It has been nearly 20 years since the school with the most Division I varsity sports programs in the NCAA has added a varsity team. Since women’s golf became a varsity sport in 1993, Harvard has not seen any new additions to its varsity lineup.
But the wait is over—starting in 2013-14, the Harvard-Radcliffe Rugby Football Club will change from club status to varsity, making it the 42nd varsity program at Harvard.
“What happened was maybe 18 months ago we approached the athletic department with the request to go varsity, and they gave us sort of benchmarks,” coach Brian Hamlin said. “In order to go varsity, we had to meet certain standards. So over the last 18-24 months, we met those standards. We were very fortunate that the athletic department was willing to talk about it and willing to sort of lay out a foundation for what we had to do to become varsity.”
Assistant Athletic Director Kurt Svoboda explained the changes necessary for a sport to move from club to varsity status.
“There’s so much to be considered,” Svoboda said. “There’s everything from gauging student interest to numbers, commitment, participation, administration, facilities, athletic training—all these things that are kind of ancillary that people maybe wouldn’t consider. There’s just a lot that goes into elevating a program in that matter. It’s not as easy as just flipping a switch and saying, ‘Now we’re a varsity team.’”
In the spring of 2011, the Black and White made a convincing argument to be considered for varsity status when it captured the USARugby Collegiate Division II National Championship with a 22-10 upset victory over No. 3 Notre Dame.
After the stellar 2010-11 campaign, Harvard secured a spot in Division I for the 2011-12 season—a spot the team has maintained since then.
“[The womens’ rugby team has] such a strong history of success and competition,” Svoboda said. “I think that people within the University saw that they were carrying themselves more like a varsity program than a club program, as far as commitment and regular practices and adhering to guidelines that are in place.”
The change marks the first time that a women’s team has gone varsity before its male counterpart, a distinction that rugby team president Sarah MacVicar attributes to Title IX.
“Because of Title IX, and how far out of compliance [with the amendment] most schools are, it’s hard for a men’s team to go varsity, and I think that’s probably the main reason why we’re making that transition [first],” MacVicar said. “But it really will provide a lot of resources for both teams, which will be very exciting.”
Harvard will be the first of the Ivies to add women’s rugby to its slate of varsity teams. Although MacVicar says every school in the league is still out of compliance with Title IX—Harvard included—the move marks a step in the right direction and sets the bar for the rest of the Ancient Eight to follow.
The Black and White will continue playing in the newly formed Ivy Rugby Conference, composed of club rugby teams from around the Ancient Eight, but the shift to varsity will bring with it benefits to the program.
“[Being varsity] means a lot more resources,” said Ali Haber, who serves as captain of the forwards. “The athletic department is supporting us—we’ve been a little rag-tag in the past. We’re going to get new equipment, new uniforms, [and] a lot of travel support from the athletic department that we haven’t had before.”
Before the team can reap the benefits of varsity status, though, it must use this year’s transitional period in order to come into line with expectations for a varsity sport.
“We’ve stepped up our practice times, so we’re practicing every day of the week when we’re in season,” MacVicar explained. “We’re also lifting twice a week and basically [are] trying to operate as much like a varsity team as possible.”