Building Programs with Santa Clara University's Paul Keeler

If you weren’t familiar with the name Paul Keeler before this season you may be now. That is in part due to the fact the Paul Keeler a Jesuit educated former Marine was the first coach named to lead one of PRO Rugby’s teams (San Francisco). There has been some coverage of this experienced coach helping lead the PRO movement and rightfully so.

Additionally,  Keeler has been one of the coaches of the highly successful NorCal (Northern California Rugby Football Union) select side the Pelicans which is becoming a player pool for the newly established PRO Rugby.

What many seem to have forgotten is that Keeler is also the head coach of a Top 20 collegiate men’s rugby program. At of the time of writing this interview Coach Keeler’s Santa Clara University was sitting at #19 in the D1-A standing in the USA. The conference in which Santa Clara University plays in features three other Top 20 sides as well (Saint Mary’s, San Diego and Cal Poly).  

The early Santa Clara University sides. 

The early Santa Clara University sides. 

Just three years ago Santa Clara Rugby finished 2nd in their conference and then moved up to D1-A. Santa Clara Rugby Football Club has a long and rich tradition of rugby with its establishment in 1907. The school was part of the core of rugby in the USA in the early days. A number of the gold medal winning members of the USA team in the 1920 Olympics were members of the Santa Clara team. As the shift in the USA moved to football the program suffered and went into decline, before returning in the 1960 and continuing some great runs in the 1970s.

In 2006 the program sought to return to stature of the past and the Alumni brought on coach Chris Kron (a former All American and Eagle). During his tenure the Santa Clara University program made a comeback and finished 9th in 2010 and was promoted from DII to DI.

Paul Keeler- Head Coach Santa Clara Univ. 

Paul Keeler- Head Coach Santa Clara Univ. 

When Kron moved up to becoming the Director of Men’s Rugby, Santa Clara had a head coach opening and after a few different coaches and not achieving the desired success, the Alumni and the club made a push for a proven coach who could help Santa Clara get to the next level.  That coach was Paul Keeler!

The following is a Q&A interview we conducted with Coach Keeler.

The Rugby Republic (RR): So coach why did you take the Santa Clara University job? You were at San Francisco Golden Gate (now the SFGG Rhinos), not only coaching but running one of the most successful rugby clubs in the USA.
Coach Paul Keeler- (PK): Well, Santa Clara came asking me to help them find a good coach to lead their program. That lead us to some conversations, where I pointed out that it would be easy to pay a coach, but that didn’t mean the person could or would build a “program”.  Throughout the process I had no interest in the job and had not offered myself as an option.  I was trying to find them the right coach.  But, in a meeting with the stakeholders they felt based on what I’d shared, suggested and recommended that they wanted me to be the coach.  Before I accepted the position I had asked to meet with the players. 
You see if you are trying to build a program then you have to have player buy-in and they have to also want a program. So the players said they wanted an actual program and in short that’s how I became the Santa Clara head coach.

Part of building that program was setting a plan. We have a ten year plan and we are in year five of that plan now..

RR:  Now the Santa Clara Men’s program is not a varsity program, what kind of support do you get from the University and how does that impact things like recruiting?
PK: We aren’t a varsity program but we get a huge amount of support from the alumni. We don’t have scholarships in place at this time.  But part of that 10 year plan is to get the endowment going so we can have yearly revenue. We are working well on the operation side as we are now working with a budget of $200,000. A part of that is our player dues, but it’s a combination of a lot of things.

Santa Clara University is one of the top universities academically and so its not an easy school for people to get into. That does impact how we recruit, so we do a lot of our current recruitment on campus.  I go to the camps and I look at players but I haven’t really put myself out there in terms of recruitment as not everyone can get in. I leave it to the players.  If they are interested in Santa Clara University and think this is a good place for them then we start the conversation. If they want sound academics and a Jesuit education then we go from there with the rugby part.

RR: How are the funds/budget used by the program?
PK: Our guys pay high dues. Its $250 per quarter and we play fall, winter and spring so that’s three seasons. We do provide our guys with $250 in kits each year.  We do work with players (payment plans, etc.) but for the most part they pay their way. Their money really goes to the program.
We have four sessions a week. We have a full-time coach (me) as well as several assistant coaches, and strength and conditioning coach to help with having a formal training program. So we have a committed staff which is funded by the club.

RR: As a private school do you feel you get more support than say some of the public schools?
PK: I don’t think so. I think we’ve got good support and outstanding alumni, but as far as the difference between public and private I don’t think that’s an issue. I know UCSB (University of California Santa Barbara) which is a public school and rugby is not a varsity sport has $250,000 allocated for close to 18 club sports. At Santa Clara we have $28,000 for our 18 club sports, so there isn’t a lot going to rugby.

What we’ve done is to create win-win situations. We have money coming from alumni, player dues and some sponsors. We really worked to change the face of club sports by asking how can we help versus complaining to the University about why aren’t we getting something.

The University gave us a space and $20,000 went into that room/space. We share that with all the club sports. We have trainers that are supplied as part of a sponsorship for the rugby program that is shared with all club sports. So we have trainers at all club sports events and all benefit not just rugby. We have space and people now to do the concussion protocols and impact testing for concussion not just for our players but for all the sports. We demanded it for rugby but share it with all and created ways for all to benefit not just us.

It’s a bit played out but the saying is true that “You don’t have to be a varsity program to act like one”.

