Rugby Coach Appreciation Week Spotlight
What rugby coach wouldn’t dream of a 25-acre rugby facility with five fields, a two-story clubhouse, a press box, and a radio tower that broadcasts all your home games live? It would be fair to say that not many coaches would turn that offer down. Now add one wrinkle to the equation. What if you were also they one who had to mow the fields four times a month (it takes ten hours every time), paint the lines for your home games, and organize a 90-team tournament in the spring, all as an unpaid volunteer coach on top of your day job? It is just what has to be done, according to the man who does it all at Wayne State College in Nebraska.
If you live in Wayne, Nebraska you probably know or have heard of “the rugby guy” otherwise known as Darrin Barner. Barner was born and raised in Wayne and is now the head coach of the Wayne State Rugby Club. He is a local boy who believes “the best thing you have is a job you enjoy,” and being a rugby coach is something he enjoys to the fullest.
Before you can comprehend where Wayne State Rugby stands after nine Great Plains Rugby Championships, you must first understand how rugby came to be in Barner's life and in turn, into the lives of the Wayne community.
In the 1980’s Barner played cornerback with the DII football program at Wayne State. While playing football he was coached by two current NFL coaches who, as he put it, “tried to kill me,” and in the process made him a good football player and a serious competitor. “I wasn’t a good football player when I got there,” he said while reflecting on his playing days, “But they made me a good football player.”
Shortly after he finished at Wayne State Barner took on the Intramural Sports Director position at the school and through this position he saw first-hand the array of athletic talent at the school. To go with the talent is the fact that, to many northeastern Nebraskans, Wayne is a “big” town compared to the surrounding communities with populations of 80, 90, and 400.
When these athletes finish high school they may want to play football but find themselves struggling to compete at the high level of play and commitment in NCAA DII football compared to six-man or eight-man football that is prominent in the small farming communities of the region. Thus in order to stay competitive, active, and in-shape these athletes need to find alternatives to football and to play at a higher competitive level they must find an alternative to intramurals. It was at this time in Barner’s life that the seed to begin a rugby club at Wayne State was planted.
After his stint as IM Director Barner moved to Texas and worked for Northwest Airlines in Dallas while playing for the Fort Worth Rugby Club. While with the club he competed in DII senior club rugby and won a national championship in 2002.
Barner's position at Northwest Airlines gave him access to $10 flights and it was at this time that he felt it would be feasible to start a rugby club at his alma mater, and so it began. Barner would fly two days a week between Dallas and Wayne in order to get the club off its feet in the early days, a massive time commitment.
But, as he put it, “It gets crazier.”
Following the September 11 attacks in 2001 Northwest Airlines was forced to downsize, effectively laying-off Barner and leaving him without $10 tickets to Wayne and leaving the rugby club with little hope.
In order to keep the club afloat Barner had to drive eleven hours each way between Wayne and Dallas. “I would drive up to Wayne, stay for about ten days, then drive back to Dallas and stay for about five days before I started it all over again.”
Between 2003 and 2005, Barner continuously made the drive to keep his vision a reality and fortunately for the Wayne State community, his commitment did not go unnoticed.
When Barner permanently returned to the Wayne area in 2005 he was approached by then Nebraska Businessman of the Year, Rod Tompkins, who noticed Barner's commitment. The Wayne State Rugby club was a highly competitive team for DII in that region and Tompkins wanted to help continue the growing tradition of winning.
Tompkins decided to help out in the biggest way possible, by giving Barner, the city of Wayne, and Wayne State College of Nebraska a rugby complex at the edge of town. Tompkins purchased a 25-acre cornfield and transformed it into a five-field rugby complex complete with a two-story clubhouse, press box, radio tower, and a place for supporters to sit.
As Barner put it, “The field and club were molded from Adam and Eve. We have an unbelievable set up for small college rugby.” The amazing facilities bring in large crowds to all home matches, men and women. “We have the capacity to seat 700 people and when that gets full, they can sit on the grass of the bowl-shaped match pitch and enjoy the game.”
Rugby season in Wayne has brought about a new activity to the small, yet highly supportive community. Barner describes match day as a scene from an NFL or major college football game, “We have had Russian MIGs fly over, Blackhawk helicopters land on the field, and we have all our home games broadcast live over the radio.”
The Wayne State Rugby Club is a club that has the men and women sometimes practice together, go bowling together, and help out the community together. “I’ll have the players show up at 4:00 p.m. and at 4:01 I will say practice is cancelled because we are going to hang up Christmas lights at the retirement home.”
Barner does not stress winning as a coach, he feels that a constant focus on winning can take a team the other way, “Sometimes you have coaches who are only focused on winning and not focused on the love of the game and having fun. When that happens I think the focus on winning turns into a negative focus that can promote losing.”
The 70-person club is unique in that no one has to try-out to become a member; all they have to do is show up to practice and have a good attitude. It's a positive environment and is lots of fun, as it should be.
“We have had five of our girls win homecoming queen...and we have had nine couples married as a result of meeting while playing rugby. In fact, one of the couples was married under the posts. They figured that they met on the pitch so why not get married on the pitch.”
Perhaps one of Barner’s proudest doings is his organization of the Battle on the Nebraska Prairie Rugby Tournament, or what he calls the “Meet in the Middle Tournament” each spring. It is a 90-team tournament with competitors from across the nation that meet in the middle of the country to prove themselves on the pitch.
With so many energetic college ruggers coming into town you may expect some mishaps that would lead to community backlash against the competition. This is not the case in Wayne and not the case for Barner.
“We have never had a tournament get out of hand. Ever,” said Barner who credits this area of success to his captains meeting and the culmination of the tournament at the local Wayne dance hall.
“I give the toughest captains meeting you’ve ever heard. After the meeting everyone knows that while you're playing your matches and interacting with the community it’s 'yes ma’am' and 'thank you ma’am.' All horseplay is saved for the live music and legendary times within the dance hall.”
As the club grows so do Barner’s responsibilities. “The head coaching position requires many different hats due to the large amount of responsibilities, so each season it is becoming less of a part-time job and more of a full-time job.”
To balance a work life and coaching position can be time consuming and stressful but it is something he loves to do.
Barner’s commitment to the Wayne State Rugby Club and the community alike are highly admirable and show the strong values he has, as well as total dedication to rugby and his hometown.
He is truly a great personality in the ever-evolving story of American rugby and warmly welcomes all into the game he has grown to love. If you are ever in Wayne, Nebraska, drive through the small 12-block town and you will likely find Barner at the rugby pitch working hard like he always does. Stop by. Have a chat. It will be one you likely won't forget.
By: David Halvorson Jr.
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