An Open Letter to the W&M RFC from Whitney Lester,March 2012


I write you today in regards to Cary Kennedyís e-mail

"Alumni,Players,Coaches,VRU Collegiate Coordinator,VRU President, After some frank discussions with our student officers this week,we have determined that it is in the best interests for all concerned that I step away from the head coaching post effective immediately. The timing could have been better but I respect the desire of the student officers to have a greater role in the selection process with the authority and responsibility that is implied. I am proud of our student officers and all our players. I know you will succeed. Go Tribe Rugby! Respectfully submitted, Cary Kennedy"

about his immediate departure from the club after over thirty years as its coach, leader, and lifeblood. Merely an interested alum, I concede to knowing nothing of the day-to-day operations and working relationships that you have had with Cary throughout this laudably successful stretch. I cannot know all that factored into the decision to let him walk away from the organization. I only hope there are avenues through which it can be reconsidered. Iím trying hard not to come off as some cantankerous, old guy with stale, misconceived notions of what college rugby clubs should be . . . but I probably will. Please bear with me and hear me out.

Itís worth mentioning that not only does Cary Kennedy have no idea I am sending these thoughts your way, heíd almost assuredly disapprove of my doing so. Based on what he has told some of the inquiring minds of the alumni, he believes he shoulders the lionís share of the blame for this situation and even commended your group on your solidarity and your guts. He doesnít want any distractions for the critically important matches ahead. I apologize for generating such a distraction, but after a few of my old teammates reached out in shock and disappointment, I put a few of our thoughts in writing; for us to sit idly by is to ignore the good that Cary has wrought for three decades.

Through the course of his ludicrously long tenure at the helm, there have been W&M squads good and bad, seasons heroic and wretched. More than once Cary saved the team from extinction, and thatís no overstatement. Players and other coaches have helped shoulder that burden and deserve their own credit, but like James Earl Jones spoke of baseball through the ages, the one constant in William & Mary Rugby Football was Cary Kennedy. He was there before most of us arrived. He served as the resident guru and rugby savant while we were in school, equal parts Mr. Miyagi, Mr. Spock, and Mr. Magoo. And he is supposed to be there forever after. I think this is why you can expect to see some vociferous push-back from the large alumni base; to us, Cary Kennedy is Tribe rugby, and his unceremonious jettison for anything other than extreme and universally understandable circumstances will never be well received. Someday far into the future, Cary is supposed to die alongside IM 1 after some young ladís match-winning dive into the near corner of the try zone. His ashes will be spread on that pitch, as well as at Matthew Whaley, Christiana Campbellís Tavern, and Ground Zero. And we will drink from his old boot as we regale each other with ridiculous stories of the man.

But I am not asking you good sirs to reconsider severing ties with Cary Kennedy for his sake Ė itís for your sake, and the sake of the program for years to come.

Look, theyíre not all wistful, fond memories. There have been quite a few times when I, too, have questioned the wisdom, knowledge, relevance, capability, and sanity of Cary Kennedy. The guy pissed me off. I thought he was missing the point. I thought he took too hard-line a stance. I thought he was a stubborn old bastard. I thought heíd lost it. (This was 1989, mind you.) I thought he didnít get it, and I thought he didnít care.

I was wrong in each case, most egregiously about him not caring. Well, I was right about the stubborn old bastard part, as you have come to realize.

But I mean, we wore burlap pinneys in practice for a while. We were made to execute a practice drill wherein we ran backwards and threw forwards. We were shown old videos of international matches so grainy that we couldnít actually make out what was going on. These brainchildren of our coach made no sense at the time. But now, years later . . . hell, they still donít.

To boot . . . (a) I was made to practice in madras shorts and leather church shoes one Thursday or sit out the Saturday match. (b) Seemingly every Thursday we balked at Caryís final word on selections. (c) I was moved from 8-man, a position I played and loved the two years prior, to outside center my last year there. (d) The strongest kid in the pack was moved to the back line. (e) On our Bermuda trip, Cary insisted on putting Bruce Weaver (6í3Ē, loves hitting people, excellent pack push, absolutely no foot) at fullback. (f) And Cary foolishly entered us in a 40-team Sevens tournament at Cape Fear; we were the 39-seed, and our patchwork side was overhyped even at that ranking. These brainchildren of our coach also made no sense at the time.

