked to 10+ IV’s, no hair, mouth sores,” Kendra said in a Facebook post.
Despite the time and effort Wayne put into the program, he and his wife did not feel like the school supported the coaches’ efforts.
“I have never met a man more dedicated to a program and young men than Wayne. Unfortunately, BYU has made so many continued changes to the BYU rugby program over the last few years that it has made it extremely difficult to coach a successful program,” Kendra said. “So, Wayne felt that it is time to leave the program he has put his heart and soul into to allow BYU to progress how they feel best to do for them.”
Wayne said leading up to their decision, the coaches questioned whether or not they could continue when the challenges they were facing were internal.
Both BYU Athletics and the Student Life declined to comment.
The coaching staff first experienced difficulties with university administration in 2011 when the extramural sports program — including rugby — was placed under Student Life’s jurisdiction, former head coach David Smyth said in an official statement released on the BYU Rugby Facebook page.
The following statement is from former Head Coach David Smyth: …
“That change made it difficult to run the rugby program with the standards we were used to,” Symth said. “Simply put, our vision, strategies, and goals for the rugby program do not align with those of the Student Life Department.”
According to their website, Student Life is “committed to providing meaningful co-curricular experiences that support, strengthen and reinforce academic, spiritual, personal, social, cultural and recreational growth.”
Wayne said the program was not deviating from these overall goals. he also said the coaches consistently put out players with good grades — especially for minority students, ran the program at a very low cost and gave players opportunities for growth and service.
Wayne said he doesn’t blame the Student Life for the problems they faced. In fact, he said he suspects the department was even lobbying in their behalf. According to Wayne, there were NCAA teams on campus that were “a little jealous.”
“Student Life would get into scheduling conflicts with BYU Athletics,” Wayne said. “There was a time where we trained from 10 p.m. to midnight because that’s the only time we could get.”
On top of scheduling conflicts, the rugby team was told they could no longer play against other professional teams. “The department said we could no longer play men’s professional teams, that we couldn’t have as many players as in the past,” Wayne said. “That took our competitive edge away.”
After consistently coaching a nationally-contending team, this was a tough pill to swallow for the coaches.
The team won national championships in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 and continued to rank highly despite what Wayne said was a lack of support from the university administration.
A former member of the rugby team, Joshua Whippy, witnessed some of the difficulties the coaches faced. Whippy played for BYU Rugby in 2011 and from 2014-16.
“They cut their budget and are trying to make it a participation sport now and not a competitive one, meaning everyone plays rather than the best players,” Whippy said. “I felt like all their hard work was being thrown away after they built the program.”
Wayne said these changes made him concerned for the players’ safety. “It becomes a challenge when you can’t get players with a certain skill set. It can become dangerous because it’s a very physical sport.”
This was one of the breaking points for Wayne. Toward the end of last season, he said he finally realized the program couldn’t continue on as it previously had with the university’s restrictions.
“We had guys that were playing the top eight (schools) in the country who were inexperienced. It was a safety risk,” Tarawhiti said.
Former BYU rugby player Adam Hendren feels that the university has done a poor job of giving the program and it’s players the support they need to function.
“It saddens me how BYU has neglected this program,” Hendren said. “The university has proven that they will do very little to support this program and its athletes.”
Despite various complaints, it doesn’t appear that the university’s policies towards the team will change anytime soon. In her statement, Natalie Ipson also said despite BYU’s plan to hire a new coaching staff, the program will not change.
“The program itself isn’t changing. Everything will continue as before,” Ipson said.
For many fans, athletes and BYU rugby supporters, this isn’t just disheartening; it signals the end of an era. Fan Brandon Cooper called the decision “a giant leap backward” for the team in a Facebook message.
Wayne explained that he and the other coaches hoped things would eventually change.
“We were hoping there could be another opportunity to refocus, but it was communicated to other coaches that that was never going to happen,” Wayne said. “The rallying support around us as a program has been cool, but the reality is that nothing is going to change.”
Wayne said the timing of their resignations was strategic. “The reason why we did it now is so they had enough time to find another coach.”
He said that while this program has a soft spot in his heart, it’s time for him to move on.
“I told them years ago that I wouldn’t stay if it wasn’t fun or enjoyable,” Wayne said. “Now it’s not fun or enjoyable.”
Despite leaving BYU, Wayne and Smyth won’t be leaving the game. They will begin working with Utah Valley University’s rugby team immediately, according to the Daily Herald.