INTERVIEW: Highland High's Larry Gelwix


Larry Gelwix

The most dominant team in the history of US high school rugby is indisputably Highland High School of Salt Lake City, Utah. Of the 20 National Championships that have been contested since 1981, Highland has won twelve times, finished second three times, and taken third place once. In 1998 Highland finished third in the World Schools Rugby Championship, which featured champion high school sides from countries all around the world.
The cumulative 26-year record of Highland’s senior side is 346-27-6. Because of the strength of the program, they sometimes play university and club teams, usually second sides, compiling a 47-14-2 record against this level of opposition. Against international high school teams, Highland is 19-6-1.
With a nine-man coaching staff and holding practices five days a week, Highland must be considered one of the most organized and successful rugby clubs at any level in the United States.
The man behind Highland’s success is 50-year old head coach Larry Gelwix, who started the Highland program 26 years ago. Gelwix was introduced to the game of rugby at Brigham Young University and later played with the Provo RFC.
A highly successful travel industry executive, Larry, his wife Cathy and five children live in Salt Lake City.
Rugby editor Ed Hagerty interviewed Larry on April 11th in New York City, where Highland was headquartered during a three game tour of the area.

RUGBY: You’ve been coaching at Highland High School for 26 years. What’s kept you going for so long?
It’s a love of the game and, in particular, seeing what sports such as rugby can do in building young men. Rugby helps them keep their feet on the ground and their heads screwed on. If it was only about rugby, I would have retired a long time ago but we, as coaches and youth leaders, have a tremendous opportunity to have a positive affect on the lives of the young men we coach.

RUGBY: What got you started coaching at Highland?
When I graduated from Brigham Young University I took a teaching position at Highland and also coached football and wrestling. Since football is a fall sport and wrestling a winter sport, I decided that our athletes needed something in the spring. So in 1975 I started a high school rugby team, the very first in Utah, and it just kind of grew from there.

RUGBY: Did you play other sports besides rugby?
I played football and wrestled in high school. I picked up rugby at the collegiate level and just fell in love with the game.

RUGBY: In the 20 years that we’ve kept records, Highland has won the National High School Championship twelve times, finished second four times and third once. How do you account for this incredible dominance?
Part of our success is a hard work. I can’t imagine anyone out-coaching or out-working us in preparation for a game. We try and teach the overall concept of the game, not just Xs and Os. We want the boys understand the game from a team perspective. We develop a game plan for every opponent; you won’t see us play the same against two different teams.
We’re are also able to attract top athletes. We typically have over one hundred kids in the program and have installed a comprehensive, year round strength and conditioning program the boys do outside of practice. We track their progress with a computer program that measures improvements in speed, strength, and agility. This information is critical in our player selection.
We are also fortunate to have the services of a licensed sports trainer (Rick Spencer) at every practice and game, and an orthopedic surgeon (Dr. Craig McQueen) at all games, including on tour. Both have been with Highland for 10 years. Detailed files are kept on all injured players they work with Rick and/or Dr. McQueen on rehab programs.
We have an ambulance on site at all home matches. And hopefully we will never need it!

RUGBY: Is Highland High School competitive in mainstream athletics?
Highland, which has about 1,600 students in grades nine through twelve, has traditionally been an athletic powerhouse in Utah. It has very strong football, basketball and soccer programs.

RUGBY: Do all hundred of those kids get to play?
Yes they do, but not on the senior side, which carries a roster of 25. We schedule second, third, and fourth side games and our league has an open substitution rule for lower side games. Other schools have second sides and we’re able to rotate players so that everybody plays every week.

RUGBY: Does the school support rugby financially?
We are a self-funded club sport and receive no financing from the school. But we could not have a better situation at the school. We have a locker room, our own practice field, access to classrooms and the gymnasium. We’re in the yearbook, in assemblies and included in accouncements. We have the full support of the school administration, the faculty and the community.

RUGBY: But rugby is not a varsity sport. Is that just a technicality?
It really is. In Utah an individual school cannot designate a sport as varsity. Under Utah High School Activities Association Rules, over half of the schools must agree to play a sport in order for it to have varsity status; and that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Expect for the funding, we have the full and unmitigated support of our administration and school.

RUGBY: How does the Highland student body view rugby?
Rugby has really become the cool sport at school. We have a no-cut policy and over a hundred kids turn out. We feel that if the kids are willing to work, we’re not going to turn them away.
A lot of kids want to be a part of something and out of the hundred aspiring players, about a third have some real athletic ability, a third have little athletic ability, and the other third are somewhere in between.
We get large turnouts to our games. We played a touring side from England last Saturday and probably had 3,000 people at the game.

