McTavish has spent almost three decades on the Point Grey campus, six years as a student and 22 as an assistant coach, head coach and director. In between his first arrival at UBC and his return as a coach, the man nicknamed “Spike” became one of this country’s greatest rugby players.
“It’s time,” says McTavish. “It’s much like when I retired from teaching, it sort of comes up on you and it just says, ‘Hey, it’s time for you to move on.’ “
In 1992, McTavish returned to UBC to become an assistant coach with the varsity program. Five years later, he replaced Barry Legh as head coach before moving onto the director of rugby position.
McTavish has led the effort to rebuild UBC into the continent’s top university rugby program. He retires having arguably finished that task after the completion of the Gerald McGavin UBC Rugby Centre last year and the Thunderbirds’ victories in the “World” Cup series against the University of California, Berkeley and the Wightman Boot contests versus the University of Victoria this season. UBC also beat Victoria to win the College Division at the Las Vegas Invitational 7s tournament.
“The thing you remember most is the players, and the characters that come through,” says McTavish of his years at UBC. “It’s always inspiring to watch an athlete grow, not only as an athlete but also as a person. We’ve turned out some pretty interesting characters in our years.
“The thing that scares me is just how fast time has gone by. I think, ‘Okay, that’s a former player,’ but now he’s 38 years old and he’s got three kids and a great job and I’m thinking, ‘How did that happen?’ ‘Where did the time go?’ Those experiences are way better than wins and losses.”
McTavish has worked to leave the program in excellent shape. It has strong alumni support and outstanding facilities. Another star-studded recruiting class has been confirmed for the 2014-15 season, which will see the ‘Birds play in the BC Rugby Union’s Canadian Direct Insurance Premier League.
“I think I’ve accomplished a lot in my time here. I remember when Buzz Moore and I first started the endowment fund and what we did to build that, which was great,” says McTavish of the Thunderbird Rugby Endowment Fund, which provides more than $30,000 annually to projects such as scholarships, travel and coaching.
During his time as a coach and director with the Thunderbirds, McTavish has helped produce numerous players for the national sevens and 15’s teams, including current member Harry Jones.
“Going into UBC as a first year, Spence gave me a lot of great pointers and tips on how to play the game, being a young guy coming into to play with some older ones,” recalls Jones. “He was an excellent role model because he played some sevens back in the day. Spence was a great player and so I always listened to him intently because his words were important to the improvement of my game.
“I just want to wish him all the best in retirement. He deserves it. He’s spent quite a few years at UBC, yelling at the back of the end goal. Spence is a good friend of mine and I wish him all the best.”
After graduating from Vancouver’s Prince of Wales Secondary School, McTavish began his time with the blue and gold under head coach Donn Spence. He was a key member of the 1970-71 T-Birds squad that is considered the best the school has ever fielded. That season, McTavish scored 39 tries, leading UBC to a 21-1 record, which included victories in the Tisdall Cup, McKechnie Cup and the “World” Cup series against California. Both McTavish and the 1970-71 team have been inducted into the UBC Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1973, he capped off his university career by winning the Bobby Gaul Memorial Trophy, which is given to UBC’s top graduating male athlete.
After completing his Physical Education degree in 1973, McTavish and Legh, with help from rugby great Buzz Moore, formed a new team, the UBC ‘Old Boys’, which thrives to this day. With the ‘Old Boys,’ McTavish starred as he won the esteemed Howie McPhee Memorial Trophy in 1976 as the Vancouver Rugby Union’s outstanding player. He was also selected the “Old Boys Back of the Decade” and has had a club scholarship set up in his name.
McTavish’s international career actually began while he was still at UBC. In November of 1970, the Canadian national men’s rugby team was training at UBC and needed an extra player at practice, so McTavish went. Then the national team’s regular winger missed his flight to Vancouver and McTavish suddenly was the starter for Canada against Fiji on Nov. 28, 1970 in Burnaby.
He had never been selected to represent BC prior to the game and yet McTavish was playing for the national team in front of a hometown crowd. The game was played in an inch of snow at Burnaby Lake and McTavish scored a try and prevented two others. It was quite the debut.
Over 17 years, part of which he spent as captain of the national team, McTavish played over 50 games for Canada and earned 22 caps for representing his country in full international test matches.
During his playing career, he was known for his speed, agility, tackling and his long, flowing blonde hair. McTavish was recognized in 1976 by being named to an Overseas XV squad that squared off against Cardiff. In 1980, he was chosen to the World XV squad on the occasion of the Welsh Rugby Union Centenary, evidence that everyone in the rugby world recognized the greatness of Spence McTavish. He also captained Canada at the Hong Kong Sevens tournament three times.
His final games with Canada came in 1987 at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and Australia. McTavish had been asked to come out of a five-year retirement to help with an inexperienced back line. At 37 years old, he was still a treat to watch, playing against opponents nearly half his age.
McTavish has already been recognized with numerous honours for his sporting exploits. In addition to his induction into the UBC Sports Hall of Fame in 2002, he was enshrined into the BC Rugby Hall of Fame in 2008 and the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.
Also in 2008, the Vancouver Secondary Schools Athletic Association introduced the McTavish-Sturrock Shield as the prize awarded to the senior boys’ rugby champions. The shield also honours Doug Sturrock, a fellow UBC rugby alumnus.
Alongside his involvement with UBC and the Canadian national team, McTavish spent 34 years as a teacher at Lord Byng Secondary School in Vancouver, where he was also a longtime rugby coach. He retired from teaching in 2007.
– with files from Fred Hume (UBC Athletics Historian) and Jason Beck (Curator, BC Sports Hall of Fame)