Cal Rugby Jerry Figone Retires

Cal Rugby Jerry Figone retired from a University of California career in working with student athletics spanning over three decades.

BERKELEY, Cal Athletics– Jerry Figone, the team manager and director of operations for the Golden Bears rugby program whose professionalism and dedication put student-athletes in position to succeed for more than three decades, announced his retirement at the end of September from an unparalleled career at the University of California.

“What I have enjoyed most, as we all do, is working with student-athletes,” said Figone, who received a rare honorary Big C Society membership award as a staff member in 2016 for his extraordinary service to Cal Athletics. “It’s an honor to have worked with people who became or will become graduates of the University of California, and I had a little bit to do with it.”

An Army veteran and local businessman whose interests have been driven by an innate ability to connect with others, Figone fell in love with the sport of rugby in the late 1970s. He was a member the Old Blues Rugby Club and a fledgling coach for the Berkeley youth rugby and Cal women’s rugby clubs when he began working in an official volunteer capacity with Cal rugby under second-year head coach Jack Clark in 1985.

Over the ensuing 32 years, Jerry Figone was instrumental to every one of the program’s 29 national collegiate championships earned during his tenure, always at the ready to assist the program and those associated with it.

Cal Rugby Jerry Figone Comments

“Jerry has been a cherished colleague over these last few decades and, more importantly, a loyal friend, “said coach Clark, a member of the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame and Cal Hall of Fame. “His legacy is that of a caring, genuine and dedicated team member. Without question, he has made an indelible impression on all of our lives.”

Figone will be celebrated this spring during a home match on Witter Rugby Field, where families and fans will undoubtedly share their appreciation.

“As parents, we could not have asked for more in Jerry Figone,” said U.S. Air Force Major General Abel Barrientes, a member of the California Rugby Advisory Board whose son Patrick graduated in 2017 having been part of championship teams in 7s and 15s. “Taking our son under his wing and nurturing him throughout his career at Cal, Jerry gave us peace of mind that he was being taken care of but not coddled.”

“Whether we want to or not, we have to embrace this change,” said associate head coach Tom Billups, also a U.S. Rugby Hall of Famer who joined the Bears in 2000. “I’m happy for Jerry not to have to wake up and have the same level of responsibility that he’s had for such a long time.”

Coach Billups added, “Jerry Figone is not only the best of breed, he’s the last of breed in that regard, just from a work ethic standpoint. He’s like someone in a forgery, hammering away at hot iron. That’s the amount of determination he has, and it’s something that is not found very often anymore.”

Off the pitch, Figone worked with prospective Cal applicants from their first contact with the program through their graduation day and throughout their lives as alumni, while in turn working with relevant offices on campus – and there are many – to put student-athletes in the best possible position to succeed in every phase of collegiate life.

“Jerry is one of the most caring individuals you will ever meet. He played a huge role,” affirmed Therese Houston, an athletic admission specialist in the University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions. “He establishes a connection and never loses it. You will not find a person that handles work as thoroughly.”

Figone managed the Bears’ often-complicated travel itineraries, which required airline reservations, lodging, meals and ground transportation, along with the associated intricacies of wardrobe and equipment.

“Jerry showed how we all could better serve the student-athlete, not only in rugby but throughout the department,” said David Moosman, equipment manager in Intercollegiate Athletics at Cal from 2001-15. “I loved working with him.”

“To me, Jerry Figone is the personification of Cal rugby,” said Don James, a Cal Rugby Advisory Board member, Cal Athletic Hall of Famer and former U.S. National Team player who competed in rugby and football for the Bears from 1981-85, after which Figone began as a volunteer assistant coach for the newest players in the program. “There couldn’t be a more deserving guy to give our thanks and admiration.”

Mas Morimoto, a three-time All-American during his collegiate career from 1988-92, a member of the U.S. National Team squad in 1997-98 and current deputy district attorney for Alameda County, praised Figone as a coach for the deep reserves during his era. “Jerry taught me how to play a new position and coached me to an appearance with the first side by the end of the season,” Morimoto said. “A lot of those players that he coached became All-Americans and key contributors on championship teams. Jack Clark may be the heartbeat of Cal rugby, but Jerry has been the lifeblood. He keeps things flowing.”

Kevin Dalzell, a player from 1993-97 and the 1996 Woodley Award winner at Cal as the top collegiate player in America before he made 42 appearances in 15s with the U.S. National Team, recalled meeting Figone when he saw the Rugby Bears for the first time during one of their San Diego road trips.

“He was the backbone of an organization that impressed me from the moment I saw the team file in to that private venue, dressed in their No. 1s and eager to shake hands in the most professional manner,” said Dalzell. “I was a fresh-faced high school senior and the first impression of the team simply blew me away.”

Dalzell said that while Figone’s dexterity as “the man behind the scenes” made him vital to the success of the program, “His ability to navigate the delicate balance of authority and friendship is his greatest talent.”

Such appreciation echoes across the eras that Figone coached and managed.

“Jerry Figone was a positive influence on the Cal rugby experience for generations of players,” said Shaun Paga, a captain and All-American at Cal who played football and rugby for the Bears between 1999-2001 and continued his rugby career with 16 international appearances on the U.S. National Team. “He was always there to encourage you, but could also pull you aside and give you just the right advice at the right time. He is irreplaceable.”

