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The Carolina Coaching Initiative
Gamecocks launch campaign to hire Roberts as full-time coach
Alumni and friends of the South Carolina Men’s Rugby Club have launched an aggressive campaign to bring the program’s most noted alum back into the coaching fold as the university’s first paid head rugby coach.
The candidate should be familiar to long-time college rugby fans: John Roberts.
Roberts, a 1990 graduate of the University of South Carolina, founded the Furman University (Greenville, S.C.) rugby team in 1998 and developed it into one of the nation’s top small college programs.
When he stepped away from that program three years ago to pursue a professional opportunity, Roberts had compiled a career record of 188-64-1 and guided the Paladins to three National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) championships, five Rugby South championships and two Southern Rugby Conference titles. In 2016, his Paladins were USA Rugby Division II national finalists. Roberts is the only coach in the U.S. to have coached in Division II and NSCRO national championship games.
Wins and championships aside, Roberts constructed a first-rate rugby culture at Furman; he mentored players, hosted high school contests, USA Rugby national championship tournaments and summer high school camps. In recognition of his role and accomplishments, the trustees at Furman named the Furman rugby pitch John S. Roberts Rugby Field in 2009. Off the pitch, Roberts raised more than $500,000 for the program, and co-founded the Furman Rugby Foundation.
After South Carolina’s long-time coach Mark Morris stepped away from the program earlier this year to spend more time with his grandchildren, members of the rugby club’s foundation contacted Roberts to see if he was interested in coaching at his alma mater.
“Our membership and alumni have been following John and his Furman program for some time,” said Robert Balmer, chairman of the club’s foundation. “He was very enthusiastic but said doing the job would require a full-time commitment. And he would not do it for free.”
Working with a small group of alumni, the foundation secured commitments for $50,000. And Roberts, who has a 25-year career in higher education marketing and communications, partnered with the foundation in June to help them raise more. The group hopes to raise $100,000 and has launched a website to promote the campaign.
The South Carolina Men’s Rugby Club, founded in 1965, is the university’s oldest and most successful club sport. It has more than 1,000 alumni.
“Other programs in our area – Lander, Queens, Clemson, Belmont Abbey and more have paid coaches,” said Balmer. “Coaching is a vast and varied job that requires mentoring, on-field coaching, parent relations and fundraising. It is a full-time job. We can’t be left behind.”
Chris Murphy, a member of the foundation who is leading alumni engagement, said the program’s alumni base is united and enthusiastic in their effort to bring Roberts back home to coach.
“John Roberts is a culture-builder,” said Murphy, who played at South Carolina from 1987 to 1991 and made a leading gift to jump-start the campaign. “He is one of the top college rugby coaches in the nation and can help elevate our program to compete at the highest level.”
The Gamecocks compete in the Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference (SCRC) where they finished 1-4 in the conference’s last competitive 15’s season (Fall, 2020). This fall, South Carolina-rival Clemson University will join the conference as a D1AA competitor.
“Our strong conference is getting even stronger,” said SCRC commissioner Marty Bradley, who also coaches the University of Tennessee. “I have known John for more than 20 years. He is a great coach with great character. Our conference is stronger when South Carolina plays well, and I know that John will elevate the program. Our membership is excited at the prospect of him joining our coaching fraternity.”
Balmer said the foundation has planned a one-month social media campaign that will include a dozen short video testimonials from South Carolina players, alumni, Furman rugby alumni and others to build momentum and raise funds.
“We are really casting a wide net,” said Balmer. “John has been a great friend to rugby, and we are inviting the larger rugby community to support this. With him in the game the sport we love will be stronger.”