INTERVIEW: Tennessee HS Rugby’s
Mark Williams, a contractor and entrepreneur from Brentwood, TN, is a pioneer in Tennessee rugby. At
various points in his career, Williams, 43, has coached his alma mater, Middle Tennessee University, the
Nashville RFC, the Mid-South LAU, the South RFU and the South Collegiates. Back in the year 2000, Williams and a corps of hard working volunteers started Tennessee High School Rugby
(THSR). THSR fielded eight high school teams that first year and this spring they expect to have 30 boys and girls teams across the state. Rugby editor Ed Hagerty spoke with Mark on December 29th to learn more about
Tennessee’s highly successful high school program.
RUGBY: How did Tennessee High School Rugby (THSR) begin? Williams: It began in 2000 when we acquired and followed the Bryant Model, a detailed plan put together by
Phil Bryant, a high school rugby pioneer in Indiana. We’ve talked about revising it to fit with what our
experiences have been, but for the most part the Bryant Model is the plan. We had a goal of four teams that first year, but wound up with eight. Approximately 15-20 volunteers got those eight teams going, and we had a state championship our first year. RUGBY: Starting thirty high school teams in a six-year period is quite extraordinary. What prompted all
of these teams to join up?
Williams: We stuck with a very simple philosophy, "If you build it, they will play." When this philosophy is
executed in a reasonable fashion, it’s remarkable how simple it can be. The key to success from the volunteer side is to focus on what’s important. Get the kids passing a rugby ball
and then teach them how to play rugby. If you focus on that, everything else will develop. A lot of the people
who volunteered and started this program in 2000 are still involved and having a lot of fun. When we first started, the nay-sayers said, "The principal’s not going to like it; the AD is against it." But those
things are not vitally important at the startup phase of a program. RUGBY: How is THSR organized?
Williams: THSR is a state organization comprised of 30 teams in three conferences based in Knoxville,
Memphis and Nashville. The three conferences play among themselves during the season and the state
organization is responsible for a state championship at the end of the season. RUGBY: Who are the key people in Tennessee High School Rugby? Williams: The success of Tennessee High School Rugby is due to the efforts of our many volunteers: Marty
Bradley, who heads the Knoxville Conference, Mark Holly in Memphis and Jerry McLemore, who is now the
conference director here in Nashville. And then there are all the guys coaching two times a week and on the
sidelines during games who make it happen.
When many of our coaches first get involved, they told us: "I’ll just do it once a week." And the next thing you
knew, they were really into it. It’s such a great experience for everybody involved. RUGBY: How does THSR support the various teams?
Williams: We provide a structure, organize the state championship and we’ve hosted a USA Rugby Coaching
Development Course every year since 1998.
This year we’re bringing our coaches together and holding our first High School Coaching Convention. The
primary focus of the convention is to provide hands-on information through roundtable workshops and case
studies that will help teams directly. We’re going to have modules on: How you organize your club; How to
organize parent volunteers; Sample club by-laws acceptable to most schools; etc.
RUGBY: Can teams from outside the state join THSR?
Williams: This has been a hotly debated topic, but currently they can’t. THSR is a state based competition
culminating in a state championship.
We don’t discourage our conference members from developing and playing teams from neighboring states, but out of state teams can’t compete in conference rounds that lead to our state championship. We don’t want
the principal of a Tennessee high school asking why a school from Kentucky or Mississippi is competing for
the Tennessee State Championship.
You have to stay focused. We encourage high school teams in nearby states; they’re just not part of the THSR
RUGBY: Can THSR teams play non-conference games against out of state teams? Williams: Yes. We host the Nash Bash U-19 Tournament, which is open to high school teams from all across
the country. So THSR teams can play anybody they want, but we don’t allow out of state teams in our state
Brentwood (Nashville Conference) brings down a West HS (Knoxville Conference) ballcarrier during the
Tennessee State High School Championship. Brentwood won 21-0 for their fourth straight Tennessee title.
THSR is a state organization comprised of 30 high school teams in three conferences based in Knoxville, Memphis
and Nashville. The three conferences play among themselves and the state organization is responsible for a state
championship at the end of the season.
