BYU rugby coaches resign suddenly, citing differences with university office's policies

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PROVO — One of BYU’s most successful athletic programs has ended a remarkable era.

News broke Thursday that longtime BYU rugby head coach David Smyth and assistant rugby coach Wayne Tarawhiti resigned from the BYU rugby team, as reported by the Deseret News.

"I was shocked," BYU center Jacob McKay told the Deseret News.

Smyth and Tarawhiti announced their mutual resignation in a team meeting earlier in the week, and BYU confirmed the resignation in an official statement Thursday.

"The previous coaching staff left for individual reasons, and we're in the process of hiring a new coach, but the program itself isn't changing," BYU spokeswoman Natalie Ipson told the Deseret News. "Everything will continue as before."

Smyth was unreachable for comment as he was out of town until Friday, but he released the following statement Friday morning via BYU rugby's Facebook page.

"Simply put, our vision, strategies and goals for the rugby program do not align with those of the Student Life department," Smyth said. "So, after thirty-plus years of being a part of the BYU rugby program, I have decided to step aside and move on."

Smyth came to BYU in 1990, and the native of Northern Ireland helped the Cougars claim club national titles or runner-up finishes in the collegiate club structure from 2005-2010, as well as 2012.

The veteran coach then set about with some of the top college rugby programs in the country, including Cal, Arkansas State, Navy, Utah and others, to form the Varsity Cup rugby championship, which grew to become the premier college rugby competition where the universities controlled the playoff structure.

The Cougars won Varsity Cup titles in 2013, 2014 and 2015, and produced alums such as former NFL running back Paul Lasike, BYU punter and New Zealand flyhalf Jonny Linehan, and several professional rugby players on several teams in the United States-based Major League Rugby, as well as abroad.

"To all the players I have had the honor to coach, I say thank you! I will cherish the many friendships I have made, along with the lessons that we learned together," Smyth said. "The battles we won on the field were a result of your hard work, determination, and rugby skills that allowed you to perform so well.

"I have many fond memories of well-played games. I have the utmost respect for all of you. More importantly to me, are the successes you have enjoyed in your off-field lives as husbands, fathers and positive professional contributors to society."

But after a loss to Cal in the 2016 championship game in Provo, BYU was booted from the organization by a unanimous vote (with one abstention) and stripped of the 2015 title after the remaining clubs cited the Cougars’ use of an "ineligible player in the 2015 Varsity Cup postseason," according to Rugby Today.

BYU men's rugby huddles after a 93-3 win over the CSU Rams in Provo on April 8, 2017. (Photo: Monica Gibb)
BYU men's rugby huddles after a 93-3 win over the CSU Rams in Provo on April 8, 2017. (Photo: Monica Gibb)

The Varsity Cup was dissolved in 2017 after its title sponsor, Penn Mutual, as well as an organizer and broadcast partner, withdrew their support from the organization.

BYU's run in the Varsity Cup and subsequent departure was also happening at a time of significant change to the program by the university administration, according to Smyth.

The NCAA does not sanction collegiate rugby in the United States, and BYU’s non-varsity program has been governed by the school’s Student Life department since 2012.

The organization also governs other BYU club sports, such as women’s rugby, men’s and women’s lacrosse, and men’s soccer, which recently announced that it was leaving the semi-professional organization Premier Development League after 15 years and returning to collegiate club soccer. The Cougars posted a 16-0-1 record in their first season returning to the NIRSA collegiate national championship, including a 4-1 win over Cal Poly in the title match.

BYU rugby’s move down has been met with less success. The squad has yet to contend for a national title and lost to Penn State in the quarterfinals of the 2018 tournament, 48-46.

"That change made it difficult to run the rugby program with the standards we were used to," Smyth said in his resignation statement.

After leaving the Varsity Cup, Smyth’s personal life was also flipped asunder as his wife Verla was diagnosed with cancer. Verla Smyth has been declared cancer-free by doctors in recent years, but he commented regularly on the strain the fight often put on his personal life and how coaching the BYU rugby team helped him through the rough time.

"My wife who was always supportive in every way, and my children who all grew up with BYU rugby as a big part of their lives," Smyth said, before adding, "Whilst her health and well-being will always be important to me, thankfully because of her recovery, her health was not a reason why I resigned from BYU."

Smyth also thanked his alumni, players and staff of assistant coaches and former assistants for building the program, including Mark and Dean Ormsby, Justen Nadauld and Kimball Kjar, a fixture in the Utah rugby community who is currently the general manager of the Utah Warriors pro rugby franchise in Major League Rugby.

"The sacrifices these men made will never be fully understood by anyone, only myself," Smyth said.


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