Ted Wood, who has coached Durham University rugby unpaid for 34 years, was last week named as The Northern Echo’s Local Hero.

In the first of a series profiling Local Heroes, Owen Amos meets him to hear of famous wins, famous friends, and how it might have ended before it began.

THE love affair between man and game has seen Ted Wood coach Durham University rugby, unpaid, for 34 years, and shape some of England’s sharpest talents, from Will Carling to Will Greenwood. Yet the affair was almost beaten at birth, knocked out of touch by rugby’s booze culture.

Ted, 74, grew up in a strict Methodist home, teetotal on both sides, in pre-war Barnsley. At 11, he won a scholarship to Wakefield Grammar School, and was introduced to rugby. Aged 15, after making his name at scrum-half – “It was where you put small boys,” he says – he was invited to play for Barnsley’s first team.

“My dad said ‘You’re not going, I don’t want you like those drinkers’,” says Ted. “I wasn’t an arguer, but I said ‘What if I told you I won’t drink?’ He said ‘All the time?’ and I gave him my word. I have been teetotal ever since, bar an occasional glass of wine.”

His team-mates – big South Yorkshire boys, the majority from the mines – looked after him.

“If anyone smacked me, there were so many miners in the side they would say ‘Who hit you?’ I would tell them and they’d take care of me.”

It was Wakefield Grammar School, Ted says, that taught him the power of sport; the power to boost boys with little else to shout about. No wonder it received his life’s attention. “It was a remarkable school, I was very lucky to have gone there,” he says. “I struggled academically and sport gave me the confidence, and respect from my peers, that allowed me to cope.”

Those memories made him enrol at teacher training college in London, after two years of National Service. After leaving college, he taught PE at Tunbridge Wells and played for Blackheath, then one of the country’s best sides – “I realised I wasn’t going to be a star” – before the Northern boy came home.

He taught for seven years in South Yorkshire, before moving west to Huddersfield, where he coached the town’s team. “I built a great knowledge base by going to talk to people,” he says. “I don’t think people do that now. There was a realisation that coaching is as much about manmanagement as parading knowledge.” Huddersfield duly had three record seasons.

But it was 1974, and a move to teach at Sunderland’s teacher training college, where Durham and Ted, the perfect match, first kicked off. “I had a delegation from Durham University asking if I’d coach their side,” he says. “The rugby proved to be fantastic.”

Then, in the era before degrees in everything from acoustics to yacht design, Durham had just 700 students. In the recruitment drive, the Hatfield College master, Dr Tom Whitworth, decided to get as many rugby players as possible. It worked. Hatfield alumni includes Will Carling, World Cup winner Will Greenwood and former England full-back Marcus Rose. The university enjoyed glory years. It won the universities’ rugby championship in 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1987, and were blessed by future internationals like Phil De Glanville and Chris Oti.

By 1991, Ted’s rugby bandwagon was rolling and, eventually, rolled too fast. He coached Durham and England Students, coached abroad in his holidays – from Canada to Yugoslavia – managed the North of England and helped set up The Times Trophy, the European universities tournament.

“It was absolutely obsessive behaviour,” he says. “By 1991 I had nothing left. I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t get into work. The university agreed with my idea to take early retirement.

What I should have done was take a year’s sabbatical – they offered it, but I just thought ‘How will I ever be able to work again?’”

He moved to Scarborough, and may have stayed there had a group of students not travelled 75 miles down the North Yorkshire coast.

“They asked me to come back,” he says. “What a compliment. I came back from Scarborough to Durham three times a week, a 150-mile round trip. After two years, a job came up at Durham City Rugby Club as an administrator, which I took on the understanding I could coach at the university. It was like I’d never been away.”

It’s the students, Ted says, that explain why he’s turned up in the cold and wet, unpaid, for 34 years. “I know they are affluent, I know they are elitist, but they are also well-mannered. I have had some lovely letters from them. They are able to take on board what I say and they’re appreciative. I think myself incredibly fortunate to have worked at Durham University.”

And with that he pauses, apologises, breathes in sharply, and dabs his damp eyes.

Now, there are four coaches, unpaid by the university, including Fergus King, Phillip Harvey and Steven Colwell. Each gives at least 15 hours a week and the university, including college sides, puts out 28 teams a week. You hope the university pays the groundsmen.

Ted says his best moment came four years ago when he was a cog, rather than main wheel.

“Winning the championship in 2004, being back on top for the first time since 1987, was fantastic,”

he says. “We beat Exeter and it was described in The Times as the best game at Twickenham in a decade.”

He’s leaving at the season’s end and is raising money to fund the university’s first full-time rugby coach. You don’t doubt he’ll succeed.

Leaving, after 34 years of cup wins and England caps, will be hard. But, he insists, it’s time.

“When I first came to the university we had Hartley Elliot, an international referee, who had looked after university rugby for 30 years,” says Ted. “He was told by the registrar he wasn’t wanted any more and he said to me ‘I should have seen it coming’.

“Like him, I’m still trying to live in the world as it was, and I see it’s changing. Where once I would knock on the vice-chancellor’s door, there’s now a management chain. The university is changing and it’s time for me to go. Knowing when to go is always the hardest part.”

So, come October 2009, when the latest Durham University side starts its latest season, what will their former coach do? “I hope I will be able to watch the games,” he says. “But keep my mouth shut.”

■ See 16-page Local Heroes Awards supplement in tomorrow’s Northern Echo