Friday, March 21, 2014

Influential Coaches #3: Robert Joseph Ahola

Previous entries:
Series Overview
January: Paul Westphal
February: Tara Gallagher

"Your mothers left you a long time ago. I'm your mother now!"

I suppose that IF there is one quote with which to sum up Robert, the longtime pro bono rugby coach at Pepperdine (he's the old man kneeling in the center of the blog's background photo), that would be it. He was tough, demanding, hilarious, and occasionally nonsensical. But I don't think that there is any coach I have ever been around who has as clearly demonstrated his sheer love for the game as Robert, and that infectious enthusiasm sustained the Pepperdine program through some lean years until a mini-breakthrough, which happily coincided with my senior season, turned it into something of a southern California powerhouse.

I loved to kid Robert about being older than Methuselah (and still do every year when his birthday rolls around), but the truth is I actually have no idea how old he is. But when someone plays rugby for a quarter century and is still unafraid to mix it up in practice drills with his twenty-year-old players, he starts to move like your grandfather. Regardless, he showed us how to perform with the proper technique himself, whether it was ball-handling, tackling, or pushing the scrum machine (his term for the rugby version of a football blocking sled). Seeing him demonstrate in slow motion helped our players, especially the majority who were new to the game.

"What the FUCK is 'Songfest'?"

Robert has always been fully devoted to the rugby program. I mean, the guy shows up three afternoons a week (plus weekends) for free, because he loves the game that much. So naturally, he wanted a similar level of commitment from his players, which could be difficult to come by. Practices were typically from 3-5 in the afternoon (meaning that winter practices ended in near-darkness), precisely when most college students try to schedule classes so that they can sleep in every day. Then, it being a club sport and not one that relies on indentured scholarship athletes, there were other commitments to deal with, and Songfest (a mid-fall competition open to the entire school) is a particularly big deal for Pepperdine's Greek organizations. In a related story, during my two years of playing rugby, we had precious few frat boys on our roster, because the commitment was often too much for those who were trying to juggle classes and Greek life.

If you were committed to the team, however, Robert gave you every chance to prove yourself and succeed. Guys who showed up to every practice, or at least every practice that didn't interfere with class, got to play, and Robert found roles for everybody that would maximize our work as a team. He liked to say that American football was what happened to rugby after too many damn engineers got a hold of it; they put more lines on the field, added equipment to the players (while taking four of them away), doubled the number of officials, and stopped play every few seconds. That explanation makes sense on a lot of levels. For those of you who don't know what a rugby lineup looks like, here is a diagram of a scrum formation (from whence football derives "line of scrimmage"):

          Prop | Hooker | Prop
    Flanker | Lock | Lock | Flanker
                   Eight Man               Scrum Half

                                                             Fly Half

                                                                     Inside Center

                                                                            Outside Center

Wing                                                                           Fullback                              Wing

On a lineout (when the ball is entered by the hooker from out of bounds), the formation from the fly half on down is the same, with the rest looking like this:

Hooker ||
                   Prop | Lock | Prop   Flanker | Lock | Flanker   Eight Man

                                          Scrum Half

The props (the one on the left is the "tighthead" prop and the other is the "loosehead" prop), hooker, and locks (also called "second row") generally correspond to an offensive line, with the hooker being the center (he tries to win the ball with his feet in a scrum), and the props and locks being tackles and guards. The flankers and eight man (so called because he wears jersey #8) are essentially equivalent to tight ends, the scrum half is the quarterback, the fly half is a tailback, and the centers, wings, and fullbacks are your other backs and receivers.

Anyway, for most of my two years on the team, our hooker was a classmate of mine, a four-year vet who also managed the club finances and had been completely gung-ho about rugby since joining early in our freshman year. He was enthusiastic, but also a little Chinese kid who stood maybe 5'8" in his cleats and might have weighed 150 pounds after a shower in his clothes and a couple of Chipotle burritos. On any other team he probably would have been relegated to the end of the bench, but Robert rewarded his enthusiasm and loyalty with a starting role, and it worked. Nick may have only been an ankle-biter tackler against the big behemoths that played forward positions for our opponents (he would hold on and wait for somebody bigger to arrive), but he was good at winning balls in the scrum and throwing in lineouts. If you showed up and worked hard, Robert was going to find a spot for you.

Robert was creative in putting together most of our lineup for my senior season (2005-06), the year that transformed Pepperdine rugby from a frequent punching bag into a divisional powerhouse. In 2004-05, we struggled from the start to field more than ten guys at a practice, and occasionally didn't even have a full fifteen for games. The trouble started when the starting scrum half quit two days before the first game of the fall season to focus on a business class, and there was no experienced backup. So Robert gambled on a rookie who had been learning the game in the scrum, a move that both paid immediate dividends and would have major positive ramifications down the line. Most scrum halves are smallish guys, because their job is to get the ball out of rucks and scrums and lineouts and feed it to the backs for advancement (remember, they're the quarterback equivalent). Ryan, however, was one of the biggest guys on the team at 6'2" and around 210, with the field vision to find the right passing lanes. He was a nightmare for opposing scrum halves, who were about as good at tackling him as our hooker was at bringing down opposing forwards. As such, he could take the ball further up the field himself before passing it off, which added an unconventional wrinkle to our offense. The decision to pick Ryan as the new scrum half was a bold one, but also rather prescient.

