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Rugby coach Robert Wilson’s commitment to team stretches beyond the pitch

Chris Ern

Oct 3, 2022


Forty-two years ago, Bob Wilson asked himself what he considered important in his career. He could only come up cooking and coaching.

Since then, he’s continued to pursue the latter as the head coach of Syracuse men’s club rugby program. Wilson established one of the most successful club sports in Syracuse history and has led the Hammerheads to three straight first-place finishes in the Empire Rugby Conference.

“The game is constantly changing and it’s growing,” Wilson said. “I have to do as much as I can to keep up with the changes in the game, which is interesting, staying with the curve if not ahead of the curve.”

Growing up in England, Wilson’s high school did not have programs to fuel his love for soccer, so he looked for alternatives. He found rugby, something that “forced” him out of his comfort zone.

The sport then became Wilson’s gateway to the United States after getting recruited as a player-coach at Syracuse in 1970. He returned to England for 10 years before coming back to SU to take up the head coaching position.

Since Wilson took over, rugby has grown in popularity throughout the U.S. He said that the regular season will be exciting, since Syracuse will now be competing in a restructured Empire Division — now called Division-I West — with “no weaker opponents.” In the postseason, the Hammerheads will continue to compete in the tougher Liberty Conference.

In the previous three fall seasons, the Hammerheads finished the regular-season undefeated in the Empire Division, competing against in-state teams such as Colgate. Syracuse finished fourth in the Liberty Conference playoffs last fall, losing to Fordham.

After each game, Wilson works with his players individually, second-year captain Liam Hannah said, and gives personalized feedback on how they can improve. Wilson also recommends special drills and equipment they can use to enhance their skills.

“I played for an elite high school rugby program, but anyone close to me can assuredly say that I have significantly improved since going under (Wilson’s) instruction,” Hannah said.

Wilson’s commitment stretches off the pitch as he focuses on each student’s academics, connecting them with each other in case someone needs tutoring, Hannah said. Junior Jack Oberlander said Wilson has pushed him past his potential.

“Beyond the field, coach Wilson and Syracuse Rugby have pushed me to grow into a mature adult who is prepared for the real world,” Oberlander said.

Wilson said the program’s success stems from his focus on camaraderie and cohesion within the team.

“One of our greatest assets is unity,” Wilson said. “If we can rally around a common vision and dedicate ourselves to playing our part, then it is going to improve our performance.”

Wilson has applied the single-goal mindset in the academic sphere through his work as the director of the Student Support Services Program, which provides additional academic resources to first-generation college students. Through routine advisor check-ins and a six-week summer program, SSS helps its students advocate for themselves and be proactive in their college experience and careers.

“It’s great work. It’s very purposeful,” said Wilson, who directed the SSS for 12 years until retiring from the role in 2020. “To be a part of that journey for students moving along has been very satisfying for me.”

Wilson has continued to work for the SSS so he can see the students from his summer program graduate. Craig Tucker, the current director of the SSS, said Wilson’s commitment, loyalty and passion to SSS, similar to his work with the rugby team, has provided the foundation for the program to succeed in the future.

“I feel extremely fortunate for the career path I’ve had,” Wilson said.

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