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For Tom Clock, MBA’98, it all clicked as he watched his colleagues drink beer out of a football boot and sing rugby songs with soldiers. Clock and his mates from Owen’s fledgling rugby team—a winless squad of variable composition—had carpooled to Fort Campbell, Ky., to take on a team from the 101st Airborne. It was a match that a surrealist might have envisioned: an outfit of future MBAs that even some of its own members described as “ragtag” versus the legendary outfit that refused to surrender Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. In other words, it should have been no match at all.
Although the Army team won, the B-schoolers from Vanderbilt played competitively. Afterwards they joined the victors in a universal rugby ritual of post-game beer. The 101st also introduced the Owen team to another ritual: singing songs with lyrics that all of the participants interviewed for this story declined to quote.
“It was with those [Airborne] guys that I think we crystallized our identity,” says Clock, Founder and President of the consulting firm Clockwork Inc. “Hanging out with them, we became a team.”
Only a few months before, he would not have imagined that he’d see his classmates banging heads and bodies on a rugby pitch, much less tackling the U.S. Army. But on that day in 1998, he recalls, “All of a sudden it became more than Accounting 101 for me. I realized that these are the guys I’m going to block and tackle for. I had been calling to set up matches all over the state just to get us experience, but it wasn’t until Fort Campbell that it felt bigger than the school.”
Clock wasn’t alone. Over the course of that year and beyond, other participants came to regard the rugby squad as something both transcendent of and yet quintessentially Owen. And as they became surprisingly successful, in the minds of many players the team also became something else: a symbol for the little school that could not only take on the big boys of the B-school world but take them down hard.
Like Clock, John Underwood, MBA’98, had played competitive rugby before arriving at Owen. To stay in shape and connected with the game, he and Clock began practicing with Vanderbilt’s undergraduate club team, which competed against other SEC schools and teams throughout the region. Underwood, Managing Director at Goldman Sachs, says soon after that, “Tom [Clock] came up with the idea of a business-school team to compete in this really cool tournament in North Carolina.”
The event was the MBA World Cup Rugby Championship, whose entire field involves graduate schools of business. The championship, held annually at Duke University, draws teams not only from across the United States but also from Europe, Canada and Australia. For Clock, the opportunity to compete in that event, against schools that at the time were better known and much larger than Owen, was irresistible.
“At the end of my first year,” Clock recalls, “I invited all the guys from the business school to come out and run around. We probably had about 20 who came. That made me think we could put together a team, and the guys were favorable to the idea of competing at Duke.”
Anyone who liked to run and hit was invited to join, including students from other Vanderbilt schools. No rugby experience was necessary. Size was a bonus. “They kind of shamed me into joining,” remembers Brent Turner, MBA’99, Executive Vice President of Call Products for Marchex, a performance marketing firm in Seattle. “If you had any kind of athletic ability and didn’t play, you were a wimp.” After his first practice Turner was hooked. “I enjoyed the roughhousing nature of it,” he says. “I liked the fact that rugby involves both brute force and finesse.”
Fortunately there was no shortage of players who could deliver brute force. Walton Smith, MBA’99, as recalled by several of his former teammates, was a small mountain who had played on the offensive line for Brown University’s football team. Sam Brown, MS’98, who played inside center, had also played college football. “He was 5-foot-10 and weighed around 230 and ran with passion,” Turner says. “It was observably unpleasant for opponents to tackle him. In one game at the Duke tournament, I could hear guys on the other team saying, ‘Oh no,’ when he got the ball.”
But whatever benefits the Old Boys may have gained from the size of some of their players were offset by the size of their squad. With a pool of barely 20 players, few substitutes were available to field the necessary 15 for a “side,” especially when players were injured or fatigued. And fatigue wasn’t hard to come by. “You do the equivalent of a squat and then run for 15 meters, and then you do it again and again for 40 minutes,” Turner says.
Under Clock’s direction, the fledgling team practiced on Tuesday and Thursday evenings on fields across the street from Vanderbilt’s Student Recreation Center, and then played games on Saturdays. It was a significant commitment of 5–10 hours a week on top of the players’ academic work.
