Mike Tolkin coached the USA side to its arguably worst World Cup performance ever. They went winless and had the largest losing point differential in the tournament. The team scored 5 tries total in their four matches.
That Tolkin is a mediocre coach in the world of international rugby is hard to dispute. With no experience beyond high school and USA club side coaching before a relatively brief stint as defensive coach for Eddie O’Sullivan and the USA 2011 World Cup side, he was always a risky choice to lead the national team. It was perhaps a worthwhile experiment to try a USA bred coach. The shifting focus in the USA to 7s also required some managing of assets. Looking for an experienced world class coach would cost money, money that would probably be much better used hiring somebody like Mike Friday for the 7s team. Would a European professional club or another international team hire Mike Tolkin? Would a Japanese corporate team hire him? I suspect not.
In July of 2015 Tolkin released long time stand-out USA player Todd Clever from the Pacific Nations Cup. Todd was never given an opportunity to reclaim a spot on the USA World Cup squad. Todd was dropped under questionable circumstances from the team on the eve of an international test match in his home town with hundreds of family and friends scheduled to attend. Tolkin has yet to address these circumstances.
His response given to “Rugby Today” (Oct. 22, 2015) about the story Todd gave to “DeepSouthRugby.net” after the USA’s exit from the World Cup was:
“There are several sides to each story, and Todd Clever has provided his version of events. The facts are at best distorted. When the indisputable facts are incorrect after months of devising them, such as whom our opponents were and where the team was playing on certain dates or ‘morning jog’ vs mandatory vigorous work-out, one must question the accuracy of the entire tale.”
The indisputable fact that Tolkin seems to be eluding to is that the USA played Romania in Bucharest in 2014 not Georgia in Tbilisi, who they played in 2013. Is Tolkin arguing the whole of Todd’s story should be questioned because after 63 test matches and a year since the Fall tour Todd had two matches in European countries a year apart confused? This is where one begins to think Tolkin might be a bit of a dolt.
The issue of if Todd missed a mandatory training session on the morning of the Samoa match is not disputed by Todd. Did Todd know this would terminate his participation on the team? Had Tolkin said this is a two strikes your out system? Had he at anytime showed the slightest empathy for a player who had given so much to USA Rugby and who he had cut from a squad in front of his hometown crowd just two days before the match? This is where you begin to suspect he might be vengeful.
When Todd told me the story of his release from the USA squad, he divulged the conflict that evolved over Tolkin’s requiring squad members to list tour players from best to worst before the Fiji match. After typing the story I went to USA Rugby website to get information about scores from the matches. At the time the national side test matches were not up to date.* I didn’t see the Fiji match listed. I thought maybe he was talking about the year before when the USA played Russia after Georgia. Todd confirmed that the player rating incident was before the Fiji match. For me the fact that he got Georgia wrong only supports that this was not a ‘devised’ story.
In Tolkin’s responses to “Rugby Today” article he said:
“In 30 years of coaching, I have always acted with integrity and without ego, and I have absolutely no problem putting my reputation in front of anyone. Naturally, along the way there may have been disagreements in policy or tactics, but not my integrity, which would be backed by many respected individuals. No selection process is ever perfect – period.”
Does the statement about “putting my reputation in front of anyone” wreak of ego to anyone else?
The twice repeated reference to his integrity reminds me of when I worked in Africa. The more a Ghanaian cab driver insisted he was honest the more certain I became he was going to cheat me. If Tolkin has integrity, he will answer the following questions for a start:
1.Did Todd ask you about going to the ESPY’s?
2.When did you set the early Thursday morning training session that led to Todd being cut from the Samoa match squad?
3.Did you give Todd any information about how he should handle media after he was cut from Samoa match?
4.Was Todd informed that if he missed the “mandatory vigorous training session” (a.k.a. morning jog) he would be cut from the squad?
5. Did you ever discuss with Todd after being cut from PNC squad what he could do to get back on World Cup squad?
Who and what is Mike Tolkin? Time for him to answer not with ambiguities and innuendos, but with honesty about events and his hand in them if he wants to be believed to be a man of integrity.
* I received an email from Chad Wise with USA Rugby advising me that the website is kept up to date, and I have no reason to not believe him. When I looked after my conversation with Todd, the first page was either not loading, or I was not accessing the right page of information. Whichever was the case, the point is Todd was not devising a story but telling me what he remembered.
By Tom Crosby