Rob Hoadley’s Path to MLR Coach of the Year
It’s hard to find any coach at any level that operates a program quite like San Diego Legion head coach and Major League Rugby’s 2019 Coach of the Year Rob Hoadley operates his.
The unique way he coaches his players and runs his program is a large part of the reason he led his Legion team to a 12-3-1 regular season record, a table-topping 61 points, an MLR Championship berth and one defensive stand away from the Championship Shield.
“What we always say here in San Diego is that we want to have the best rugby experience of our careers here,” Hoadley says of the way the Legion operates. “If you’re not enjoying playing professional rugby, what are you doing? We’ve got a great passion for what we do. We absolutely love what we do. We love the people we work with. We love the community here in San Diego, and we are going to take advantage of that every day. We are going to work bloody hard.”
Hoadley is the first to admit that the gutting loss to the defending champion Seattle Seawolves still stings two months later, but it certainly doesn’t diminish anything that he and the Legion accomplished in their second season.
“To be honest with you, the only recognition we want is the championship,” Hoadley said with a laugh. “That’s all we’re thinking about. I just think about the championship and nothing else, but I would like to use it [the 2019 MLR Coach of the Year award] to give some of the recognition to the rest of the staff who have been amazing.”
“While I’m sure he would trade in his Coach of the Year award for that MLR shield, you cannot take away the amazing success Rob and the Legion had in 2019,” MLR commentator Dan Power said of Hoadley. “Some great recruiting, brilliant tactical game plan adjustments along with Rob’s ability to engage his players were the hallmarks to his and the Legions successes this year. Excited to see what the next few seasons hold for Rob in the MLR.”
His championship mentality and the route he takes to achieve his goals are the things that make Hoadley special. He knows that it takes a village to run a rugby team, and Hoadley credits everyone who makes up the organization for transforming it into the championship contender that it is.
“I think it’s more of a reflection of the environment that we’ve created,” Hoadley said of being voted the 2019 MLR Coach of the Year. “I think it’s more recognition for the coaching staff as a whole and the organization as a whole rather than an individual thing. That’s the way we look at it.”
Regardless of the setting, getting a group of people to buy in and do what’s necessary to achieve a common goal is never an easy task. That’s what a coach has to do even before installing game plans, implementing schemes, and creating plays. Instead of making his players conform to what he wants, Hoadley has built his team to form around the things that drive his players.
“We are going to align everything that we do to our values as a team,” Hoadley explained. “But more than that, we are going to get to know the player on an individual basis. It’s all very well and good saying that we are going build it on our values and these are our values, but how Mikey Te’o lines up his life and what’s important to him is different than how I do, or how Zack Test does or Nate Augspurger does. So, what we do, within our values is different pillars that allow you as an individual to bring your hierarchy of values. What are your unconscious drivers? Because we all have drivers in life. Things that are going to make us act in a certain way. So we are going to dig into them with each individual and see how are the most important things in your life going to play into our team values so you can see that what we are doing as a team is supporting what you need in your life. It’s a great process. We love that and I think by starting off with every single player in that way we get a lot of buy-in.”
This method has resulted in playoff berths in back-to-back seasons. It helped six of his players earn All-MLR honors in 2019 and is a large part of the reason the Legion rocket ship to the moon has plenty of fuel left in the tank.
“It’s a really collaborative process,” Hoadley said. “Everyone’s got a voice in the room. There’s no real hierarchy. We are going to work on it together and I think that shows up in the relationship that Zack Test and Scott Murray have with the players. They are just outstanding assets. I think our whole staff here, they buy into what we are doing. It’s a very unified environment. I have to give so much credit to the staff members including Oscar Alvarez, Jason Huntley and Matt Andreolli.”
The culture he has created has not gone unnoticed in the rugby community.
“Culture is important to Rob and it is evident in everything the Legion does,” MLR commentator Pete Steinberg said of Hoadley. “That has laid a very strong foundation that will last for years within the organization.”
On top of all that, the way he attacks every day is infectious.
“I would describe the way Rob coaches as passionate and dedicated,” Test said. “He has one of the most contagious work ethics I have ever seen. He truly inspires you to grow and think of every detail necessary on the pathway to success. He always learning new ways of presenting a concept whilst caring about each player, staff member, and fan as family.”
“I’ve actually played three years for Coach Hoadley,” Legion wing Mike Te’o said of Hoadley in May. “I don’t think there is another head coach that works as hard as him. He’s on it 24/7. He loves every little bit. He cares about every player and just worries about every little detail. Having a coach like that, that works that hard, you can only want to work hard for him as well.”
Hoadley’s refreshing approach to running the Legion has been molded by stops at some of the top rugby clubs all over the world. Despite being just 39 years old, Hoadley has coached teams at the highest level in three different countries.
“What makes any coach different from the next is their background and how they got to the place they are in now,” former U.S. Eagle and the Legion’s current academy director and backs coach Zack Test said of Hoadley’s background. “Rob grew up learning and loving this game from a young age. He was able to play at one of the top clubs in England and help that club win multiple titles. He then learned under one of the best defensive minds in the game and took his passion for defense and coaching to another level. He has coached all over the world, at all different levels and in different languages. A coach that can see different cultures, game plans, skills levels and professional setups will have a great understanding of what it will take to grow the MLR in the US to the level it deserves.”