Except . . . (a) years later, I get the lesson that playing for that club was a privilege not to be taken for granted like I was doing. (b) Some selections worked out, some didnít, but our eventual realization that what we knew about rugby could fit neatly in the shot glass next to the keg of his experience was a much-needed humbling. (c) The move to outside center was one of the coolest seasons I played, and I can now mock the guys on the back line with credibility. (d) The strongest kid in the pack was Brian Hightower, who went on to great things. (e) Given the makeshift side we were sporting, that was the only way he could get the 15 guys on the pitch whoíd give us the best chance against the Bermudians; as a result, Bruce made some of the best hits of the week, many of which didnít involve Goslingís rum. (f) And our 39-seed team rattled off three victories on Saturday, several scores Saturday night, four vomits Sunday morning, three more wins that day, and a trip to the finals over at UNC-Wilmingtonís stadium. Man, would that be a better story if weíd won that final.

Like many artists, Cary Kennedy is unappreciated during his own time. Unlike some of the masters, however, itís only a handful of years -- not centuries -- later that you end up seeing his greatness. We get it; Caryís a big-picture guy, and you guys are in a win-right-now situation. Frustrations with his approach are understandable, but if your choices are either to endure decisions you disagree with or separate yourself from all he can offer, there should be no choice at all.

Perhaps our alma materís recent rugby history has had the kind of lows that make the current successful campaign seem unprecedented and singular, but the Tribe RFC has seen salad days before. Iíd put our 1990 top-ranked side against any, with six select-side players and a future Eagle among us. That squad certainly thought we had it all figured out; we were surely headed where no W&M team in recent history had gone, and I remember us openly questioning the wisdom of our old coachís strategy and selection vetoes. When Madison trounced our Ed Lee chances that fall, Cary opened himself up for the blame, because thatís just what he does. All I know is Iíd like to have seen what we could have done if we had just shut the hell up and played ball the way he taught us.

Maybe these stories donít resonate at all; maybe the issues youíre dealing with have nothing to do with the way your predecessors have contended with Cary. Maybe the only lesson to take away from this is that our collegeís club has been good before, weíre good now, and we will be good at intervals in the future. The title youíre currently poised to battle for has Tribe ruggers young and old exhilarated; itís great stuff, and beyond this consternation, we will continue to root for you throughout. But please understand that as things sit now, no matter what happens this season, the legacy your squad will bear in the annals of William & Mary Rugby will not be ďthe team that won the championship,Ē but will instead Ė unfortunately, inexorably Ė be ďthe guys that got rid of Cary.Ē Please donít take that as some meager threat from some crabby alum; thirty-some years of guys who owe their introduction to this amazing sport and many of their best college moments to Cary will confirm that they canít help feeling this way.

As much as I conceded my own ignorance of the current pulse of the club, I am hopeful that each current player would concede some amount of perspective to those who have been around as long as we have. This sport and its collective representation from the College of William & Mary are much, much larger than any individual who ever threw on the green and gold for eighty minutes of rucking and mauling. That realization can only come with time, I know. Whatís funny is that as I type that, Iím inclined to asterisk it . . . it might not be larger than Cary.

Five years from now, all of you Ė unless you were a student like me Ė will have moved on from Williamsburg. You donít give a damn now about how connected the alums are with the current team (we never did), but you will, as you will become one. You will love the fact that there is a Cary Kennedy that connects us all through the decades. You will appreciate him, and you will grow to admire him where you used to combat him. Frustration with his stubbornness will fade quickly into amazement that the guy can give selflessly of himself to the spirit of the club and the sport, volunteering time and insight without any compensation for 30 years.

I have to underscore that last part. Itís unheard of. Youíll travel around the world meeting people for years and not find many, if any, people like this guy. I mean, seriously . . . can you show me any college club rugby coach who has remained as dedicated and venerable an overseer as Cary? In my 19 years since graduation, Iíve come across just one old wingnut who even vaguely approximated the fanaticism and commitment that Cary has, a hard-drinking philosopher named John Howe. He coached American Universityís squad for years, and I traveled with him and 13 AU old boys to a Six Nations match in Cardiff a dozen years ago. The guyís dedication to his program was the only time Iíve been reminded of our old skipper. But John Howe only coached for 14 years before moving on. Cary is a simply holdover from some other time, maybe some other planet. Heís a relic in the good karma sense, not merely the old body part way, and he should be treated as such.

The legions of Tribe rugby alums seem optimistic that somewhere down the line Cary Kennedy will be reunited with the William & Mary rugby team. The program needs him, despite your current sentiments, and he needs the program just as much, despite his current sentiments. I implore you to consider the larger consequences of this separation and the possibility of remedying it sooner rather than later. Utterly heavy-handed as this all sounds, the handful of folks Iíve spoken with all believe there will be regret and remorse in the aftermath of this issue, so we thought weíd attempt to rudely interject ourselves where we have no business.

