On field or off, fight never ends for coach
To celebrate his 51st birthday Tuesday afternoon, Dave Sitton went back to work.
More specifically, the head coach of the Arizona men's club rugby team joined his players on their usual makeshift pitch at the south end of the Rincon Vista field.
It's a place where in the past 12 months, Sitton has fought mediocrity on the field and mortality off of it.
Yet just more than a year after being diagnosed with a deadly form of lymphoma, he bandied about the cold-beaten, cleat-pocked terrain, barking orders with his normal fervor while showing a group of shivering dogs a more efficient way to move up the field.
Last year's team finished 7-5, and Sitton has decided all of them have too much work ahead of them to rest.
"For us, that's a disaster," said Sitton of 2005, when the Ruggers moved over .500 only after Long Beach State had to forfeit for using two ineligible players. "We're a double-digit-win program. We're looking to the postseason every year. If we're out one year, we should be back the following year. We've been out of the postseason two times (in a row now)."
For all Sitton's trials of late, Tucson's Chamber of Commerce named him the city's Man of the Year. It's an honor Sitton, who said he's achieved "100 percent kill" on his disease, wasn't sure he deserved.
"It's better to be named Man of the Year this year than last year being named 'Man of the Cancer,'" he said. "We're already off to a better start than we were last year."
His players can agree. Their 3-1 fall record hinted of promise not whiffed of lately, and with a strong performance at the inaugural Pac-10 Tournament this weekend in Los Angeles, where the Ruggers could gain as many as five wins, the team would be right on track with its glory-day seasons.
"I'm actually very hopeful because I think we're starting to play a style that fits us," Sitton said. "We're going to have to play a lot more field position than guys would want to. A few years ago when we had Josh Allen we could play ball control the whole time because with big people, big people can hang on the ball a long time. Little people can't."
What the players lack in size, they've started to make up for with pure speed.
After second-year conditioning coach Glenn Howell sent each athlete home for winter break with a four-page regimen, he was so happy with the results that he called Sitton on his cell phone just moments before an Arizona men's basketball broadcast on Fox Sports Net. (Sitton maintained his broadcast duties for the Wildcats while recovering.)
"We will be 100 percent faster than we were last year," said senior flyhalf and team president Mark Gallo. "The guys have conditioned extremely hard, and in the offseason we had to come back to take tests. Usually, 65 percent (of players) pass the running tests. I'd say 95 percent of the guys passed this test this time."
So far, all signs show Sitton's passed his tests with flying colors. He completed his eighth and final chemotherapy session at the Arizona Cancer Center in July and said he managed to make every one of the team's practices that spring.
"I was out there, and I had a responsibility," he said. "The last thing I wanted to do is compound a difficult year for the team with my difficulties. And, quite frankly, I liked the fact that I led the team on - sometimes dressed up as a Marine, all those weird things. I went in there one time, dressed in Marine fatigues, and I told them, 'I'm here to kill cancer.'"
Still, things weren't all fun and games. Gallo said he often saw Sitton sapped physically on the sidelines, his trademark spirit evidently unable to make the party.
"He would be late, he would have to leave early, to come from therapy and go to therapy," Gallo said. "You could just see it in his facial expressions. He just wasn't all there. Sometimes he would miss a beat, you know, he would contradict himself. He just looked like he had enough, like he was beat, like he had just woken up and wasn't ready to be doing that.
"That's the kind of guy coach Sitton was," he said. "He always puts himself second. He'll try to fight no matter what."
Sitton said the main culprit for last year's losing was a culture different from years past. Players didn't put in the necessary work away from practice, especially the seniors, who let the underclassmen stray from the team concept.
"It was a tough experience," Gallo said. "The losses also placed a burden on the fact that he's sick also, and now we just lost, and that sort of compiles.
"But I think that we were able to, at times, keep it separate," he said. "The rugby business was rugby business, and outside, we were always there for him. I remember myself and (former team president) Justin (Kunz) and some of the other officers were always willing to do anything for him, his family members, his children. We were all there for him."
While recovering, Sitton said he received countless phone calls, letters and e-mails from past players and alumni wishing him well. One alumnus sent a letter that Sitton said moved his wife to tears.
"I said, 'Now you understand why I do this insanity, why I coach these people,'" Sitton said.
Such people rely on him for leadership for another spring slate. Sitton is 336-175-12 over more than 27 seasons at Arizona, and while he said he's searching for a replacement, he wants to stick around as long as he's wanted.
"He's a warrior, to say the least," sophomore flanker Chris Dublinski said. "He was Tucson's Man of the Year this year. He's the man."
A man winning the fight to put a troubled year behind him.
"As you watch sports franchises and teams, they go in cycles, and I think we're now emerging from - I'm not going to say a down cycle - but I'm certainly going to say a cycle where we weren't at our best," Sitton said. "I think this team has already worked very hard to pull us out of that."