The national collegiate rugby crown will be settled on Saturday night in Sandy, Utah, and for only the seventh time in 33 years, powerhouse Cal will not bring home the championship.
The Golden Bears, who have won 26 national titles in traditional 15-man rugby, opted out of the premier division this season, uneasy with the direction of USA Rugby and determined to become more proficient at the seven-man game that will be played at the Summer Olympics, beginning in 2016 in Brazil.
"It's not time to think in the old ways," longtime Cal coach Jack Clark said. "It's not time for Cal, and the role we've played in American rugby, to start thinking, 'What's best for us?'
"It's, 'What's best for the game now? What are the leverage points to use to take this thing to the next level?' "
Clark, who has won 22 national titles at Cal, stressed the Bears will continue to play the 15-man game. On the heels of back-to-back unbeaten, untied seasons, they were 15-2 this spring with a young squad, playing largely the same schedule as usual through mid-April, except that it wasn't part of a premier division league.
So on Saturday, while BYU and Arkansas State play for the national title, the Bears will continue to prepare for the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships on June 2-3 in Philadelphia, an event that will be televised and partially organized by NBC.
A variety of factors contributed to the Cal's change of direction.
Clark noted six of 31 schools that participated last year in USA Rugby's premier division withdrew before this season. At least two more have followed this spring.
Financial considerations became more important after the university's athletic administration last year nearly demoted rugby from non-scholarship varsity status to a club program. And Clark said that in the 2011 national championship game in Sandy, Utah, which was attended by about 11,000 fans, USA Rugby shared no revenue with either Cal or BYU.
Clark also noted that bypassing the tournament gave Cal athletes the chance to be on campus for final exams and graduation ceremonies. Above all, the shift allows Cal to keep pace with the game that will be played in the Olympics.
Sevens rugby is a more wide-open, more explosive game that will require Cal to pay more attention to that style of game in its recruiting, Clark said.
It's a briskly played contest with two seven-minute halves rather than the two 40-minute periods in the traditional, 15-man version. As a result, it's better-suited for a two-day weekend college tournament, or a format such as the Olympics, with its 16-day calendar.
And the connection to the Olympics brings exposure, television and sponsorship money.
"There's some credibility in it for our sport," Clark said. "What the Olympics have done . . . there's just nothing clubby about those five rings."
Clark envisions the Bears playing a Sevens season in the fall, and they are negotiating to participate in a two-day Sevens tournament at Ohio State to coincide with the football team's Sept. 15 game at Columbus. Other participants would be Notre Dame and the Naval Academy. They will continue a 15s schedule in the spring.
Eventually, there could be foreign travel opportunities, particularly in the Pacific Rim, after spring exams.
"Everytime I turn around some of our academic administration is in China," Clark said. "I think we see that as kind of a natural extension of our academic brand."
In the meantime, the Bears expect to be more prepared for the 16-team tournament in Philadelphia next month. The past two years, they had just a few weeks to transition after the May 15-man national championships.
"No excuses this year," junior team captain Seamus Kelly said.
Fourth-year senior All-American Danny Barrett said the players are adjusting to the changes.
"We always want to be competing for a championship, whether it's Sevens or 15s," Barrett said. "We all have a handful of national championships. Coach told us they'll be back, eventually."