Alex Magleby, Free Jacks CEO: Mr. Rugby - Truly Legendary
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
ED. NOTE: This interview was conducted with Alex Magleby ahead of the 2021 MLR campaign. It is truly insightful reading what he felt about the cancelation of the 2020 season and his impressions looking forward to 2021. Nearing the end of the '21 season, Free Jacks have done all their CEO hoped of his club, and more...
Most rugby insiders know who Alex Magleby is.
North American rugby supporters should know that Magleby is the New England Free Jacks co-founder and CEO.
And MLR fans might even know that Magleby is probably one of the most astute – and funniest – personalities in our game.
But most probably don’t know that Magleby’s many accomplishments amount to a veritable laundry list. Don't believe me? Read on.
Alex Magleby grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, where there’s a great long-standing tradition of rugby. At Highland High School, rugby was legendary throughout the 80s and 90s. So much so that the 2008 film Forever Strong is based on the Highland rugby program. Coached from 1976-2012 by Larry Gelwix – a man who strived to be a mentor to his young players – it was massively successful.
It was under Gelwix’s tutelage that Alex learned to ply the trade, training five days a week. At the same time, he also just happened to be Student Body President (earning honours) and was his graduating class Valedictorian.
Magleby’s rugby values were instilled by Coach Gelwix, values that serve as what rugby people know to be the gold standard, and what sets rugby apart. Each player was responsible to hold themselves accountable to their team, to work hard for themselves – and each other.
“Larry is a fantastic motivator,” Magleby says. With a sharpened ability to hold a room, Gelwix created a culture where the team had the “desire to toil together. When you have that, you can really build a tribe. There were a lot of really good rituals that he instilled. There was a common language. All the things that good teams have: they speak the same language... and there are behaviour norms that are acceptable – or unacceptable.”
In this regard, the way the program is portrayed in the film is accurate.
“This was high school rugby in the 90s in the United States, and yet we were training five days a week.” There was also just as much strength conditioning, each player ran two miles a day, did a set of sprints, and took part in video analysis. It was “a performance environment – the best a high school could do for rugby at that time.” But also, Magleby says, it was about the individual. Good coaches check in, ask how a player’s day and life is going. They don’t just concern themselves with the on-field action. This is what set Gelwix apart.
“At the time, if there had been 100 programs like that in the United States, how good would the national team have been?”
The idea of a tribe exists everywhere there is a group with a common goal. But a mutually agreed-upon set of 'rules', establishing what the behaviour norms are, and being clear and concise in your expectations, those are what makes a team truly stand out. “Any team I have been around that’s been successful had those in place,” Magleby says. Trust is just as key. The team has to trust the process and the coaches, but also each other. “I always say that my Highland experience was about Toil, Trust and Tribalism.”
It is also, of course, about spotting the talent. Yet another skill Magleby learned from mentor-coach Gelwix. “He was a great scout,” Magleby says. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
After all, Alex Magleby is the coach that worked with sprinter Carlin Isles when he tried out for the Men’s 7s team. Isles is one of the fastest players on the circuit. But that isn’t all – his work ethic is bang on. It’s what makes for a great player, but it’s also what makes the coach who can spot it extraordinary.
Already traveling the world with rugby in his teens, Magleby was set up early for great things. By the time he hit Dartmouth College in 1996, he was firmly on a path to greatness.
But remarkably, despite Dartmouth being “a great rugby school,” Magleby wasn’t entirely certain he was going to commit to the oval ball in his freshman year. He headed to Dartmouth for the Engineering program and all the outdoor activities such as skiing and hiking.
It wasn’t until Kevin Whitcher (who also went on to play for the Eagles) spotted Magleby’s Highland t-shirt and convinced the fellow redhead to join the squad that Alex even considered it. Once he did, he was reminded of what he loves about the game.
“Just like any rugby club around the world, suddenly you have 50 good friends who are socio-economically and globally very diverse; it’s what brought me back to the game at 18 years old, and it’s what has always brought me back to the game. Such a camaraderie on the field and off the field. We take it exceptionally seriously as a sport, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously as players. That is the way rugby has always been. That duality is really important.”
The game itself is great, but it’s the people who make it; the relationships that are forged in the accords made when players work as hard for the collective as they do for themselves. It was a great experience, one that Magleby reflects upon fondly.
He didn’t just play for Dartmouth with distinction, Magleby also went on to coach the team from 2001-2012 before coaching the US Rugby 7s program.
His record is most impressive: 15 Ivy League championships in 18 seasons.
This is where you can see that the trajectory leading Magleby to where he is today is the stuff of rugby lore.
Magleby was in his final year at Dartmouth when he got selected to play for the USA 7s in their first season of the world series circuit.
It was one of those classic situations: the call asking Magleby if he could be on a plane to Paris within 24 hours, Magleby dropping everything to head to the airport, and the rest being history. It was the moment he made a deal with himself to go ahead and “chase this for the next two years of my life" then call it a day. He graduated Dartmouth, played his rugby in both 7s and 15s for two years, captained the 7s, and found himself in New Zealand playing for a rugby club down there.