I apologize for a mightily verbose message; it goes without saying that the guy means an awful lot to an awful lot of us, and I thought Iíd try to articulate why it is we are so disappointed and dismayed by this turn of events. Appreciation and perspective are impossible to convey, and this may all be in vain. Please understand how proud and pleased we are with your teamís incredible run. We wish you all the best in the weeks ahead, and it goes without saying that nobody will be cheering for you more loudly than Cary Kennedy.

Best regards,

Whitney Lester
W&M RFC 1988-1992

For what it's worth, well written. My initial reaction was that the letter was preposterously long given the subject and I had no intention of reading it. But then I got sucked in. Like the others, I hope it has an impact.

Chris White, '06

I have been telling Tribe rugby tales of glory for 25 years. To be candid, rather recount our sometimes less than dazzling exploits on the pitch during this particular building period, they tend to focus on our prowess at rugby parties, not one of which did the Fab Fifteen lose in the mid-80s, certainly the best years I had.

Its quite a testament to your influence throughout the years to see the response from different generations of ruggers. I stand among them and simply say thanks for the memories.

Peace brother...

Nick Huth
Hooker '83-'87

I would also like to know what the circumstances of this are. It DOES seem like a "thief in the night"-esque situation, and I would have thought that the end of Cary's time as coach would have been better announced around some beers at homecoming, in a more positive manner. I'm wondering if those student officers involved in the "frank discussion" realize that Cary Kennedy IS Tribe Rugby and that it probably wouldn't exist without him. As someone who has donated money to help the current club (a channel that Cary was instrumental in setting up, BTW), I'd simply like to know what's going on.

In any case, kudos to Cary for all the time and effort he's put into keeping the club alive, inspiring players, and passing on his infinite rugby knowledge. I remember being a bit apprehensive walking onto the practice pitch for the first time in 1993, being an "older" student (27) and wondering if I was too old to hang with the youngsters. Fortunately, some old coach was actively participating in the practices and drills, and I figured that if that old geezer could do it, I'd have no problems :).

Of course, his efforts in continually restoring that hunk of affectionate junk that we called a scrum sled is also a fond memory, not to mention his sitting on it while we pushed it around, urging us on with words like "imagine you're viking invaders...."

Thanks Cary!

Ron Kramer

I also hope that the current squad is getting these emails and that their Natty Light goggles permit them to read them.

At the risk of opening myself up to some serious tooling upon by my contemporaries on this list, Brother Whitney's open letter could not be any more spot on, both in sentiment and in substance. I could not ever hope to say it any better. He does his alma mater proud with that prose.

I chime in only to assure the current squad that Whitney's thoughts are not just the rambling of some really old codger reminiscing on his glory days and wagging his finger at a bunch of young whipper snappers. (There may be some of that, but it isn't JUST that.) I'm over a decade younger than Whitney and less than a decade older than the current seniors. And if I could write as well as Whitney, I'd have said the same thing.

Like the squad Whitney describes from his days, and like the current squad that I observed when I watched them play UVA earlier this spring here in Charlottesville, my squad was, at the very least, a legend in our own minds. We were decent, maybe even good, but we thought we were great.

And we thought we knew better than that addled old guy laying on his back offering zen meditations to the front row while we held position on the scrum machine for minutes at a time. We thought we knew better than the shaggy haired old hippy making us play walking touch rugby. And on more than one occassion, when we were feeling particularly mutinous, we considered getting rid of him. This was our club, dammit, not his. But cooler heads prevailed, or maybe we just got distracted, or drunk, or whatever. Whatever the explanation, not pulling that trigger was probably the best play our team ever made.

For better or worse, Cary is the father of W&M Rugby. And (disclaimer: here comes some old codgery finger wagging), it took me until I was thirty to realize, or maybe just to admit, that everything my father ever said was true and for the best. I'd say the same for Cary.

We should all be thankful for what Cary has done these many years, and I hope this situation can be resolved.

Kyle Mcnew

Amen to that. Thanks, Whitney, for laying the foundation for what is shaping up like some kind of "Old School" remake. You can play the Will Ferrell role. You da man, Cary!

Tim Sampson '87-'91

Well put Whitney... more diplomatic. My instinct is just to ruck over...

Hans Lombardo '88-'92

Thanks for everything you taught me, my teammates and those who came before and after. You taught me more about life than any professor.

Brendan Hook