But for the new converts to the game, the effort was worth it, both as outlet and opportunity. “When you were stressed out from school and then got slammed to the ground 40 or 50 times, the stress didn’t matter so much after that,” Turner says.
Tom Barr, MBA’98, Vice President of Global Coffee at Starbucks Coffee Co., had never played rugby before trying out for the team. For him the experience was about relationships. “At the time it was our only sports team at Owen, and it brought together people from different friend groups,” he says.
The diversity, camaraderie and commitment of the players helped make a fan of Martin Geisel, Dean of the Owen School at the time. Geisel, who had come to Vanderbilt in 1987, was both a mentor and a friend to the students. For him, says his wife, Kathy, students were the most important part of the school.
“Marty was one of the guys,” says Peter Veruki, Owen’s Director of Corporate Relations. “He’d drink beer with students, take them to the old Bluegrass Inn or SATCO. He was accessible, and there was nothing pompous about him.” Geisel also cherished the diversity of the Owen community and readily supported new student initiatives, such as the Global Food Festival, which began during his tenure.
But at first, Clock remembers, “Dean Geisel wasn’t totally on board with the idea” of a rugby club—the first sports team at Owen that competed beyond the campus intramural leagues. At Clock’s request, Geisel came down to the pitch one Saturday and watched a game. Underwood recalls that the dean looked proud when he saw the team sporting Vanderbilt colors, with jerseys that read “Owen Old Boys Rugby Club.”
When he realized the commitment that the students had made, financing the club’s gear and travels themselves, Geisel became not only a supporter but a champion. The team made him their honorary coach and gave him a silver whistle. Geisel enlisted local businesses to provide modest financial backing and found money to help pay for the trip to Duke.
What meant even more than monetary support, though, was his physical presence, remembers Mike Vermilion, BS’95, MBA’99, Finance Director at Victoria’s Secret. Though a weakened heart kept him from working a full schedule in 1998, Geisel, who had played football at Case Western University, was more than an occasional attendee at the club’s Saturday matches. Veruki remembers standing alongside him, cheering on the team, whistle around his neck, on one cold, nasty day. “I’d like to think that if Marty had been 10 years younger and in good health, he’d have been out there with them,” he says.
Initially for most of the players, the games were learning experiences as much as competitions. “Tom [Clock] and John [Underwood] would coach us while we were playing: ‘Run and do this. Get in the scrum,’” Barr explains. “We had a lot of spunk and energy that allowed us to overcome the deficiencies in experience.”
Still, wins remained only an aspiration as the Old Boys took on teams from across the region, like the 101st Airborne, in preparation for the big MBA tournament at Duke. “In most games we were reasonably well-matched, and in a few we did a lot better than we thought we would,” Turner says. Then there were games that all the players still remember, like the 76–0 thrashing they received at the hands of Nashville’s semipro club team.
“You’d wake up the next morning, and your whole body would be stiff as a board,” Barr says. “I was 29 or 30. After games I’d start thinking, ‘This is why rugby is a young man’s sport.’”
The Old Boys almost weren’t allowed to compete in the Duke tournament, which was limited to 24 teams. “We had to convince them we were for real,” Clock recalls, and the organizers weren’t easily convinced. Renting a couple of vans and rooms in a seedy hotel, the 18 players from Owen arrived on Duke’s campus “looking like the Bad News Bears,” Barr says.
The night before the competition began, there was a huge banquet for all the players. “Some of the teams wore crazy, coordinated costumes, especially the ones from Europe, and they sang rowdy songs,” Vermilion says.
Playing one game on a Saturday was rugged enough. The Duke tournament’s first-day format involved three games. For a team with only three substitutes, it was a formula for disaster.
Before the 8 a.m. match against Cornell, Benji Ribault, an MBA exchange student from France who played one of the forward positions, led the team down to the pitch. “He got us going on a kind of ritual dance, elbowing and bumping each other, sort of like a mosh pit,” Clock remembers. “The players from Cornell were looking at us like, ‘Who are these guys?’ ”
The Old Boys surprised the Ivy Leaguers. “We devastated them,” Clock says. “Blew them away.”