RUGBY: Where do you play your games?
Highland has its own dedicated rugby pitch off campus, which is one of the finest facilities in the country. We have a full sized field with permanent, super-tall goal posts and an electronic scoreboard. We have lockers and showers at the field and covered stadium seating that will accommodate 3,500.

RUGBY: How did you come by this facility?
It’s in Murray City Park and two of the three county commissioners are personal friends of mine. I’ve helped them out in their campaigns and was able to convince them to convert it into a dedicated rugby field.

RUGBY: What kind of tenure do you have on the field?
We have an agreement in perpetuity. During our season - March, April and May - it is a high school rugby field and we have first reservations on it. Soccer teams use it in the fall, but the goal posts are permanent and it’s used exclusively for rugby during the spring.

RUGBY: How many games a year do you play?
We usually have fourteen to fifteen games before Nationals.

RUGBY: Describe a typical Highland practice.
Because we have such a short season, we have to quickly get match fit and game experience. During the first half of the season we play twice a week: Wednesdays and Saturdays. We tape all of our games and on a typical Monday the boys get together in a classroom and watch a video that the coaches have broken down over the weekend. We talk about what we did well and what we need to work on.
In American rugby at all levels, players fail to get low in rucks and mauls. You can tell players over and over again, “You’re too high, you’re too high,” but until they actually see it, they’re not going to improve. After analyzing film, we’ll go out for a light run and work on some technical skills.
Tuesday is individual skills for individual positions. We try and work a lot on ball handling and things like that.
Assuming we don’t have a match, Wednesday is devoted to team skills. On Thursdays we work on team skills and set plays.
On Friday our nine-man coaching staff establishes a game plan for Saturday’s opponent. And then we walk through our game plan; actually playing a game without opposition. Our starting 15 will walk through the game as we think it will develop based upon our next opponent, and play situational rugby. We’ll take a situation (e.g. scrum down, opposition ball on our five) and then determine our tactics. We want the boys to react almost without thinking.
And so the boys have, in a sense, played the game before the game has been played.

RUGBY: Many of Highland’s best players are Polynesians. Why is this the case?
We’re very fortunate to have a large Polynesian community in Salt Lake City. In the greater Salt Lake area there are over 50,000 Polynesians, most of them Tongan. Keeping in mind that the entire population of the Kingdom of Tonga is only one hundred thousand, 50,000 is a huge number. Highland is also a designated ESL school (English as a second language). Thirty-seven languages other than English are first languages. When immigrants come to the Salt Lake area, they are sent to Highland to work on their English skills.
Polynesians seem to congregate. There are also large populations in both Southern and Northern California.
A lot of them come to Salt Lake City for religious reasons and a desire to keep their ethnic community. Polynesians make up less than 1% of the state’s population but constitute six percent of all the football players at the high school level.

RUGBY: Do you get many football players on the team?
Most of our rugby players also play football. Not all, but most.

RUGBY: How do the Highland football coaches view rugby?
They are very supportive; in fact, they encourage it. We are not allowed to have spring practice at the high school level in Utah, so the Highland football coaches refer to rugby as their spring practice. Rugby gets the boys fit, teaches a team concept, ball handling skills, footwork and the coaches see tremendous crossover benefits.

RUGBY: Do students come to Highland because of its rugby program?
Yes they do. We’ve had a number of students transfer to Highland so that they could play rugby in our program.

RUGBY: You have a nine person coaching staff. Are any of these guys paid?

RUGBY: Somebody has to be reaching into his pocket to fund your program, which is very professional. How is it funded?
The coaching staff donates their time to the program. Most are former players who have gone on to play at the college and club levels and they have a deep commitment to the Highland program. We also have a very organized parents’ booster committee that handles fund-raising, tee shirt sales, programs, publicity, anything you can imagine a booster club doing. Thanks to them, we are entirely self-funded.

RUGBY: Are these current parents or people who became involved when their kids played years ago?
Most are parents of current players, but we do have a lot of people whose children have previously played. I’ve got boys on the team now whose fathers I coached. After 26 years thousands of boys have gone through the program.

