Founded in 1974, Life University is a health sciences institution most known for its chiropractic program, the largest in the world. Rugby dates back to 1980 on the campus, starting as a club team and evolving into what many consider a model program for the entire country.
"We play rugby all year round," said Glen Maricellli, a senior from Missoula, Montana. "A lot of people who played rugby at Life in the past are now coaching around the country. We don't have a lot of sports teams at Life University, but rugby is like our football for our students and alumni, and they have really built the men's undergrad program in the past three years."
Yes, only three years, and already Life University finished second in the 2012 Collegiate Rugby Championships and in fourth place in 2013.
Life University was founded by Dr. Sid Williams, who was an All-American Defensive Back for the University of Georgia Football team. The Rugby program was launched by Dr. Bobby Geiss, and the current varsity undergrad men's coach is Dan Payne.
According to Dr. Stuart Kitzen, a Life University alumnus and Doctor of Chiropractic in nearby Narberth, Pennsylvania, "We're a small college but we all love rugby. The program really started as a way to demonstrate the power of chiropractic using rugby as a model for how it can help, and Life was actually one of the first schools in the country to give scholarships for Rugby."
Life University Rugby Coach Dan Payne, senior Glen Maricelli, and senior Joe Cowley at a reception for this weekend's Collegiate Rugby Championships in Philadelphia.
"Life University started the program in my freshman year," said fifth-year senior Joe Cowley from Charlotte, North Carolina. "We heard a lot about it, and I actually played against them that first year at another school and decided to transfer here and continue my studies and continue playing rugby."
The program's national reputation began to rise when they were invited to play in the 2012 Collegiate Rugby Championships in Philadelphia. In remarks to the teams Wednesday night in Philadelphia, former Pennsylvania Governor (and former Mayor of Philadelphia) Ed Rendell noted that he had never heard of Life University until he saw them play that year in PPL Park, and witnessed first-hand how passionate and informed their fans were about the sport.
"We really want to grow and the rugby tradition at Life University, and this weekend's Collegiate Rugby Championships in Philadelphia is the equivalent of a bowl game for our team, our students, our administration and our alumni," said fourth-year head coach Dan Payne.
Payne came to Life University by way of San Diego State, where he coached their rugby team to the final four in his final season on the West Coast.
"Life University supports our rugby program like other schools support football," Payne said. "All of us are partners in building the tradition at our school. We don't have the name brand, but we bring a level of fan excitement and participation, as well as a level of play on the field that is respectable. We feel a tremendous responsibility to the game, and to this event, to bring the highest quality product on the field. We truly want the Collegiate Rugby Championships in Philadelphia to be a success, and it is an awesome opportunity to be part of the event again this year. We are indebted to everyone who invited us back again this year, and now it is our job to give back."
The Life University Running Eagles will start playing in the 2014 Collegiate Rugby ChampionshipsFriday with some preliminary games before the action heats up on Saturday andSunday in PPL Park.
America's elite talent will be on display in this run-up for the 2016 United States Rugby Sevens Olympic team, which will attempt to qualify for Rio next summer (the first time rugby sevens will be part of the Olympic Games).
The invitational tournament features Life University and 19 more of the nation's top college teams, competing in 44 matches across two days as they compete for the coveted Pete Dawkins Trophy. The trophy is named for the Heisman Trophy winner and All-American football star from Army, who was also a standout professional football player - but most notably here, an outstanding rugby player and enthusiast.
Six teams with strong ties to the Greater Philadelphia region - Drexel University, Kutztown University, University of Pennsylvania, Penn State University, Saint Joseph's University and Temple University - will compete in the tournament, alongside teams from the University of Arizona, UCLA, Dartmouth, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, Navy, Northeastern University, Notre Dame, University of South Carolina, University of Texas, Virginia Tech and Ohio State University. The reigning champion, the University of California, returns to the 2014 Collegiate Rugby Championships to defend their title.