Kudos ‘Tank’ Otieno, rugby's brand new PhD degree holder!

Former Kenyan international and rugby coach Michael "Tank" Otieno after he graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Education (Physical Education and Sports) from the University of Nairobi on September 25, 2020. His thesis was titled: The Influence of the Socio-Cultural Environment on Talent Identification for Rugby Players in Rugby Clubs in Kenya.


Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • In fact, in Kenya, with a population of 51 million, there are only 6,122 PhD holders in our universities according to a 2019 report by the Commission for University Education
  • Otieno’s achievement was particularly remarkable as he was featuring in the elite Kenya Cup league for a top club while managing to study
  • Being multi-talented in sports he did play football while in lower class at Alliance High and there is where he was  “Tank” for his uncanny resemblance to a then Uganda Cranes player called Stanley “Tanker” Mubiru


I do not know who coined this term, -- with a light touch of course, “Permanent Head Damage”, to refer to a condition that afflicts people who acquire a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree.

This is the highest academic degree that a student can get at the university. You can imagine the mental rigour over several years one exerts to attain the qualification. No wonder it is the domain of a chosen few.

In fact, in Kenya, with a population of 51 million, there are only 6,122 PhD holders in our universities according to a 2019 report by the Commission for University Education. That is a ratio of one PhD holder for every 8,331 people.  Now that is rarefied territory

That is why I was pleasantly surprised and proud, as every Kenyan who has played rugby in this country was, when Michael “Tank” Otieno graduated with a PhD in Education (Physical Education and Sports) from the University of Nairobi on Friday.
Ahem, Doctor Otieno’s thesis was titled: “The Influence of the Socio-Cultural Environment on Talent Identification for Rugby Players in Rugby Clubs in Kenya.”

Kenya's coach Michael "Tank" Otieno follows the action Uganda on June 15, 2013 during their Elgon Cup match against Uganda at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani.


Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

They say once you play rugby you become a member of the game for life. We are a tight-knit fraternity, proud of our playing days and joined by an unspoken bond that makes us celebrate the achievements of “our” rugby guy or mourn their failures.
It is just a rugby thing that one cannot explain. And Otieno is not your ordinary rugby guy.

He has played the game at the highest level, and also coached at the highest level.

Brought up in Kisumu where hockey and football were the dominant sports, Otieno got acquainted with the rough and tumble game at Alliance High School where he was admitted for his secondary education in the 1970s after scoring three As in Certificate of Primary Education (CPE).

He wrote two pieces of history in as far as rugby is concerned at Alliance.

The first was leading an unfancied Alliance School sevens rugby team to the final of the 1979 John Andrews Sevens tournament held at Lenana High School. Given little chance against the dominant side then, Rift Valley Academy, in the final despite seeing off outstanding Nairobi School in the quarter-finals and formidable hosts Lenana in the semis, Alliance went on to win 26-24.

It is on the strength of that performance that Otieno, a nippy scrum half, full of cut and slash backed by solid tackling, was called up to captain the Kenya Schools Combined. An Alliance boy excelling in the game.

The second was becoming the first black to play for the then whites-dominated Nondescripts while a school boy. Otieno’s achievement was particularly remarkable as he was featuring in the elite Kenya Cup league for a top club while managing to study.

He played for Nondies Tigers in the 1979 Kenya Cup final against Nondies Lions.

From left: Kahare Miano, Ambala, Archie Hatcher and Alex Kioni tackle Michael 'Tank' Otieno during the third George Mwangi Kabeberi Memorial Sevens at Nairobi Railway Club on April 1, 1990.


Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Otieno qualified in his A Level exams to be called to Kenyatta University for a course in Botany and Zoology but on registering he changed to Mathematics and Physical Education. Naturally, he played for the varsity side Blak Blad.

He readily admits he was surprised to get a Kenya call-up in 1981 while a student at the university to face a fearsome touring Zimbabwe side.

There were issues with the final squad selection but Otieno thoroughly justified his selection as Kenya went down 34-24 in a bruising encounter at RFUEA ground.

His coaching career reads as long as the online verbal spat between Kieleweke and Tanga Tanga political leaning keyboard warriors:

Kenya trainer 1992, Moi University’s Arsonists 1992-1995, KCB 1995, Kenyatta University’s Black Blad 1996-1997, Kenya Sevens 1998-2000, KCB 2002-2007, Kenya Simbas 2007-2012, KCB 2009-2010, KRU rugby services manager 2012-2015, Blak Blad 2013-2019.

Kenya Rugby Union, Rugby Services manager Michael "Tank" Otieno display's Elgon Cup they won in Kyagogo Stadium against Uganda in Kampala at RFUEA ground on June 24, 2013.


Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Notably though, Otieno was one of the pioneers of Damu Pevu, a gathering of selfless Bachelor of Education students of Kenyatta University, who played rugby and dreamed of spreading it – for free -- in the country, wherever they were posted for their teaching careers.

How did he get his now famous nickname “Tank”?

Being multi-talented in sports he did play football while in lower class at Alliance High and there is where he was  “Tank” for his uncanny resemblance to a then Uganda Cranes player called Stanley “Tanker” Mubiru.

Tank is now a staff lecturer at the University of Nairobi Physical Education and Sports department. He also teaches part-time at Koitalel Samoei University College, a constituent college of UoN. Otieno has in fact been tasked with establishing a sports department at Koitalel.

He is indeed very busy man in the world of academia, but still has time for his beloved rugby.

Otieno is a World Rugby trainer and says he is open for another stint at coaching.

“I have many more years to offer to rugby, maybe 10 years,” he told me, his famous rumbling laugh accompanying the declaration.

Michael “Tank” Otieno has been involved in the highly physical game of rugby for over four decades and I am not aware of any head damage he suffered.

If anything, he has added much knowledge to that rugby brain, he should be celebrated. I dare say he deserves to be feted by the nation with a state commendation.

Congratulations Tank on acquiring a PhD! Rugby is proud of you.