Magleby was still in NZ when Dartmouth called with the offer that would take him off the pitch and start him on the path he’s currently on – to the benefit of both men and women’s rugby, USA rugby development, youth rugby, and finally, Major League Rugby and the Free Jacks.
Only two years out of school himself, Magleby took on the auspicious task of head coach at Dartmouth, which he did with great success.
During his decade-plus tenure, his coaching education was pivotal. He learned to be creative – also applying what he had observed as a player. Magleby notes that in rugby players and coaches play their roles in a much more linear way than the hierarchical model more commonly seen in the NFL. This is an important aspect of rugby and another way we are different.
Alex Magleby’s logical next step was the decision to help the Free Jacks enter the MLR, which they did (officially) in the 2020 season.
While there were exhibition games in 2018-19, there’s a pang of regret that the Free Jacks never officially enjoyed a home game in their debut season, since 2020 had a different plan for the Free Jacks, MLR, and the rest of us.
2020 and the global pandemic aside, if the interest that has remained in the MLR during this painfully long offseason is any indication, the future – whenever that might be – looks bright.
Of entering the MLR fray, Magleby says he had no hesitation.
He'd been following the attempts at professional rugby in America and saw a difference in the MLR plan that made it seem more sustainable from many angles. As a guy who likes to draft a plan, this resonated with the player, the coach, and the technical advisor.
“What I like about the MLR is that it controls costs fairly well, and it doesn’t have to be the NFL tomorrow, or even in 20 years. It wants to connect to the existing rugby community first and foremost, then build from there, to share that experience with new people. Growth is happening, but it is happening in a sustainable way so we’re able to do this five decades from now.”
How did Covid-19 and the cancelling of the 2020 season impact the growth of the MLR and the Free Jacks? “Obviously, when we made the decision to cancel the season it was very difficult from an emotional standpoint. But from the league’s perspective, they were cash-positive when the pandemic hit.”
As to be expected, Magleby laments that the Free Jacks never got to host an event. “Our growth model right now is tied to live events. One, for the revenue it would generate, but two – and as important – that is the catalyst that would bring new fans to the sport. We really do need live events to grow the game, to grow the MLR. Live events are very special.”
It’s the entire “festival atmosphere” of seeing a game live, of meeting other supporters, sharing a pint, and cheering for each other that feels unique to rugby. Magleby regrets that his team hasn’t had the chance to put all that on display at home – yet.
“When do we get fans having that experience? That is not yet known. But we are committed to running the  season. Our hope is that fans will be allowed from the start of the season – may not be 100% capacity, but hopefully some capacity to have fans, and over the course of the season that’ll increase, and we will get to a situation where we can start sharing the game with many more people.”
It’s so unfortunate that the Free Jacks have never hosted an event, given that they entered the MLR in 2018 in an exhibition capacity. Magleby and the team are anxious to host a home stand, to show what they’ve got.
The Free Jacks’ record of their first official season (or partial season) in the MLR is 1 and 4 but doesn’t tell the entire story. Of those four losses, two of them were actually hard-fought and against the two top teams. The third was against NOLA, themselves consistently hovering near the top of the table. “Scored the most tries, played all of their first [and only] five games away, every game we were in the match,” Magleby muses, with a hint of what might have been. He adds that the Free Jacks’ first home match would have been St. Patrick’s weekend to a sold-out crowd – which was called off 48 hours before kick-off because of the pandemic.
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There was great stuff ahead for the remainder of the Free Jacks inaugural season. Surely a finish in the top half of the table was within reach. Will the 2021 season reflect this?
In the meantime Alex Magleby, what’s the five-year plan?
“I love building things, very much a systems’ type builder, such as with USA Rugby. So, with Free Jacks, the next five years is to get things to a place where the MLR is – if not in the Big Four, at least in the conversation of the Big Six sports within North America.”
Definition: the sport will be growing, with both youth and adults interested in both live and/or television viewing, with television and media agreements compelling to excite fans.
“And then we will be building better communities because of all that.”
Blaine Scully, former Eagles Captain and one of the USA’s most successful overseas exports, confirms the breadth of Magleby’s talents:
"Having worked with Mags as both a rugby coach and sport administrator, I have seen firsthand his ability to organize rugby systems and teams. He not only has a deep understanding of the structural needs of rugby organizations but the technical and tactical components of team performance as well."
Regarding the sport administration side of running a professional team, the Free Jacks are currently working on a Foundation so players don’t have to pay to play, to grow the game within New England, with the plan that both girls and boys can play the sport in a safe environment that is advantageous for everyone.
The next logical question is to ask where Magleby sees women fitting into the MLR.
He would love to see professional women’s rugby in the MLR and looks forward to the day when that happens on a fair and equitable level. In his mind, it wouldn’t work any other way. The MLR isn’t quite there yet. But it’s very much the hope of Magleby and others within the MLR that women’s teams are in the offing. “I think it’s important to set up a model that is successful and sustainable,” he says. Equitability is a big question, but to Magleby isn’t negotiable.
