1969-1979 (as recalled by John Mauro)
The Syracuse University Rugby Football Club began in the fall of 1969, a month after Woodstock. I had been introduced to rugby as a student at Notre Dame when a new club started there in 1961. After barely graduating on time in 1965, getting married and serving my two year ROTC commitment with the Army in Alaska, I returned to my hometown, Syracuse, and went to work. I tried golf and bowling for awhile to occupy my spare time, but I wasn’t very good at either. I’m still not. I started thinking about starting a rugby club.
I knew Cornell had a rugby team, so I wrote to them general delivery and asked for some ideas on now to start a team. Someone there put me in touch with the grand old man of the Eastern Rugby Union, Ed Lee, who lived in Virginia, but was originally from nearby Sherburne, NY. Ed still has a tournament named in honor down South.
Ed was very helpful and gave me a handful of contacts in Upstate New York including the Rochester Aardvarks and the Buffalo Old Boys, teams that would turn out to be our first competition. I remember that Ed called me a “Rugby missionary,” but I told him that I was just looking for fourteen other guys so I could start playing again. He suggested that SU would be a good source of players, but I wasn’t a student as of yet.
Then, as the rugby gods would have it, in 1969 I took my GI Bill money and enrolled at SU’s University College in the MBA program. Since I was now a student , sort of, I put an ad in the Daily Orange announcing that a rugby club was forming and players were needed: no experience necessary.
My only respondent was one Peter Baigent, a first year grad student and an R.A. in Dellplain Hall. He had played rugby all his life in Halifax in the North of England and was very disappointed not to find a club when he got to SU. We got together at what was then Lee’s on Westcott Street and plotted the future of the SURFC.
Peter recruited heavily on and around the seventh floor of Dellplain, and somehow we got enough bodies to start practicing. He was able to work with the administration to get us recognized as some sort of a club and secure the use of Hendricks Field between Sadler and Laurensen Halls in the shadow of the old Archbold Stadium. This early experience, by the way, would serve him well as he rose through the ranks of the Office of Student Affairs at SU to a vice-presidency of some sort at SUNY Stoneybrook.
We attracted some pretty good athletes right from the start and later on added some Brits and other foreign nationals from town who had heard about us. There were no rules at that time that we were aware of as to who was eligible, so we welcomed these nonstudents with rugby backgrounds, colorful characters all, with open arms. Another English guy by way of Canada, John Goodman, helped us out early on with coaching and refereeing.
Our first year was definitely a learning experience, and we made all our opposition look good. I think we lost to the Aardvarks 73 - 0. We erected our own 2” x 4” goal posts with a clothesline for a crossbar, and lined the pitch using bags of lime. Once we had to use sawdust because the ground was covered with snow. The posts were occasionally pushed over by wayward loose scrums and mauls.
In that first year the club purchased one set of orange and blue 4” hoops jerseys and a ball, which we later lost when it landed from a kick on the sharp top of the chain link fence at Hendrick’s Field. We must have stolen an extra one by then. Tries were still worth only three points, there was no substitution, even for injury, and you had to jump all by yourself in the lineouts. Nixon was president , and we almost forfeited a game when the administration building was occupied by anti-Viet Nam war protesters in the spring. The campus was closed down and, luckily for some of our players, final exams were canceled and everybody passed. The game went on.
After this first eventful year, Peter and I, both forwards, realized that we needed somebody to help out with the backs. Why not a flyhalf from England? Peter lured a friend, Bob Wilson, over from across the pond with promises of an R.A. position, a rugby player-coaching opportunity in the colonies, and stories about how much American girls loved English accents. That did it. Bob arrived in the fall of 1970, sorted the backs out a bit, and taught us a few new songs, most notably the one about the “Three Crows.” However, we still had a long way to go.
In December of 1972, Peter and Bob led us on a tour of England, and we found out what rugby was really supposed to look like. We played in London and in the North, our tour guides’ old stomping grounds. Some of us went to watch the All Blacks play at Twickers. The tone of the tour had been set earlier on the way over in the plane when we read about a rugby club who had eaten their dead to stay alive after their plane had crashed in the Andes. The other passengers became noticeably more nervous after that.
Although we lost all our games, we had a great time and learned a lot. When we came back, we had turned the corner, and in the spring of 1973 we won the Upstate Tournament, which included both colleges and club sides. The SURFC had arrived.