By: Rikki Greenberg & Melissa S. Wollering
Presidents, in any capacity, are interesting people. Some have a more controversial job than others. However, Obama, Goodell, Banks and others all have three things in common: they are extremely fascinating; they deal with other fascinating people; and they have constantly-changing organizations to run.
Enter Chicago Lions Rugby Football Club President Keith Brown. The North Side native hasn’t been Prez for long, but like any good leader, he wastes no time making a profound impact on his organization and its loyal followers.
Keith Brown actually played for the Chicago Lions in the early 70’s. He moved away from the area after his playing time was up, but returned with the desire to reconnect with the organization. Brown served as a member of the Lions’ Executive Committee in 2004. In 2006, he became President and has been with the organization ever since.
“I came to the Lions with a healthy appreciation for their history, accomplishments and the importance of their legacy,” says Brown. “The Lions have always been regarded as one of the most stable and committed [rugby] franchises in the U.S.; and our coaches and players are held in high regard for their competitiveness and professionalism. I am trying to build on that.”
Brown wants the Lions to remain as one of the top rugby clubs in the U.S. under his tenure. So far, Brown has devoted time and effort to securing a permanent playing pitch, raising sponsorship money and redirecting the club’s recruiting and development efforts.
Brown has even created a partnership with Chicago Hope Academy. The Lions have started coaching a youth program there. In exchange, the club can use the Academy’s field for three seasons and give its players access to its clubhouse.
“If we can capitalize on our partnership with the Chicago Hope Academy and secure a permanent playing field in the city with the adjacent clubhouse, I believe we can build on the Lions tradition of community involvement and support,” says Brown. “[We can also] create a model U.S. rugby club and establish Chicago as a core rugby community.”
Partnership between teams, leagues and unions is critical right now. Brown is one of many throughout the country who advocate for a restructuring within U.S. Rubgy.
“The opportunity to work with the RSL [Rugby Super League], USAR [United States Rugby], MWRFU [Midwest Rugby Football Union], CARFU [Chicago Area Rugby Football Union] and the Chicago Hope Academy has introduced me to some very talented people that have also become good friends.”
With an experienced coaching staff, led by Head Coach Marty Wiggins, a former USA Eagles Assistant Coach, and assistant coach Chris McClellan, who also serves as Director of Recruiting, the Lions have consistently been playoff contenders over the last decade. The Lions RFC is currently the only team in the Midwest and Chicago to field fully competitive sides for the RSL, Division 1 (beginning of this fall) and Sevens. It runs several full sides, including an over-35 Grey Lions who play and train on a year-round basis.
“In 2007, the Lions had an incredible season on the RSL side,” says Brown. “We lost a very close National Championship game in San Diego to Belmont Shore, won the National 7’s Championship and were named by Goff [publisher of Rugby News] as the ‘Rugby Club of the Year.’ We were in the playoffs for both [Rugby Super League and 7s] last year and this year, it was the same as we finished third in the National 7s tournament in San Francisco.”
“In the fall, we took about 40 players and supporters to France for the Rugby World Cup to cheer on Phil“Thabu” Eloff, a Chicago Lion wing playing for the USA Eagles during the World Cup.”
With international talent on the team and enthusiastic leadership at the helm, the Chicago Lions seem to be popularizing their sport with ease. And as for other popular Chicago teams, Brown isn’t afraid to admit he has favorites.
“I’m a lifetime Cubs fan, going back to my father who lived near the ball park in the 20’s and used to put up seats at the game in exchange for free passes,” says Brown. “More recently, the small real estate investment firm I work for was one of the finalists to buy the Cubs and I spent almost a year on underwriting the transaction. Of course, I’m sorry we didn’t prevail, but it was an incredible experience. Having said all of the above, if it’s not the Cubs then it’s the White Sox, since above all, I am a big Chicago supporter having lived here my entire life.”
Thank you for reading our new column Sidetracked, where we branch out to bring you the best in non-mainstream Midwestern sports talent and off-the-beaten-path discussion topics. Remember, you read it here first at The SportsBank.net.