The university, wanting to see itself on the cutting edge of that growth, hired Dan Payne in May 2009 to be its director of rugby. Payne’s responsibilities included growing and developing an undergraduate program, as well as maintaining the university’s well-established USA Rugby Super League team.
“Life has always had a successful and storied history of rugby,” Payne said, “and seeing how the sport was growing collegiately, and knowing there was a movement to have rugby included in the Olympics, the administration felt like they needed a hierarchy or structure in place moving forward.”
Payne came to Life with experience in rugby, having served as the head coach at San Diego State University, the director of competition for USA Rugby and an assistant coach to the U.S. men’s national team.
He’s also proven to be a solid fit at Life. With Super League coach James Isaacson, collegiate Division I-A coach Scott Lawrence and collegiate sevens coach Tui Osborne, the Running Eagles are proving that they are one of the nation’s premier rugby programs.
“I love my job,” Payne said.
Life’s rugby program, which started in 1980 as one of the first of its kind at the varsity level, grew to be recognized as one of the nation’s best. Crowned the national collegiate runner-up in 1982, Life, a private chiropractic college with an enrollment of about 2,500 students, left the college division for club competition in 1983, and would eventual become one of the original members of the USA Rugby Super League in 1997, the highest level of competition in the nation.
While Life remained a college-sponsored team, its Super League opponents were all semi-professional groups. That didn’t stop the Running Eagles, who cemented their status as one of the nation’s best programs, from winning a Super League championship in 2000.
While the university’s loss of accreditation forced Life out of the Super League a few years later, the program eventually rebounded and grew to claim the men’s Division I club national championship in 2008.
With that championship came an invitation to rejoin the Super League in 2009, and since then, the Running Eagles have reached the title game twice and made the semifinals all four seasons, including this year.
The Super League’s pedigree has rubbed off on the collegiate Division I-A and college sevens groups, which have also established themselves among the nation’s elite.
Comprised of undergraduates, the second-ranked Division I-A team lost to top-ranked BYU in the semifinals of the national tournament.
Other notable teams in Division I-A include Life’s Mid-South Conference opponents — Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Notre Dame — while other conferences include teams such as Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Army, Navy, Air Force, Arizona, BYU, Colorado, Utah, UCLA and Central Washington.
The undergraduate college sevens, a variation of the sport with seven players on the field as opposed to 15, beat Central Washington in overtime to win the inaugural USA Rugby men’s college sevens national championship in February.
That group competes against programs such as Missouri, Texas, San Diego State, Stanford, Oregon, Georgia, Indiana, New Mexico State and Yale, among others.
“Our Super League team is for players who have completed their college eligibility and are in graduate school,” Payne said. “We recruit across the country and have players on the teams from different parts of the globe.
“We get the type of support and structure for rugby that big schools don’t provide their teams. We build our name in the rugby community, and that’s our focus, to provide an environment that offers a great education and fosters the growth of players who want to get on the U.S. national team. Also, our Super League guys are mostly players who want to continue on with their training while they get a higher degree. We recruit them as well.
“We also started a summer camp, which has become our strongest pipeline. It went for one week in 2010, then two weeks last year, and it will be three weeks this summer. We’ll probably sell out all three weeks of the camp. A lot of our camp growth is due to our success on the field.”
That success comes from the established coaching staff set up at Life. Payne, Lawrence and Osborne are all former national team players, while Lawrence is also the head coach of the under-20 national team. Isaacson is a former professional player from England.
“We offer partial scholarships that are merit-based,” Payne said. “That’s a big advantage for us. Guys have to make the team, get playing time and work their way to the scholarship.”
On issue that Payne says has become problematic is scheduling, as “travel costs are (my) biggest obstacle.” Unlike bigger schools that can fund their undergraduate programs through student fees, Life’s small enrollment and limited alumni donor base contributes to a lot of the cost of funding the program.
“Without alumni, parents and fan support, Payne said, “we wouldn’t be able to provide the overall experience for our student-athletes.”