'Listen and Do What You're Told' : Lion Rugby Coach's Formula for Success Earns 7 Straight Crowns

Times Staff Writer

Today's sports quiz:

Name the most successful sport over the last decade at Loyola Marymount University.

Name a collegiate sport that actually uses student-athletes--people who go to school, discover the sport and try it as an activity within their curriculum, without recruiting or scholarships.

Name a wild and crazy sport that is a cross between football and tag-team wrestling.

If you answered rugby to all three, you win a free tryout. Report to Coach Dick Laner, whose requirements are simple:

"If they listen to me and do what they're told, the winning takes care of itself," Laner said. Loyola has won the championship in the college division of the Southern California Rugby Football Union for the last seven years and defeated USC, 27-0, last weekend in this season's league opener.

To maintain that dominance despite having the smallest players in the league, Laner said, "we have to work harder, be fitter, be smarter" than the opposition.

"We work out Tuesday and Thursday. We started conditioning this year out of necessity--we're a lot smaller this year. We condition Monday and Wednesday. It's not mandatory--but it is , if you know what I mean.

"They're not on scholarship so we can't demand too much of their time. I think their top priority should be rugby, but they keep reminding me they're full-time students and most of them also have to work . . . . They're truly student-athletes."

Laner has a 33-man roster (15 comprise a team), most of whom played a sport in high school and were drawn to a game that offers the weekly running, tackling and collisions of football without the heavy equipment and regimentation.

Laner's background is similar. A football and soccer player in high school, Laner and his best friend in high school were both accepted at Loyola, where his friend's brother played rugby.

"We both wanted to play a contact sport. We both decided to play rugby without knowing a whole lot about it," Laner remembered. His friend was killed in an auto accident before school started so Laner decided to honor their joint decision. He started as a freshman in 1970. "That's probably what hooked me," he said. "I'd only seen one game before in my life. Now here I am running the whole show."

Laner became an assistant coach when he graduated and was named head coach in 1980. He teaches at a grammar school and is officially a part-time coach at Loyola. But he approaches it with full-time seriousness.

That means doing everything from putting flyers in freshman orientation packets and setting up a recruiting booth when school opens to watching videos and keeping abreast of the latest trends and theories in coaching and training.

"A lot of people still don't realize we've got a rugby team and we've been the most successful team here for 20 years," Laner said. "Once they come out, they see how exciting it is.

"The reason we're successful is our tradition. We try to build a program on a winning attitude and hard work. We shouldn't be that successful when you look at the size of our students. We also have a smaller student body than the other schools.

"We've won the league for the last seven years so everyone seems to think it's real easy. It's not. One of the reasons we do so well is we haven't had a big turnover in coaches. Other schools some years . . . don't even have a coach."

Laner has a relatively young team this year, including a handful of foreign exchange students who knew the game--two from Zimbabwe, one from South Africa, one from Ireland.

Laner said those who come out tend to be "basically guys with athletic ability who weren't recruited (out of high school). . . . For some reason, we get a lot of baseball players. It's usually guys looking for a competitive sport that doesn't have the demands of a scholarship sport, a guy who still wants a physical game without all the regimen of football (which is not offered at Loyola). The game is as intense."

The top players include senior captains Joe Kadlec, a forward, and Chris Celsi, a fullback; John O'Donnell at hooker (similar to center in football), Matt Downs at fly-half (a combination of running back and quarterback), John Greaney at forward and Mike Barry at forward.

Laner said Downs is probably "the most gifted athlete on our team," Barry, a sophomore, earned most valuable player honors in a tournament in San Diego, and O'Donnell is "without a doubt in my mind" the best hooker in Southern California.

Celsi, a 165-pounder from San Jose, may be the team's top player and is the leading scorer. He played football at St. Mary's but separated his shoulder and transferred to Loyola. He had already tried rugby at a club in Northern California. "It looked close enough to football to me. I had a really great time," he said.

Kadlec is one of the biggest players on the team at 6-2, 205 pounds. He played football and wrestled at La Canada High School and wrestled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo but didn't like the program. He had friends who played rugby and decided to transfer to Loyola to concentrate on his business major--and "because it had a good rugby program."

"Once you start playing rugby you don't go back to football," Kadlec said. "It's much more exciting than football."

Celsi added, "There is a lot more to think about (than in football). There are really no set plays; everything changes on every play and play never stops."

Both said Laner's approach is what sets their team above the others. "The club teams had better athletes but we're much better coached," Celsi said. "Dick just puts something in our minds, that we've got to be at our best at all times because everybody comes after us. We go out very confident. We always think we're going to beat 'em."

Kadlec said Laner doesn't stress victory so much as playing well. "We just go out there to play our best," he said. "So far we've been real successful." Kadlec also likes the camaraderie of the sport where teams bash heads for a few hours then usually go out together and party. You learn to leave the game on the field, he said. "It's quite different than football. There, the game's over and you're still enemies."

However, Loyola does have top-dog status so opponents want to beat them.

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