RUGBY: Despite Highland’s accomplishments at the high school level, to my knowledge it has only produced one Eagle. Could you tell us why that’s the case?
I wish it were different, but there are a couple of reasons. Up until a couple of years ago, there was only one quality college program, Brigham Young University, in the state of Utah. The University of Utah has recently resurrected itself and become a very, good program, but that’s only happened in the last couple of years.
But traditionally, Brigham Young, a private school, was the only quality program in the state. And most of the high school graduates in the Salt Lake area go to the University of Utah because they can live at home and it’s less expensive.
So what you had were players leaving the highly organized Highland program and going to Utah, which was just a disorganized mess. And they wouldn’t stay with it.
Some played for Brigham Young, but for religious reasons BYU does not play on Sundays, so you’d never see them at the National Collegiate Championships. I wish it were different because Brigham Young is such a good team. But as a consequence their players get very little exposure.
Also, in the Mormon faith, when young men reach the age of 19 they do a two-year, voluntary missionary service; the guys in the white shirts and ties that you see out there. I did that as a young man, my oldest son did, and I assume my ten-year old son will also. So you take players out of the game for two years, and when they come back their priorities sometimes change.
I often wonder, however, if our attrition rate is any greater than that of other schools, particularly isolated schools in what I call the rugby hinterlands. Most of our Eagles come out of the large, populated areas of the West and East Coasts, Aspen being an anomaly.

RUGBY: Does Highland have problems with violence that, unfortunately, has come to be associated with rugby in Utah?
Utah has had more than its fair share of violence. Two senior teams were suspended by the Union last year for violent play. But at the high school level we’ve taken a very strong stand against violence.
It starts with the coaches and we just don’t tolerate it.

RUGBY: What changes have you seen in high school rugby over the years?
In the 26 years I’ve coached, I see much better coaching and much better athletes today. The players are bigger, faster and stronger. Years ago it was pretty simple rugby: get the ball and run straight ahead. The skill level of today’s players is much higher and the game schemes are much more sophisticated. We’re developing our own game of rugby using American skill and an American style, rather than trying to copy something else.

RUGBY: Do you think USA Rugby provides high school rugby with the proper support?

RUGBY: What more do you think they could be doing?
USA Rugby is doing a much better job in helping with coaching clinics and the new Youth Development Officers have been a big help.
But where high school rugby really needs help is on the organizational level. Most US programs are more high school age than high school sponsored, and they sometimes run in conflict with the local school. You frequently hear horror stories about programs having conflicts with their administration or football coach.
We need comprehensive manuals on “How to start and run a program” and “How to resolve conflicts with your high school” That’s an area that USA Rugby needs to address.

RUGBY: What are the strengths of high school rugby?
The real strength of US high school rugby is athleticism; the access it gives us to bigger, faster, stronger players. These players understand and are attracted to organized sports programs and have a commitment to excellence. They want to do better and they’re so coachable. You’re not dealing with primadonas.
If we can harness the potential of high school rugby, we will do very well.
RUGBY: What do you see as the weakness of high school rugby?
Kids today have so many choices, putting rugby in conflict with other sports. There are probably a half dozen sports they can play in the spring. Lack of exposure to the game is also a hindrance.
We need more high quality coaches, referees and facilities. The transition from high school to college rugby is very difficult and the attrition level, I suspect, is very, very high.

RUGBY: The USA is currently competing in the U-19 Cup in Santiago, yet none of your players are on the team. Why aren’t they there?
David Black, last year’s captain, is playing for them but, frankly, the Under-19 squad has shown little interest in our players, so I guess you should ask them that question.

RUGBY: I noticed that the coaching staff and players all had similar clothing. What’s the significance of that?
Highland always travels in uniform. The team and staff has “number ones”, which are matching coat tie and slacks, and “number twos”, which are matching slacks and polo shirts with our team logo. You’ll never see us on the field with torn uniforms, different colored shorts, socks or jerseys. And you’ll never see us in anything but clean uniforms. If the boys were ragtag, they’d be embarrassed and wouldn’t want to be out there on the field.
You’ve got to create an identity, an image of who you are. We have team mottos, like kia kaha, which is Maori for ‘forever strong’. We talk to the boys about being forever strong in their schoolwork, forever strong in their personal and family life, forever strong in their faith and career decisions and forever strong in Highland rugby. We have tee shirts, pins, ties and other things to establish who you are.
We identify a set of values on the team. I don’t mean to be on a crusade, but we have team rules: for example, no alcohol, drugs or tobacco. We don’t tolerate foul language. We even have an honesty code that you don’t lie. If you lie to your parents or to a teacher, if you cheat on a test, you are suspended from the team.
We’re not only trying to create good rugby players, but good citizens. We’re using rugby and organized sport as a vehicle for good citizenship, success in your college career, your family or marriage some day.
All these things come as a result of who we are. We try to establish team and personal values and goals in the players’ lives and our uniforms and team clothing are outward manifestations of our identity.
If it were only about rugby, I would have retired a long time ago, but it’s a lot more than that. When teams establish an identity with goals and values they won’t tolerate a lot of the things that get us in trouble. One of the reasons for the great successes of the Jesuit high school programs is the disciplined, structured environment that the Jesuits operate in. The boys thrive in that; they need and want discipline, and that’s the environment we’re trying to provide them with.