RR: You have some big wins this year vs some big names, and you play in a conference that really has nearly all its clubs in the D1-A top 20. You still have 3 games against top 20 clubs. How do you approach that?
PK:  We finished 2nd in the conference  three years ago. Last year we didn’t get to where we wanted. We play in a great conference and we feel that we are still a bit under the radar, that we are still a bit underrated. We can’t use the excuse but it does help that we play in a really tough conference which forces us to get better. It is also challenging. You can be in 4th in the conference and still be better than a number of team across the county because of the teams we have in our conference.

As a coach you can’t look at just wins and losses. Not if you want to build a program. Its good for us to play the strong competition and learn and realize we can’t just assess ourselves on wins. We really focus on how we play. 

RR: What’s your approach as a coach? How have you set the program or culture up? Based on skill, style, etc.?
PK:  It’s a combination. There is a fad to be player centered, but it needs to be a combination of coaching and culture.  For me the coach drives the bus and the players set the culture. I try to develop the player and really focus on how we are playing.

For example as a player I knew what the score was, I would know how much time is left so I could take advantage of the various situations. As a coach now I sometimes am not sure what the exact score is, or how much time if left, not because I’m not engage or care, but I’m seeing the game from a different perspective.  I’m looking to see how we as a whole are playing.  We may loose at times, but I’m more concerned with what did we learn?

But to really get to your question I say at Santa Clara we use the number 99.  Are you on 99% of the time? Are you willing to give me your own max each time?  It is impossible to be a 100% every time, so I look at did you give me your own person max on that day (as you may have other things that day, like being sick, etc.). If a guy played at 100% of their effort on a day then I’d say they played the game of their life and might as well hang it up there. Find that 1% that you need to improve.

No matter whatever day it is did you give me your best that day? Look at it this way.  Are you willing to try and fail 99 times, so that one time when it matters, that it counts you can get it that time because of all those other  times you failed? We are on a journey to always improve!

RR: So coach being one of the PRO Rugby coaches for the nearby team in San Francisco, do you think this will create more attention and exposure for the Santa Clara rugby program?
PK: Yeah I think it will get us some more exposure and that’s great.  Cal is a great program and Jack Clark has done great things there. It helps Cal’s recruiting that they are basically an Eagles factory. Jack’s time with team USA helped in building the program at Cal and helping to recruit future Eagles. So I’m sure with us having some of that exposure as a PRO Coach will help with our program.

That’s one reason I was open to doing it, and also the big reason our administrators and alumni want to me to stay at Santa Clara and do both!  We do think it will help us in the years to come.

RR: For a high school kid who wishes to play college rugby why should they consider Santa Clara University?
PK: In addition to rugby they get to get a great education from a great school (Santa Clara University).
We have a page on the our club’s website where prospects can contact us and send us their information.

I do go to camps to be out and about and represent one the of the top programs, but I don’t as mentioned before really recruit and that is because Santa Clara isn’t an easy school to get into. I don’t want to recruit a kid and then he can’t get in.  It has to be a fit.  I like that as a coach. I like that  you are here because you want to be here.  I do not have to tell you to do everything, I do not have to push you and remind you. I’m a product of my Jesuit education and my Marine Corps experience and that is you are responsible for you! You need to be self made to play at Santa Clara. If you are self motivated, want a great education, want to be a good leader on and off the field then we are the right place for you.

RR: Do you see players at the collegiate  level who have that issue of self motivation?
PK: The process and how we bring players in filters that, but I’ve seen it. I have been to some men’s club  practices recently for players who we are looking at or interested in for PRO Rugby.  I watch their entire practice and see how they practice. I’ve seen some who take off the last part of practice. Those who are “too tired” or “hurt” to finish practice and just hanging out.  I’ve actually called out those players and said “You want me to pay you for this? You can’t even finish one 2-hr training session twice a week. You want me to pay you to do this twice a day five days a week?”  To which I get the response “well this is different”. For me it is simple. If you aren’t motivated now, you aren’t a leader now; all of a sudden getting money won’t change that.

Same is true for coaching, you can't coach for the money you coach because you love the game and you love to teach. 

RR: Do you think the current collegiate season or the Santa Clara season is too short, or just right?
PK: Not sure…I’d like to see more organization within college rugby before a longer season. Most of college rugby and the clubs are student driven which does pose some issues in terms of organizing a season.
I think a good college season would be 14-15 games. So a good season of 10 games, maybe 2-3 pre-season games to help prepare so in the range of 14-15 would be good.

RR: Last question. Use three words to describe Santa Clara University Rugby?
PK: You are putting in on the spot, let me think……Ah, I’d say “Quick Running Rugby”.

With that we concluded our interview with Coach Keeler. We wanted to thank Coach Keeler for taking the time to chat with us. He has provided us with some great insight. With his Santa Clara side in full season, his work with the NorCal Pelicans and PRO Rugby sending contracts out to prospective players, we know coach was extremely busy. We hope more will take notice of Santa Clara University Rugby (the boys refer to themselves as SCUTS (Santa Clara University Touring Side). Depending on how the next few games play out, the Broncos could be a few steps closer to a shot at a national championship. Coach Keeler will also be at the helm of PRO Rugby’s San Francisco side later this spring. We know that Keeler has the experience in building programs and are certain he’ll  take that approach which is working successfully with Santa Clara University to PRO Rugby’s San Francisco side as well.

You can follow Santa Clara Rugby on twitter @SCUTSRugby