As the University of Arizona rugby team practices on William David Sitton Field, the red and blue block “A” on the back side of Arizona Stadium’s jumbotron dominates the view to the north. The sounds of whistles and players catching, grunting and yelling fill the air. Droplets of sweat become part of the grassy field where team camaraderie ushers in wins and championships.
To the west of the field, named in honor of the late rugby coach Dave Sitton ’78, is the Campus Recreation center. The university’s 31 active club sports teams work out in the center and share the field for practices.
Sitton, a former Arizona baseball player, was the longtime head coach when he passed away in 2013 at the age of 58. Sitton led and mentored more than 1,600 student-athletes during 35 years as coach, and he established the university’s rugby tradition and culture.
Today, Sean Duffy continues that tradition. He was recruited to coach the men’s team after Sitton’s passing and was charged with building on the success Sitton established. And he’s done just that.
In Duffy’s first year, he led the Wildcats to the Division I-AA national championship game, the first national title game in program history. The team then joined the ranks of Division I-A. Since then, they qualified for the national quarterfinals in 2016 and 2019 and reached the Final Four in 2017.
More than wins, Duffy focuses on player development and building a collegial atmosphere. “Our program excels in pushing these men and women to improve, overcome adversity and be accountable to each other,” Duffy says. “Everyone has a way they can improve. For some, it's communication. For others it’s getting faster or catching, tackling or kicking better.”
Duffy says he pushes players to receive coaching and put in the work. “We’re getting them to have difficult conversations, a life skill they can take with them.”
Even more than in other team sports, perhaps, rugby teammates rely on one another — and even on their opponents. Take the scrum, for example, in which players are packed together, arms interlocked, as each team tries to gain possession of the ball.
“We’re leaning on each other in a huddle. As much as players are bound up and ready to go against the other team, they are trusting the opponent as well. Because if they collapse, we collapse, and we could really get hurt,” Duffy says.
“Games are hard fought and very competitive, sometimes chippy, but often it’s just a really good clean game in a collegial atmosphere.”
And now, the rugby program can take competition and collegiality to the next level.
A GIFT ELEVATES THE RUGBY PROGRAM
The program will now offer scholarships to its student-athletes thanks to a $1 million gift from Jason Figley, parent of both a current and a former UArizona rugby player.
“The gift will allow us to continue to strive to be the best program in the country,” Duffy says. “A rugby scholarship signals to prospective athletes that we’re serious about rugby here — we want our program to grow, and we want to support you as part of our team.
Half of the gift is being used to create an endowment to fund scholarships through the newly created Front Foot Scholars program. The remainder of the gift will be used to endow a coach’s fund and to make improvements to the training center used by all club sports at the university. In recognition of Figley’s support, the facility will be named the Front Foot Training Center. To take care of immediate needs, Figley gave an additional $23,000 in outright scholarship funds to support this year’s recruiting cycle.
“Front foot” is a rugby term describing a player moving forward to receive a passed ball. “It’s much easier to play rugby, and it’s much easier to get through life, if you’re on the front foot,” says Figley, who played rugby at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
“Imagine you’re going to go into a tackle or to contact. It’s much easier to go into those positions with you leaning forward on your front foot catching the ball, versus a defender that’s on his back foot. We want those kids to go through life on their front foot, just like we want them to play rugby. It gives them a little bit of an advantage.”
The UArizona rugby program may be the hook that gets athletes interested in the university, but strong academic programs, a community atmosphere and Tucson’s weather create an attractive package for recruits, Duffy says. The program attracts athletes from France, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere.
“Parents are happy knowing their son is going to graduate with both an incredible degree and sport experience,” Duffy says. “With the network they build here during their four years, both within the team and around it, they will truly be able to go wherever they want post-graduation.”
WEIGHT ROOM EXPANSION
The rugby team’s weight room, in the university’s Campus Recreation center, is shared by club sports teams, plus faculty and staff. Right now, the weight room doesn’t have enough equipment to allow the full team to work out together. Once the facility is upgraded with new equipment, more players will be able to work out at a time, supporting team unity. And the addition of state-of-the-art Olympic equipment will transform the space, which, when complete, will be dedicated for use solely by club sports teams.
The men’s rugby program has more than 2,000 alumni, who celebrated the program’s 54th anniversary at events held in March. Duffy hopes Figley’s investment gets rugby alumni excited — as well as inspired to give.
“It shows that we have big plans to continue to grow and support our athletes, and hopefully it will encourage others to give,” he says.