His rugby journey began as a five-year-old with the London Irish. He made his senior debut with the Irish at 19 years old in 1999.
“That was obviously a dream of mine and I had an amazing time there going from the mini ranks through to the seniors,” Hoadley recalled.
After five years with the Irish, Hoadley packed his bags at 24 and headed over to the London Wasps.
“Played five years at London Irish and then when I was 24 in 2004, I signed with the London Wasps and had an incredible time there,” Hoadley says. “I think we won a trophy in my first five years there. Just an unbelievable experience getting to compete with some of the biggest names of the game and the best teams in Europe and some of the best coaches in the world. It was an incredible experience for me.”
It was during his stint with the Wasps that Hoadley developed his love for coaching. After an injury kept him sidelined during weeks leading up to an appearance in the Final, Head Coach Shaun Edwards asked if he could help prepare the team.
“We did a lot together that week preparing defense, and Shaun just said to me, ‘You’ve got a future in coaching,’” Hoadley said. “In fact, Wasps sort of created a coaching role for me that didn’t exist at that time and I was very fortunate. I kind of got to continue my playing career outside of being an assistant to Shaun and then when Shaun left, I took over his role as defense coach at Wasps. Shaun was a great mentor of mine along with Gats [Warren Gatland] and Brendan Venter who was at London Irish. I had a great learning ground there and then enjoyed a couple of years at defense coach at Wasps after that.”
After his time at Wasps was over, Hoadley jumped at an opportunity to move to Tokyo and coach attack and defense for the Ricoh Black Rams of Japan’s Top League. This opportunity allowed Hoadley to gain some valuable exposure to a different style of rugby and bank some more experience before making the jump over to the United States.
“After Tokyo, I had always had my eye on coming over to the States,” Hoadley said. “There weren’t really many paid roles then, but I stayed in contact with my good friend Matt Sherman at Stanford University and he managed to create a role for me there which was awesome because that was great for me to see.”
Having now coached in three countries at both the professional and collegiate level, Hoadley began to work his way up the United States coaching ranks. He parlayed his time at Stanford into working with multiple levels of USA Rugby. The exposure to the different levels of rugby helped him gain a better grasp on rugby’s landscape in the United States and eventually led him to San Diego.
“I think I’ve got a good perspective of all sides of the American game now because I started in the University game and from working with them I worked with the All-Americans, and then I worked with the U.S. Eagles National team, and then after working with the National team I went to the San Diego Breakers, did a year there as an assistant, and then we took the reins of the head coach of the Legion.”
PRO Rugby fizzled out after just one season, and Hoadley’s Breakers went 4-8, but the experience was ultimately a good one because he saw what it took to operate a professional rugby team in the United States. That’s why when Major League Rugby and the Legion came along, he was ready to roll.
“All we wanted to do in San Diego was just be ready as a professional entity for whatever iteration of professional rugby would be here,” Hoadley said. “We wanted to be ready with the infrastructure to compete. PRO Rugby was a great testing ground for us. We learned a lot of lessons and then we were ready to take those lessons into MLR. MLR is a different animal and it’s been fantastic to see the way it’s grown.”
Hoadley’s ability to stay ready helped the Legion to a 5-3 record and a 38-24 semi-final loss to the eventual champion Seawolves in the inaugural season, but he made it known to anyone paying attention that he had a special group heading into Year 2.
“What I love about Rob is that he is extremely talented in evaluating his squad depth chart and calculating all possible player scenarios to ensure success during the challenging season,” MLR and Rugby World Cup 2019 commentator Dallen Stanford said. “He told me before it kicked off that his squad could challenge and win the title. A quality coach can assemble a talented team, but it takes a brilliant coach to get the best out of his players, which he did this past season.”
The Legion’s spectacular season was just the beginning of what is shaping up to be a fantastic tenure. Finding the right head coach is a task that can take an organization years to complete. Fortunately for the Legion, they’ve found their man before year one. Hoadley is a rugby coach that cares about much more than rugby. He cares about people and has a dedication to the city of San Diego that only acts as another motivator.
“I think that was one thing that showed the character of this team, but really I was just really proud of how we moved the thing on,” Hoadley said. “Another thing we were really proud of is how we engaged the community at the end of the season. We sold out the stadium for the last three games in a row, and it’s such an indication of what can be achieved in American rugby and we are just scratching the surface there. To engage the San Diego community like that is a huge part of our mission, and it really makes us excited about what we can do next year as well.”
“It is an absolute pleasure to be a part of his coaching staff,” Test said. “All great leaders are great mentors and he takes great pride in developing the people around him to their fullest potential. He works hard to make sure all preparations are in order and the ship is moving in the right direction. A few laughs and stories around the room before getting to business capturing the audience’s attention.”
That love is something that cannot be replicated or fabricated. San Diego has a good one.
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