RUGBY: Of the 30 teams in Tennessee how many are community based and how many are single
Williams: I’d say that 60% of the teams are comprised of students from a single school. The majority of the
really successful programs come primarily from one school. Nearly all of the teams are school associated. Players may come from several high schools, but they’re mainly
associated with one school. Things evolve though. We had a situation this year where a team was primarily
from one school, then a new school started contributing players and now they’re half and half.
Each conference is organized differently and THSR doesn’t dictate what teams can do; the individual
conferences monitor that. There’s a lot of freedom as to what teams can do within those conferences as long
as they follow our rules governing the state championship.
RUGBY: What kind of a relationship do the teams have with their schools? Williams: There’s a wide range. At one school the principal is the coach; you can’t do much better than that. A
lot of schools see rugby as a club sport, with wide acceptance on campus and the embrace of football
At the other end of the spectrum, some principals tell our rugby coaches: "You can come in and talk to the
kids, but you can’t use the school name or any school facility. We’re not interested in rugby becoming an
RUGBY: Are there any distinguishing demographics of the successful programs? Williams: We don’t have hard stats but kids from the more affluent areas are more attracted to the sport. I
don’t know if that’s because they’ve been exposed to rugby, or because their parents encourage them to get
involved in different things. In the more rural or less fortunate areas, the kids are less inclined to try something
new. With the right volunteers and the right approach you can start a team at any school, but some schools
are definitely more accepting.
People get bogged down on the little things. You don’t need the blessing of the AD to start a team; you only need the
principal’s permission to come on campus. You don’t need to practice at the school; you can almost always find a
RUGBY: How has THSR affected college rugby in Tennessee? Williams: We’re certainly seeing the effects of it. The University of Tennessee has been one of the biggest
beneficiaries of Tennessee High School Rugby. One of the TU players, Kevin Hartley, who came through
THSR, was an Honorable Mention All American in 2005 and lots of our kids played on the South Collegiate All
Star Team this year.
RUGBY: The South Collegiates did pretty well in the National Collegiate All Star Championship this
Williams: They did great, winning Tier B.
I coached the South at the National Collegiate All Star Championship a few years ago and remember watching
the Midwest play the Pacific Coast. I talked to both coaches and discovered that about 80% of their kids came
through high school programs, while the South might have had one or two that played prior to college.
We’re seeing more players with high school experience on the South Collegiate All Stars and we’re certainly
seeing it with college programs in Tennessee. And many of these college players are now scheduled to return back to clubs like Nashville.
RUGBY: How much of a factor has the existence of our National Team been in recruiting players to
high school rugby in Tennessee?
Williams: It has some meaning to them, but it’s way out there. Once they learn about rugby, the kids go online
and check out the Eagles. They do recognize that the US competes internationally, and they do recognize
some of the national players. One of our players from Middle Tennessee University, Cayo Nicholau, played for
the National Team and the kids were asking for his autograph.
Keys To Success RUGBY: What’s the best way to start a new team?
Williams: You’ve just got to go forward. If there’s a league in your area, you need two volunteer coaches and then you just dive in
and do it.
People get bogged down on the little things. You don’t need the blessing of the AD to start a team; you only
need the principal’s permission to come on campus. You don’t need to practice at the school; you can almost
always find a park.
If the principal and everybody else embraces you, great! But you must go in with the idea that, "I’m gonna get
some chicken." You’re not planting an egg and waiting for it to hatch. You’re going in to get the players. Once you’ve done that, you get the parents to lobby for club sport status for rugby.
RUGBY: What are the key factors in starting a successful team? Williams: First, you’ve got to be school associated, which doesn’t necessarily mean that schools swing the
doors wide open and the AD rolls out the red carpet. We’ve had programs where the schools have shunned
rugby, but the rugby team is still going to look like that school. A second factor is reasonable, competent volunteers. Two volunteers can go to school anywhere and start a
A third factor for long-term success: athletes recruit athletes. Our most successful programs attracted athletes
from day one, and then the athletes went out and did the recruiting from that point on. It doesn’t necessarily
mean you have to have the best athletes, but you’ve got to have reasonable athletes to be successful. You
can’t do it with the chess club. You can’t hide from the fact that it’s a contact sport and requires some
A fourth factor is parent involvement to wash the jerseys, make calls, provide water and snacks so that the two coaches can coach.
Fifth, the student athletes must own the program. You’re building a club and the players must feel ownership;
it’s not a top-down mentality. That’s a real advantage rugby has over traditional sports. The kids come out and they’re told: "This is what we’re going to do as a team. You guys are going to take care of this organization,
right? You’re going to set up the next recruiting booth, right?" "Oh yeah, sure coach. We’ll do that."