“Getting up at 4 a.m. to go across the country and play, you’d get on the bus to the airport and Jerry would be running the show. You looked up to him as a businessman. He solidified the way you should be and what you should do,” said Andrew Lindsey, who played from 2002-06 and graduated as the All-America captain of the ’06 national champions. Using the nickname for Figone reserved for use by Cal rugby players, Lindsey added, “‘Bones’ was responsible for all of us and it ran seamlessly.”

“He has always been passionate, humble and hard-working, but no amount of work or tasks could stop him from saying hi and having a quick chat,” said Blaine Scully, the current Cardiff wing who has captained the U.S. National Team, was a Golden Bear from 2009-11 and graduated as an All-American and national champion. “Coach Figone holds such a revered place in the memories of anyone who has proudly worn the Blue and Gold.”

Russell Webb, the All-America captain who played from 2013-17, said, “When we handed coach Figone the trophy after beating BYU for the championship in 2016, it was a way to show our appreciation. He always went the extra measure to make sure we performed to the best of our abilities.”

Cal Rugby Jerry Figone Career

A nearly lifelong resident of nearby El Cerrito, Calif., Figone was still a club member the Old Blues in 1985 when he came on board to join forces with Clark and athletic trainer David Stenger, the latter of whom had been serving the rugby team since the twilight of head coach Miles “Doc” Hudson’s career in 1973 through the term of future Cal Hall of Famer Ned Anderson.

As their efforts helped the Bears find success in competition, Jerry saw coach Clark’s longer-range goals also coming into focus. “What dawned on me as we worked together was that coach Clark was building the program for the future,” Figone said.

After beginning his tenure as a volunteer assistant coach, Figone’s role morphed into that of the team’s full-time manager and director of operations.

In 1995, having played its home games at multiple venues around campus, the program funded the construction of Witter Rugby Field, which designated the pristine spot in Strawberry Canyon as a rugby facility.

With the team’s venue secured, Figone and Clark were in 2000 joined by coach Billups. Together, they created some of the highest-attended events at Cal outside of football and basketball, hosting national television contests and multi-day, multi-team tournaments. Witter Rugby Field remains an important engine to propel Cal rugby forward.

Figone was first to arrive and the last to leave on gamedays at Witter Rugby Field. He was the voice of Cal rugby on the public address system, where his concise style was greatly appreciated. He organized visiting teams to meet their needs and coordinated with Intercollegiate Athletics staff in security, ticketing, concessions and merchandise. He managed parking demands and always found space for the parents tailgate. He could easily cue the Cal band with a hand signal while announcing the latest score to a sold-out house.

The acumen that Figone and Cal rugby brought to events was appreciated by colleagues like Gordon Bayne, Cal’s assistant athletic director for event management since 1993, who said, “Jerry was always a great steward of our resources and our venue, and handled every situation with a great calm and understanding. He maintained the high standard that we’ve become accustomed to with regard to Cal rugby and its fans.”

Late at night on the road, out of the sight of media, fans and the team itself, Figone could be found at a local laundromat, getting the kit washed, dried and folded for the following day. With him often was Stenger, who found those late-night laundry runs to be a welcome “few quiet minutes” with his friend.

“He did everything and yet he always found time,” said Stenger, who himself was a jack-of-all-trades for Cal rugby before he retired at the end of 2013. “On an occasion when I would take an athlete to the hospital, Jerry would always show up just to see what he could do. At different championships, people there all respected Jerry Figone. That is a national respect.”

Another figure who could be found at the laundromat at such late hours on the road was Bob Witter Sr., one of 14 Witters to play Cal rugby and the first chairman of the California Rugby Advisory Board. Mr. Witter, who, with Clark, spearheaded the campaign for the Bears’ endowment and home pitch, and never missed a match, took great pleasure in spending off hours with Figone and the team.

“After a long day, it was a chance for us to get together,” Jerry said. “That was our break.”

Those late-night tasks were among the countless never taken for granted by the team, which was always well cared for under Figone’s watch.

“One of the things I was always honored to hear was coach Clark when he would say, ‘You go ahead and lead our travel,'” Jerry said. “That felt pretty good that coach Clark had that confidence in me.”

In the late 2000s, Figone reconnected with Valerie Wolfe, whom he had originally met during his military service in Germany. Following their marriage in 2014, Jerry became a father and grandfather figure to another large family.

“I’m looking forward to spending time with my family, my wife’s family in Texas, her three kids and 10 wonderful grandchildren,” Figone said. “All my life I’ve worked during the week to put something on during the weekend. Valerie has wanted to see more of me for a while but at some point I expect she’ll say, ‘Isn’t today a rugby day?’ and get me out of the house.”

In his retirement, Jerry Figone has left a peerless legacy of service to Cal rugby and the student-athlete experience. Considering that on his last day at Cal, he registered as a certified volunteer, Figone will also remain a happy sight to see in Strawberry Canyon, part of the bedrock for the tradition that defines the oldest intercollegiate sport at the University of California.

Cal Rugby Jerry Figone article by Anton Malko

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