Gents of Aspen coach Waititi stepping down |

Gents of Aspen coach Waititi stepping down

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Fred Waititi, a soft-spoken Kiwi who in three years as head coach helped steer the Gentlemen of Aspen rugby team from near extinction back to national prominence, is stepping down.

The official announcement came Thursday afternoon in a club news release. It is not known whether the move is effective immediately; Waititi, who is working at a camp in Vail this week, did not return calls seeking comment.

“I just think he has put so much work into it, and there was a need to spend more time with his family,” said Mark Williams, a former club president, coach and longtime player.

“Freddy has taken us from pretty much the lowest we’ve been since I’ve been here to a national championship in two to three years – that is amazing. It’s probably the best feat … that has happened here.”

In 2007, Waititi took over a decorated program that had fallen on hard times. The Gents, who won a total of seven national titles in the Super League and the top division of USA Rugby between 1997 and 2002, were struggling to find sponsors or attract blue-chip players – the lifeblood of the club for decades. Recruiting efforts were compounded by the high cost of living and a lack of affordable housing.

Waititi embraced the challenge. He enlisted players from the Roaring Fork Valley and other mountain-town clubs to fill out the roster.

Waititi, a Gents player for nearly a decade, then got to work building a winner.

“He realized that the basic building blocks of a good team was what we needed. He didn’t take any shortcuts,” Williams said. “He showed no favoritism toward supposedly star players. … The pattern here was having great team spirit … and having everyone work as hard as everyone else.”

The team rallied around Waititi from the start, Gents player Simon Dogbe said.

“He’s very well respected,” Dogbe added. “He’s not as far removed from the players as other coaches have been. … He’s one of us.”

That rapport translated into success. Waititi guided Aspen to three consecutive Ruggerfest titles. In 2009, the Gents, seeded 14th in a field of 16, claimed the Division I national championship – their first in six years and eighth overall.

The title was the club’s second in a nine-month span; it captured the National Sevens crown in August 2008 in San Francisco under the direction of Waititi and fellow coach Andy Katoa.

Aspen is believed to be the first club in history to hold both titles simultaneously.

“A lot of other teams have well-known players and big budgets … we have to buy our own beer,” Waititi joked in an interview with The Aspen Times shortly after winning the Division I crown. “We had to fight hard for each other just to be able to compete. It’s a tribute to the players the way they came together and what they accomplished.”

And a tribute to Waititi, Williams insisted.

“Freddy knows this game inside and out, played at a high level and genuinely is one of the most honest coaches you could wish for,” he added. “I think the players respected him hugely. … After every game, the first person they went to hug was Freddy.

“One of the best things I can say is that a lot of the younger players will always remember Freddy no matter what. He was a teacher on the field and off the field to them.”

Waititi guided the Gents to a semifinal berth in late May’s Division I tournament in Austin, Texas. After a consolation-match victory over the Kansas City Blues, he informed players of his decision to step aside.

“I was not really surprised, disappointed. But it’s understandable. He put in some good years. … He put in the hardest years,” Dogbe said.

“This team would’ve folded without him. … He’s leaving the club a lot better than he found it.”

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