It’s just like a business; if you can get people to feel that they own it, then you’re there. And sixth, it must be your goal to be an official club on campus and get teacher sponsorship. In the long-term, if you can build pride and history into a high school program, it will survive the departure of any coach or
Athletes recruit athletes. Our most successful programs attracted athletes from day one, and then the athletes went out
and did the recruiting from that point on...It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have the best athletes... But you
can’t do it with the chess club.
RUGBY: What kind of support do you get from parents?
Williams: The successful programs get total support. If you don’t get parental support, you’ll be the one washing the jerseys, organizing the matches, providing the water and snacks, etc. You’ve got to download
those duties as quickly as possible. Parents are dying for a way to stay involved with their teenagers and view
it as a very positive thing.
A key to success in high school rugby is to get parents involved in coaching because we’re running out of
experienced rugby volunteers.
RUGBY: How do you organize and attract parent volunteers?
Williams: You’ve got to ask. From day one, tell the kids: "We want your parents to come out; we want to talk to them." Those teams that don’t get parent volunteers are attracting the wrong part of the student body or
they’re not asking the right questions.
RUGBY: What advice would you give to those wishing to start a state high school league? Williams: The key attitude is to go forward; just do it. If you have 10 volunteers, you can start a state high
school league anywhere. They recently started one in Georgia.
There will always be people who are going to say: "You can’t do it! You have to wait! We have to do this before
we do that!"
Don’t hesitate, just do it. It’s remarkably easy when you do it the right way. We hope to see our fourth
conference spring up in Chattanooga in the near future.
RUGBY: What are the key factors in starting a successful league?
Williams: When THSR started with eight teams in 2000, we made it seem as if the State Championship was
being contested by 100 teams to anyone who didn’t know anything about it. At the beginning you’ve got it
make it seem bigger than maybe what it is; you’ve got to give it that ‘State Championship’ feel. You also have to resolve issues and keep a simple focus. Some coaches might initially think: "I want to get the
best athletes from five or six different high schools and build the best team in the league." That’s not what we’re after. We’d rather have five mediocre teams than one super power because we’ll have
more kids playing rugby that way. It’s about developing a league; not just building a team. Having a league mentality has been key for our volunteers. We obviously have competitive coaches that get
wrapped up in their own program, but for the most part our coaches have kept that league mentality. RUGBY: How does THSR define success?
Williams: Success is when two kids who played in the high school program, go on to play at the University of
Tennessee and then return home to referee and help coach Tennessee High School Rugby. Success is when
you see kids who are immediately giving back to the sport.
Problems & Opportunities
RUGBY: What are some of the growing pains THSR has experienced?
Williams: We’ve run out of volunteers with rugby experience who know the game. We are contacted by high
schools that want to start teams, but we’re struggling to find coaches. The opportunity to expand is there, but we just don’t have the coaches.
We’ve had teams that have been up and down; teams that have players from several schools and then they
try and separate. There was a recent case in middle Tennessee where someone wanted to start a new school program, but players from that school had become entrenched with another school in a community-based team. So the fear is, if you start this new school program, you may kill the community based team. RUGBY: What are your current threats?
Williams: As with all rugby, THRS’s environment is very fragile. There are a lot of programs where if you lose
the key volunteer, the program could disappear. A volunteer coach gets transferred, you can’t find a
reasonable replacement, and the program disappears.
RUGBY: What are your current opportunities?
Williams: You can start a team at any school of reasonable size with a couple of dedicated volunteers. If you
build it, the kids will come out and play. Currently we don’t have a big sponsor for our state championship, but the marketing opportunities are there. Other sports started in similar ways, and I certainly feel rugby has its
THSR and the Unions
RUGBY: Does THSR pay dues to either USA Rugby, the South TU or Mid South LAU? Williams: We’ve required every player to pay USA Rugby the $10 annual CIPP dues since the beginning. We don’t pay dues to either the South or Mid South RFUs, which look at us as non-voting affiliate members. They don’t have any say in what goes on in our organization other than a "You go boy" kind of thing. RUGBY: What do you receive from USA Rugby in exchange for your CIPP dues? Williams: The main benefit of CIPP dues is liability insurance, which is a big thing when you’re talking to parks
& recreation departments. USA Rugby’s Coach Development Program has also been very beneficial for us.
