Fear Factor

How scary is the Cal rugby team? Some opponents don't even bother showing up

By Jaime Lowe

(Si.com - April 14, 2005)

Strawberry Canyon. The view is as pristine as the name. Set high above Cal's Memorial Stadium with a spectacular view of San Francisco Bay, these hills offer an idyllic tableau of wildflowers, eucalyptus, deer and Bears -- though not of the cuddly variety. We're speaking of the Cal Bears rugby team, which is not only the nation's most feared college rugby program but perhaps the most dominant in any sport. Under coach Jack Clark, Cal has won 16 national titles in 21 years, usually in ridiculously lopsided fashion. This season, for example, the Bears have outscored their opponents 1,103 to 116. The talent pool runs so deep that Tom Billups, head coach of the U.S. national team, is a mere Cal assistant.

There are many explanations for Cal's success, not least of which is this: For the past 22 years Clark has worked to preserve and promote what rugby should be, not what it is largely perceived to be. Clark, like his players, knows the stereotype of hung-over hooligans savaging one another in the mud, their thoughts half on the match, half on the epic bacchanal to follow. There is the story of the South Carolina rugby club, which last winter failed to show for the second day of a tournament because the players were too hung over. There is the testimony of Benjamin McKenzie, the star of The O.C., who as a student at Virginia tried out for the rugby squad, only to regret his decision almost immediately. "I found out right off the bat that those guys are f------ crazy, and they will kill you," McKenzie told SIOC in the fall of 2003. "I was practicing with them, and this monster dropped his pants in the middle of the field and started pissing. I realized then: I can't do this. I might die."

Such tales are greeted with scorn in Berkeley. "Missing a game because you're drunk? That just wouldn't happen," scoffs senior fullback Andrew Blair.

"There's an elite handful of about 10 or 15 teams across the country that are of a higher mind-set and more like our program," says senior hooker Tony Vontz. "And there are hundreds of other programs that are more stereotypical -- you know, they have the GIVE BLOOD: PLAY RUGBY stickers on their cars. Or OUR DRINKING TEAM HAS A RUGBY PROBLEM, or these awful things that make you want to choke somebody."

The intensity of the Bears can be traced to Clark, a 6'5" bear of a man (he's a former All-Pac-8 offensive tackle for the Bears and member of the U.S. national rugby team) who peppers his language with the words bloody and lads. When he's running drills he rarely screams, but he elevates the tenor of his voice as he stands imperiously on the sideline, arms crossed over his chest, commanding attention like a benevolent dictator. "There's some expectations when you're the custodian here," Clark, 49, says later, sitting behind an oak desk in his stately office just inside the entrance to the team's clubhouse. "The standards are high, and the stakeholders -- the alums -- want Cal to be a great rugby program."

"Great" would be understating Clark's accomplishments. In the rugby community the man is a messiah, and the players and fans his disciples. "Coach is an intense man," says Vontz. When asked if the team fears Clark, Vontz snorts, "Yeah, of course." Two years ago the Bath Rugby Club, a pro team in England, offered Clark its head coaching position, which he turned down to stay at Cal. "This is his brainchild; it's his baby. This is what he does. He is Cal rugby," says Vontz. "There's no other person in North America who's built a program like this."

The numbers don't lie: Clark's record at Cal is 365-63-5. There are those 16 national championships, that outlandish scoring margin. When the Bears played Arizona State on Feb. 26, they scored 121 points -- and the scorekeeper had to hold the "1" for the duration of the game because the scoreboard didn't have a third slot for the placard.

How thoroughly does Cal emasculate its opponents? There is no better example than the Big Game four years ago, when archrival Stanford forfeited the match. In an e-mail to Clark, Stanford coach Franck Boivert wrote that his players didn't mind losing to Cal but were "very afraid to get injured." Normally humble in victory, even Clark can't resist a dig when recounting the memory. "Some programs in rugby underachieve," says Clark. "We should have a great rival across the bay at Stanford. We've been playing the Big Game for a hundred years. They have more money in the bank than we'll ever raise, new facilities and a long tradition. The forfeiture was sad because it makes the game seem conditional, like you don't really have to play."

Framed on a wall in the back of the clubhouse is a six-page feature from the East Bay Express. The writer contends that Cal is too good, that its dominance runs counter to the spirit of competition. The Bears, though, see their lofty status as a burden as much as a blessing. "I feel like I'm walking on eggshells every time I get out on the field," Vontz says. "I feel like I have anvils on both of my shoulders just trying to live up to this crushing weight of expectation."

After a 69-29 win over Oregon on the first day of the Cal Invitational, Clark is sitting in the common room of the clubhouse, smoking a cigar and surrounded by shiny goblets, reminders of past victories. There is a vase full of fresh-cut tulips on a table next to the mid-century wood chair he fills out. An assistant coach is asked what the blossoming trees outside the windows are and answers "cherry blossoms" without batting an eyelash. The kegger-at-halftime mentality is nowhere to be found. "Nobody on our team would drink the night before a game," says sophomore lock Louis Stanfill. "Those people get weeded out. I guarantee you that has never happened and never will happen. There's a lot of honor in playing our sport."

Even off the field the players appear to live these maxims. Vontz and Blair are better known as "music nazis" than chuggers; both show a soft spot for sad, mellow indie groups like Iron & Wine. A few weeks ago Stanfill demonstrated his peacemaking skills as a bouncer at San Francisco's Fetish Ball. "If there was more sex, there'd be less war," he says. "I mean, look at the bonobo monkeys." Senior center Rob Weedon is a microbiology major preparing for a career in medicine. Clearly these guys are not your typical meatheads. A short time after beating the Ducks, the Bears meet their vanquished opponents, now showered and changed, for a banquet meal. The postmatch gathering, in a dining hall located between two cement walls within Memorial Stadium, is a Cal tradition. Every one of the Bears looks sharp in a collared shirt, tie and his varsity cardigan, which sports 15 golden stripes. It's pretty clear these lads have earned theirs.

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