There are many elements that have to be in place so women’s rugby can be on par with the men’s side of the sport. Magleby sees it happening – and he knows there are investors in the wings – but as he says, it has to be the right time.
Women have turned the tide regarding their ‘fit’ within Rugby. There are a lot of positive movements forward, slow though it might be. Despite slow progress, it is happening, with the women’s side of the sport gaining support by the day. And not just by women. Case in point: The Free Jacks 2021 kit launch ad shows female players. It was a great step forward, and it wasn’t overlooked by supporters – men and women alike.
As with everyone across the globe, Alex Magleby is also watching with interest to see how Rugby 10’s progresses.
He admits it’s still in its infancy and that it’ll be interesting to see how they evolve with the idea of a circuit in the near future. Whether the MLR gets more broadly involved in 10’s has yet to be determined. The MLR has bandied about the idea of a 7s version of the MLR on the off-season here and there over the years, and Magleby thinks it will be interesting to see where that goes.
For now, the MLR remains focused on the core, on making sure that it continues to grow and be sustainable, to continue to stabilize and take root with the rugby public. The more stable the core is, the more these other ideas on the fringes can take hold and become reality.
Magleby agrees that a USA World Cup bid would be ideal if made in partnership as a North American bid, an idea shared by many rugby supporters. A 2027 World Cup is conceivable “if things started happening yesterday.” Noting that 50% of the seats might have to be filled by an international crowd, the hope is that as each year passes and MLR takes hold, so would the domestic interest in the international game. [Note: 6 months on it has been confirmed that USA is in the running for both 2027 and 2031. It appears inevitable that they will host one of these World Cups].
By his own admission, it’s been a long eight months with the coronavirus closing down shop everywhere. “The good news is that the players can continue to get fit, and we can still connect with our fans,” Magleby says, adding that the hope is still that the team gets on the field in mid-February to start training for the 2021 season and playing live matches by the end of March. Sharing it live with fans, at least on TV to start, is definitely something the Free Jacks are looking forward to doing. Full steam ahead, to continue to grow the brand.
If there are any positives to the last year, “a lot of the MLR teams have had to learn to be good at other things besides just putting out a good rugby team, and that will make us better companies in the long term,” Magleby says.
What does Alex Magleby miss about being on the pitch as a player himself? He shares that there are a lot of really great memories. But at the end of the day, for him, the game always comes back to the people. The experiences are not always the most glamorous for a player:
“Just some grinding you’ve done, and you’re in the mud, but you’re doing it with people you’ve toiled with to get to that point. That is the ultimate part of the game, whether that’s in Hong Kong stadium or it’s on a dirty, wet, rainy, frozen mud field in Northern Wales, or a nice, clean fast pitch in California, it’s having those experiences with your teammates, the collective. I don’t think there’s any one that is better than any other in that way. It’s that toil together, that competition together, that’s what I miss the most about being a player for sure.”
As a former player and an individual interested in growing the game, anyone can have that experience. Everyone is welcome, and everyone can celebrate being a team together. Whether as a player or spectator, it’s the idea of standing shoulder to shoulder and having a laugh that is so important in our sport. That, to Magleby, is what the sport of rugby is.
Josh Larsen, Free Jacks Captain and Canadian International, knows the value of having Alex Magleby at the helm: “Mags bring a different approach to his work,” he says. “He’s not your average CEO. He’s always thinking outside the box. He’s doing a great job trying to grow the fan base and the rugby community throughout New England. And with that, the hope is it will elevate the on-field product. The future of New England rugby is looking bright!”
All this, and by his own admission, Alex Magleby is apparently getting enough sleep to get by.
Magleby is loving sharing experiences with his three kids as they start to find their way within their own sports of choice. A proud Dad moment was when his daughter started to ski two years ago. Now the kids are starting to skate, so the fun never ends, especially on an extended lockdown. As a life-long athlete, being able to enjoy their sports with them checks items off Magleby’s bucket list. And it isn’t just active pursuits either, he can’t wait to start playing chess with his daughter.
For an individual with so storied a career within rugby, it speaks to the measure of the man that being there with his kids as they learn and enjoy their first experiences is what he’s most looking forward to, to watch their faces, and to have a laugh.
Alex Magleby’s bucket list is an enviable one. And within reach.
When we spoke, Magleby lamented that his team hadn’t yet had the opportunity to show off their hosting chops and put on a suitable at-home display. the good news is that as the 2021 season wraps up, that's all behind Mags and his Free Jacks. The amazing spectacle that the Free Jacks have put on at home, from inviting pets, thanking essential workers, to a family festival and pride weekend, PLUS a great furry new mascot named Woodgy, they have done a magnificent job of welcoming new and returning fans alike. On June 28, 2021 it was announced that Free Jacks would be moving to the state of the art Veterans Memorial Stadium in Quincy MA for the last match of the 2021 season and going forward. The announcement is exciting and proves the growing popularity of Magleby's team. A proud moment for the man who lives and breathes rugby.
-Karen L. Gasbarino, Dec. 2020, updated June, 2021
Rugby Hive Editor
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