But, of course, the Coach Development Program is a separate entity and USA Rugby charges a separate fee
for our coaches to take the course.
Other than that, there’s been virtually nothing.
RUGBY: Have you looked into alternate sources for liability insurance?
Williams: We have to some degree, yes. There are certainly advantages that a national organization has from
that perspective, but USA Rugby’s liability program can certainly be replaced. RUGBY: Have you gotten any support from the South RFU or Mid South LAU? Williams: We’ve gotten encouragement but neither organization has ever been in a position to really help
develop high school programs. Their focus is on trying to manage club rugby, which can take an awful lot of time, especially in the South.
The South RFU has been proactive in that they’ve made an effort to have a South High School Championship
so that the winner can represent the South in the National High School Championship. RUGBY: Could you comment on the following statement by Jeff Arker, who runs the 28 team Oregon
Based on the new USA Rugby and PCRFU math, Oregon Youth Rugby will be required to send $23,000 out of
state in 2006 and in return we’ll get liability coverage and a coaching clinic, which is a self-sufficient profit maker for all involved.
That’s it. That’s what we get for $23,000.
That money needs to stay at home so it can buy jerseys for new teams and pay for professional
administration. To be honest, I’m staggered beyond belief that we’ll send at least $23,000 out of Oregon this
year for limited value.
Williams: The new CIPP dues is $20 for each high school player, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But when you multiply it by the 1,200 high school players in Tennessee, you’re talking $24,000, which is a lot of money.
We’ve got organizational structures at the state, conference and individual team levels and that $24,000 could
certainly make a difference in serving the needs of high school rugby in Tennessee. RUGBY: Does high school rugby need a separate national organization? Williams: It certainly needs a separate national focus, whether that’s through USA Rugby or an entirely
I’ve been in rugby a long time as a player, coach and administrator. And after a while you realize that you’re
not going to get anything tangible for your dues. But when you’re running a state high school program, sending
$24,000 to USA Rugby, and getting little in return other than liability insurance, then the question arises: "Why should we pay?"
Supposedly new things are coming down the road with this dues increase, but I’ve never seen it develop in the
past and I have little confidence that anything’s coming in the future. On the other hand you want to belong to a national organization and contribute to promoting rugby nationally;
like everybody should do their bit.
RUGBY: So should high school rugby have a separate national organization? Williams: That’s a very real possibility.
Do you remember the Southern Collegiate Conference? It was a pilot program that pulled the South’s colleges
out of the LAUs and eventually out of the TUs. It was independently focused on the colleges and while it had a
lot of kinks the first year, I thought it was a success. But it was squashed by the unions. High school rugby needs an independent focus if we’re really going to grow the sport. As it stands now, the
TUs and LAUs are definitely focused on the clubs. High school rugby would be best served by an organization
that’s solely focused on high school development.
RUGBY: Would this new structure operate through the existing LAUs and TUs or would it be state
based under a national umbrella and completely independent? Williams: Our model is totally state based because the kids and sporting organizations in the US recognize state championships. They do not recognize a Mid-South Championship; it would mean nothing to them in the
trophy case. Rugby must mirror other high school sports and they’re all organized on a state-wide basis.
RUGBY: What kind of support would you like to see from USA Rugby or a dedicated high school
Williams: Every high school program out there is plowing new ground. We’re all doing the same things, but
we’re doing it independently. And in some regards, maybe that works better. But we probably have similar objectives and problems and having a national organization focused on high
school rugby would enable us to share ideas and find structures that work. There are marketing issues as well. There’s power in positive marketing awareness and I don’t feel we take
advantage of that from a national perspective.
If THSR alone is paying $24,000, and Oregon is paying $23,000, think how much is being paid by the nearly
700 high school teams nationwide. If those funds went directly back into high school programs it seems
obvious that high school rugby would thrive and grow.
RUGBY: We have heard from a number of groups that are interested in starting a national high school
organization. Do you have any organizational ideas?
Williams: Obviously, there could be a national convention.
We’re quietly going about our business in Tennessee; not looking to be the rebels or challenge the national
organization. But bringing people together and getting ideas from successful high school organizations could benefit people all across the country. Ultimately, someone has to lead the pack.