A former U.S. international player, captain and head coach of the United States National Team, Tom Billups entered the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame after completing his 16th season at the University of California, Berkeley, where, as of the autumn of 2015, he has helped to guide the Golden Bears to 10 national collegiate championships in 15s and three national 7s titles since joining the program in the 1999-2000 season.
Billups was head coach of the U.S. National Team from 2001-2005, including the record-setting seven-win campaign that culminated with the 2003 Rugby World Cup; head coach of the Collegiate All-American Team in 2001; and head coach of the U.S. National Sevens team at the 2005 World Games in Germany. As a player, Billups made 44 international appearances on the U.S. National Team in 15s, serving as captain for the 1998 season and playing in the 1999 Rugby World Cup; and 25 international appearances as a player for the U.S. National Sevens team.
He was one of the first Americans to become a professional player when he joined the London Harlequins, and was named Supporters’ Club Player of the Year for the 1997-98 season before finishing his professional playing career with Pontypridd, Wales.
“We are all bursting with pride for Tom,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “This is such a well-earned distinction and acknowledgement. I believe Tom is the first inductee into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame who has the credentials for inclusion as both an athlete and a coach.”
In addition to their national collegiate championships, Billups has worked with Clark on the All Marine Rugby Team in 2006 and 2007, and on multiple tours with the United States Collegiate All-Americans.
Billups’ early years at Cal overlapped with his tenure as head coach of U.S. National 15s Team, which he helmed from December 2001-2005. His appointment as head coach of the USA Eagles followed his leadership of the Collegiate All-American team, for which he was head coach in 2001; the 2003 Rugby World Cup; and his role as head coach of the U.S. National 7s Team, which he led at the 2005 World Games.
Billups’ coaching tenure on the U.S. National 15s Team ended with 12 international test victories, including a record-setting seven wins in 2003, a campaign which included what was at that time the USA’s biggest win ever over rival Canada. At the Rugby World Cup that year, Billups’ team beat Japan for the USA’s first win at the RWC since 1987.
“The pride and passion he felt, both in the honor and responsibility of representing our country, resonated with everyone,” said Matt Sherman, the Army head coach and former Cal All-American and U.S. international who was coached by Billups at both levels.
“Coach Billups embodies everything U.S. rugby and the game of rugby stands for: hard work, grit, professionalism and an undying commitment to improvement,” said Kort Schubert, the 2002 Cal Athlete of the Year and a Bear for five consecutive national collegiate championship seasons, during which time he embarked on a 49-match U.S. National Team career.
Born in Burlington, Iowa, Billups was a gridiron football player at Burlington Community High School who went on to compete in football and wrestling at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., where he was a two-way lineman for the Vikings as they went undefeated for 50 straight games and won four NCAA National Championships from 1983-86. Billups received the Jerry Freck Award as Augustana’s Most Inspirational Player on the gridiron in 1986. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Augustana in 1987.
Billups began his rugby player career in 1984, during the spring of his sophomore year in college, on the Quad City Irish in Davenport, Iowa. One year later, he helped Quad City Irish to the national club 7s championship title. He went on to play for the Whakatane Marist club in New Zealand and the Old Blues in Northern California, where he was a part of the 1993 national champion club side and captain of the club in 1995 and ‘96.
In 1996, Billups became one of the first Americans to earn an overseas professional playing contract when he joined the London Harlequins, where he was named Supporters’ Club Player of the Year for the 1997-98 campaign. He followed that tenure with a season in Wales on the Pontypridd club in 1998-99.
Jason Leonard OBE, a former Harlequin and British Lion whose 119 international appearances as a prop for England included its 2003 Rugby World Cup championship, said, “Billups had all the attributes to play as a modern-day hooker: strength, speed and a huge stamina. He was the fittest player on the team.” The president of England Rugby (RFU), Leonard shared Billups’ advice to younger teammates when they competed together on the Harlequins: “He told them that just because they were being paid, that doesn’t mean you are a professional. A professional, he said, wants to improve as a player and a person every day of his life. To be better every day than the day before, that’s what being a professional meant to Tom.”
At the representative level, Billups played for All Iowa, the Midwest U-23s, Midwest Thunderbirds, Northern California Pelicans, Pacific Coast Grizzlies, U.S. Cougars and the Major Stanley XV (an international all-star team) in addition to his selections to the U.S. national teams.
As a national-team player, Billups made 25 appearances on the U.S. 7s team at eight international tournaments, including the Hong Kong Sevens, between 1989-94, captaining the squad at the Sicily Sevens in 1993; and made 44 international appearances as a hooker on the U.S. 15s team, captaining the side for 12 matches in the 1998 season and playing at the 1999 Rugby World Cup.
“Tom has proven at every level what we want and, more importantly, need to be great as a country,” said Dan Lyle, also a former U.S. international player and trailblazer for Americans earning international recognition as rugby professionals. Now an executive at United World Sports, Lyle said, “Tom Billups continues to be the consummate pro and asset to American rugby.”
Paul Emerick, a fellow Iowan whom Billups selected in 2003 to the first of his 53 matches on the U.S. National Team, said he is forever thankful to Billups “for identifying and developing a young man plucked from the cornfields. His passion, enthusiasm, attention to detail and dedication to the game of rugby is contagious.”
Billups became the 12th member of the Cal rugby program to enter the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame with his induction, joining Clark, who was inducted in 2014.