Golden Bears build national powerhouse in rugby

This week, ESPN.com is featuring a few of the best non-NCAA-sanctioned programs in the country.

University of California men's rugby player Dustin Watson has never "shot the boot."

Not once, he says, has the desire to ingest a beverage composed of Tinactin antifungal cream and cheap light beer from a smelly Size 12 crossed his mind. Instead Watson and his teammates have an almost unquenchable thirst for something much sweeter: perfection.

"I feel like everyone [on] the team has the same feeling even if we beat a team by 80 points," Watson said. "We kind of try to look at every game as taking a step forward regardless of what happens. You always want to improve as a player."

The players' desire to perform flawlessly on the pitch is the motivating factor that has helped the Golden Bears become the gold standard in college rugby and one of the premier programs in any collegiate sport. Cal's 37-7 triumph over BYU in the National Collegiate Rugby Championship on May 5 gave the Bears their 14th title in 15 seasons. Since the tournament's inception in 1980, there have been only five seasons (1984, 1987, 1989, 1990 and 2003) in which Cal was not crowned as America's top collegiate rugby team.

Jack Clark, who became the sixth rugby coach in school history when he took over in 1984, has guided the Bears to 19 national championships.

"It is hard to say you reached your potential without putting your guts into it, without giving everything you could to attain that status," Clark says. "We're pretty crazed about getting better and being the best that we can be."

The squad's winning tradition -- the aforementioned practice of drinking beer from a player's boot might be the only time-honored rugby ritual the Golden Bears don't embrace -- is part of what makes the program such a unique one. The team's 125-year history, the longest of any sport at Cal, has produced 103 All-Americans, 36 players for the U.S. national team, six Olympians and countless devout fans.

Of course, the program's past triumphs don't determine on-field results today.

"The tradition has always been a large part of Cal rugby," three-time All-American forward Chris Biller said. "It's like any other dominant program -- tradition only goes so far, the players and coaches have to be fully committed. That can be tedious at times. There is a lot of work which makes [the team] successful."

The Bears defy the mainstream perception of what a rugby team should be, which, fair or unfair, paints a picture of a motley crew somewhat reminiscent of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity in "Animal House."

That's not to say the members of the team don't have a good time -- they do. The Bears say they're just as engaged in Playstation and partying as most of their peers.

In Berkeley, however, rugby is not a sport for beer-bellied boys or seldom-shaven men. Cal's men's rugby team, in fact, is defined by its class and dedication.

"I know that at other schools [rugby] is kind of a joke and that kind of makes me mad," Watson said. "We put all the time and energy into it. People that view rugby as a drinking sport kind of soil the game a little. We are trying to take it as serious as possible here."

That businesslike approach requires dedication from the team as a whole as well as each individual. After all, none of the 60-plus members of Cal's squad are on athletic scholarships. When the players rise before the sun to go for a team run, it's because they want to, not because they have to.

"It's never a question of is it worth it," Biller said. "It's how are you going to get through it and how are you going to make yourself better."

The most excruciating stretch for the Bears comes at the conclusion of March, when the regular season ends. At that time, the team has about three weeks to prepare for the playoffs. The team's postseason practice regiment includes morning runs twice a week, lifting sessions twice a week and training sessions six times a week.

"It's long and it's hard, but that's what gets us our titles -- the work we put in in April," Biller said.

Like many of the Bears, Biller is relatively new to rugby. He grew up playing football, and as an offensive lineman at the famed De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., Biller opened up holes for future NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew. It wasn't until his senior year at De La Salle when Biller began playing rugby. That season he was spotted by Clark, who invited him to join his team.

"I enjoy the sport," Biller said. "I think it's a great sport, I've got great teammates and great coaches. Overall, the program gives us a great sporting environment."

Though not quite as old as the Redwood trees in Golden Gate Park, Cal rugby represents a piece of the Bay Area's history. And like those conifers, the program has needed some outside help to continue to thrive.

Cal's rugby team is not affiliated with the athletic department in the same way the basketball and football teams are. Most of the sports associated with the university are NCAA varsity sports; rugby is just a varsity sport. The athletic department gives the rugby team many of the same amenities NCAA sports get (such as medical attention and academic support), but Clark's team isn't allotted as much funding.

To ensure the game of grabs, grunts, punts, pushes and padless tackles doesn't become an endangered species in the ever-changing climate of college athletics, Clark created the fund-raising campaign "Cal Rugby Forever."

The devoted efforts of Cal rugby's supporters have been instrumental, Clark says, in allowing the program to remain at the apex of college rugby. Some major byproducts of the campaign include Witter Rugby Field, constructed in 1995 for $2 million, and the Doc Hudson Fieldhouse, which opened in 1996.

"It is the oldest sport on our campus and the first sport to play an outside opponent, and as such it has value," Clark said. "And there was a really generous and diligent effort on the part of the stakeholders to put down roots for Cal rugby on this campus."

Clark said the endowments the team has gained through fund-raising demonstrate the fond feelings fans and alumni have about the program.

"You're not supposed to grow sports like ours, a large-squad, male sport," he said. "You're supposed to be relegated to club status. You're supposed to play your games on the field where they park the cars for football games."

One major perk of the team's status as a varsity sport comes at the end of the season, when players are awarded a varsity letter, which forever makes them a part of the Cal rugby family.

"When the gentleman presented the letters to us he gave a little speech about how a very small percentage [of people have] earned [letters]," Watson said. "I knew it was special when my grandpa [heard about the letter]. He went to Cal and he got really excited. I thought it was kind of a special thing."

Clark sees that big, gold "C" as so much more than a souvenir. That letter, he says, is a reward at the conclusion of a physically and mentally exhausting journey.

"When our players leave, I want them to say, 'It was a hard, challenging, difficult experience, and I wouldn't trade it for the world,'" Clark said. "If you're trying to create something special for these students, then you are better off challenging them. That is what a varsity letter is all about."

Like those of most great coaches, Clark's message resonates with his players. They say they wouldn't trade boots with anyone.

"We don't get scholarships or stuff like that," Watson said. "I don't care. I'd rather be on the rugby team than the football team, because of the people around and the success sportswise."

Brendan Murphy is an assistant editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Brendan.R.Murphy@espn3.com.