When putting together the lineup during my senior season, Robert made another smart move; he made all the rookies and inexperienced players (which included me) learn how to play in the scrum first before potentially moving to a back position. I had played on the wing out of necessity the previous season, and had no real desire to mix it up with a bunch of guys to whom I was typically giving up forty pounds or so. But Robert insisted, and I accepted the instruction and turned into a pretty good lock in the second row. I could generally hold my own in scrums and rucks unless I was just brutally outweighed by my opposite number (and in scrums I have to give plenty of credit to our excellent eight man, Chase, for keeping our scrum formation nice and tight) and I came up in support quickly because I was faster than a lot of lumbering forwards, but where I really found an opportunity to shine was in lineouts. If you've ever seen a rugby lineout, you know that the hooker throws the ball down a meter-wide tunnel with one team on either side, and two players will often lift a third between them in order to grab the ball out of the air and toss it back to the scrum half to start a break. I was our first jumper (most teams have two or three designated), getting a lift from our two props both because I was relatively light and because I had long arms and could catch the ball cleanly. I took to that immediately, and never would have had Robert not forced me (and others) to learn how to play with the big boys.

It also didn't matter to Robert if you were a rookie or a veteran; if you had ability and there was a way to squeeze you onto the field, he would find it. Take, for example, the change at fullback between my junior and senior years. In rugby, the fullback operates as the last line of defense, much like a free safety. He is the last tackler to beat, and must have the speed and vision to cover half the width of the field as well as take the proper angles to get to the ballcarrier. The fullback also serves as the equivalent to both a punter AND a punt returner, fielding all of the opponent's deep kicks and kicking the ball deep himself to get his own team out of trouble. So a good fullback has to be smart and fast with good hands and a powerful leg - basically really good at every aspect of the game. During my junior year, our fullback was a first-year grad student who had gone to Pepperdine as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to Radford and winning a national championship with them in 2003, then returned to Malibu for graduate studies.* The following year one of our first new recruits was a freshman from Washington state who had been (whaddaya know!) a free safety and a punter in high school, and it was evident from day one that he would make a strong fullback. So Johnny moved (without complaining) to a wing, and Michael became our starting fullback (and as expected, was terrific).

*Totally unrelated: Johnny Payne (not a stage name) had the most biggest Mohawk I have ever seen. We're talking almost a foot above his scalp, and often dyed purple.

"Jesus, Irish, you're like the Lord Byron; you go from the sublime to the ridiculous in one play!"
"Well, I see Nascar's been practicing his knock-ons again."

Robert has been in the film industry for years as an actor (he played a Colombian drug lord in No Safe Haven, not to be confused with the garbage movie Safe Haven), director, producer, and screenwriter (he's also a novelist), and that creativity shone through in rugby also, not just in how he put together a lineup, but in the often hilarious nicknames that he came up with for us (mine actually came from Chase after seeing a picture of me, provided here, that made the front page of the school paper after our first fall game in 2005). His humor kept the tone of practice light even when he was railing at us for not showing up in support on time or whatever. One time he wanted us to (I think) get to the "fifth phase" (meaning that the ballcarrier had been tackled four times and we had won every ruck to keep the ball), and he counted off from one to five rather loudly, then held up his hand and yelled "How many fingers am I holding up?!?" Well, after all those years of rugby, his fingers have all been broken or dislocated a few times, and so his idea of five fingers looked like something less than that. As mad as he was, after a couple of us answered "three and a half?" we all started laughing and eased up. And he wasn't always so intense; the above comment about knock-ons was a resigned aside, muttered in the direction of me and a couple other forwards, about a hard-working but butterfingered backup wing (he drove a fancy convertible with a souped-up engine, hence the name) who was fumbling the ball forward frequently (which results in a scrum for the other team). And the comment to Irish (another wing) was as amused as it was chastising.

"Most of you guys are only out here three and a half hours a week for rugby! You spend more time than that beating off!"

The bottom line is that Robert's devotion both to the sport of rugby and to the Pepperdine ruggers specifically has resulted in our small school (3000 undergrads) becoming a regional powerhouse program, a transformation that I am proud to say I was a part of. Along the way, Robert has passed on his love of the game to hundreds of Pepperdine men (and women! We had a freshman girl play with us my senior year who was a good player - her uncle was an NFL linebacker) and served as an instructor and mentor, developing strong alumni bonds and grooming younger coaches to assist him. And he's done it all pro bono. I can't think of anyone I know who played for the team at one point or another that doesn't love the guy for his work with us, and that is the mark of a great coach.