Perhaps because Owen had been relegated to a small field at the tournament’s periphery, their next opponents, from Wharton, hadn’t noticed how well the upstarts from Nashville had performed. With more than 35 men available, Wharton opted to rest their first-line players, presuming they would not be needed against Vanderbilt. They repented of their choice in the second half, but it didn’t matter. The Old Boys won again.
The Haitians have a proverb: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” For Owen, beyond Cornell and Wharton came Harvard at 4 p.m. By then the Old Boys had been promoted to the equivalent of center court at Wimbledon, a field of beautiful Bermuda grass that was Duke’s best. Vanderbilt had suddenly become the buzz of the tournament.
Clock recalls that Harvard had “about 60 guys—three full sides and a set of backups,” compared to Vanderbilt’s 18. Harvard won.
“I really think we could have beaten Harvard were we not so beaten up,” Underwood says. “We had some guys who couldn’t even play.”
The Old Boys’ run came to an end the next day against the London Business School. At least that’s how Turner remembers it. Clock believes the loss came against a different opponent. No written records are available, and no one remembers for sure. Even after just 10 years, the details become blurred.
Perhaps the most enduring record is a photo of the Old Boys that sits in a spare bedroom that Kathy Geisel uses as an office. Of all the items that decorate the suburban Dallas room, mostly related to hunting and to Nashville, the photo was Marty Geisel’s favorite. It was a gift from the team, and they all signed it. The photo occupied a prominent spot in Geisel’s office at Owen until the day he died. The whistle hangs by itself in a closet. “Every time I open the door, I see it,” Kathy says.
Clock has a few old pictures, too, from the Old Boys days. But mostly what the players have carried with them are memories. Vermilion remembers a game trip to Memphis, Tenn., when they camped out in a cotton field near the Mississippi River. Barr vividly recalls a nose-breaking, blood-gushing hit that William deButts, MBA’98, laid on a Wharton player. Clock remembers Mike Butler, MBA’98, who played wing. “Soaking wet he probably weighed 135 pounds,” Clock says. “Against Harvard he went up against this guy who easily weighed 100 pounds more, but he fearlessly locked heads, wrapped his arms around the guy and took him down.”
Most of the founding players graduated after that first season, in the spring of 1998. Owen fielded a team for three more years. As an alumnus, Clock continued to play—once flying back from a consulting assignment in Jakarta, Indonesia, so he could join the team for the Duke tournament.
By the 1999 tournament, the Old Boys had lost their champion. Geisel died of a massive coronary in February of that year, after conducting a town hall meeting at Owen. He took questions while seated because he didn’t have the strength to stand for the duration. “He looked terrible,” Veruki recalls. “Brent Turner asked him, ‘Marty, how are you? We’re worried about you.’ Marty’s response was, ‘Not good. But this is my job, and I’m here for Owen.’ I’ll always remember that.” Veruki doesn’t have to add that Geisel’s persevering attitude was just what you’d expect from a rugby coach.
In a number of ways the rugby experience has stayed with the Old Boys. To a man, they remember the camaraderie and the euphoria of accomplishing together something improbable. And as they progressed from Owen to an array of distinguished careers, the lessons they learned helped shape their outlooks on life.
Barr has never forgotten losing games to local club teams whose players were older and slower than the 20-somethings from business school. “Their experience and knowledge made them formidable opponents,” he says. “Nothing is better than pure experience.”
Clock, who spent five years with Accenture and another five in health care before starting his own consulting business in 2008, says the rugby experience was formative. Getting 20 diverse, mostly inexperienced guys into a committed team, organizing practices, scheduling games and handling logistics was “a leadership experience no one can teach you,” he says. “But the most important thing for those of us who played on that side is that we developed a friendship that went beyond the walls of Owen. Those are guys I still keep in touch with. I don’t think you can replace that.”
Underwood, who has spent the last 11 years at the Goldman Sachs office in San Francisco, was in the top of his class at the firm. When he showed up for his first day of work, he says, “almost everyone else was from a top-ranked B-school. It was a little intimidating, but soon I realized I could compete with these guys.”
It was a lesson he’d already learned, in a different context, on a rugby pitch.
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