UBC head football coach Blake Nill admits it will be awkward facing the Dinos on Friday, a team he largely recruited and coached for nine seasons. Photo: Ric Ernst/Postmedia News
The focus of everyone’s attention is not expecting to be white-hatted at the airport upon disembarking. Or find a smiling Welcome Wagon representative knocking on his hotel-room door bearing a fancy gift basket of fruit and cheese.
He’s not anticipating hugs or kisses or floral bouquets.
“There’s no question,’’ acknowledges Blake Nill, from out Vancouver way, “that there’ll be a little bit of … uneasiness, if you know what I’m saying.
“The Calgary program was very dear to me. The coaches there were some of the closest I’ve ever been associated with. The alumni treated me with the utmost respect. And I’m very, very close to the players who played for me.
“My decision to move on didn’t sit well with various groups (at the U of C). I don’t think there’s anything personal, but sometimes people just don’t have an understanding of what’s involved in the decision-making process. I understand that. You’re dealing with young men, most of who I brought into the program.
“I understand their disappointment.”
Friday, Blake Nill returns to McMahon Stadium to face the Dinos. Quite a way to kick off a season.
His resignation on Dec. 8th after nine years in charge was met with surprise and in some quarters a sense of betrayal. Hec Crighton-winning quarterback Andrew Buckley summed up the prevailing mood nicely at the time:
“We look around, and we have the talent everywhere, and it feels a little bit like coach Nill left because he gave up on our chances of getting a national championship,” he said. “That’s a little bit what I look at it as, and it adds so much fuel to the fire. It’s going to motivate us all winter. It was pretty crazy.
“A lot of guys were angry, frustrated, shocked, didn’t know what to say …”
Time does have a way of at least tempering old grievances but Nill is well aware that his long-ago university wrestling partner, Wayne Harris Jr., won’t have to say much to get his group fired up for Friday.
This isn’t, of course, just any old coach returning to a past haunt. This is someone who resuscitated an ailing program, going 53-19 in conference play while winning a record six consecutive Canada West titles, compiling a 16-8 post-season record in reaching three Vanier Cups (to no avail).
He left to revitalize another in-need reclamation project, taking control of the lacklustre UBC Thunderbirds.
Already, the T-Birds, 2-6 last year and out of the playoffs for the sixth time since 2007, are showing early signs of life. They started by luring Ottawa-born QB Michael O’Connor, all 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds of him, north after one year redshirting at NCAA football factory Penn State. O’Connor was ranked No. 6 on the 2014 ESPN list of prospects.
Then last week, as a prep for Friday’s litmus test, the T-Birds went in and spanked Nill’s longtime nemesis, the powerhouse Laval Rouge Et Or, 41-16 in Quebec City, sending a clear message that the times they are a ’changin’ out on the west coast.
“I’ve gone into that place six or eight times over the last decade and other than the one game, in 2002, I’ve always coming out on the wrong end of the scoreboard,’’ muses Nill. “And there were some pretty good Calgary teams in there, loaded with future pros and All-Canadians. So to win with this group … I can’t explain the feeling.
“Sure they didn’t use all their first-stringers, but I left some guys at home, too.
“We just made plays. We competed the way you’re supposed to. You couldn’t help but be proud of the kids, right? I remember coach (Greg) De Laval came down just after we scored on the corner route, and he says ‘What’s going on here?’ And I said ‘I don’t know. Let’s just go with it.’ ”
Tuesday, when the initial CIS football rankings were unveiled, the Dinos, to no one’s surprise, were there near the top, slotted in at No. 4. UBC, though, was tucked in not so awfully far behind, at No. 7.
“Do the rankings mean anything?’’ repeats Nill. “They do and they don’t. It just means that some people are taking notice of some things we’ve accomplished here right away. But we’ve got a long ways to go before we’re at the level U of C is. Culturally, we’re four or five years behind, right? Athletically we’re a ways behind, too.
“But we’re working hard and the players are adapting as well as they can. They’re used to certain things and then to have a renegade like me come in is tough on a lot of them.’’
The O’Connor capture is one that could pay huge dividends sooner than later.
“This kid,’’ promises Nill, “is the real deal. One thing about O’Connor, he prepares fully, to a level I’ve seen very few players. He prepares like (Buckley). Buck’s going into his fifth year, Michael’s in his first. But he’s a big, strong kid, fast release, and he has a linebacker mentality. He’s still just 19 and he doesn’t have the maturity of a veteran quarterback.
“But a few years down the road, he’s going to be something really special.’’
The T-Birds could be, too. That’s Blake Nill’s mandate.
Still, Friday he knows he can’t help but take the odd glance across at the other, unfamiliar, sideline.
“I couldn’t be prouder of those kids. Guys like Buck, who no one rally wanted to recruit and comes out of a small school. Doc (Cassama), who we brought in from Sweden. All those veteran players, I have some unique story of how they ended up in Calgary. At lot of them took a lot of convincing.
“I remain close to a lot of them. I get a lot of text messages. They call to ask how things are going. From my experience, how close I am with my guys from St. Mary’s and StFX, eventually all my Calgary contingent will come around, too.’’
Friday, Blake Nill returns to McMahon Stadium.
“That Calgary program,’’ he says, “has everything. You’ve got to remember that team beat UBC twice last year, bad. We’re coming in there just trying to show that we belong. We want to be able to deal with Buckley. Deal with (Mercer) Timmis. Deal with Doc Cassama. Deal with (Brett) Blaszko.
“It’d be a huge first step if we could come in there and compete. If we get better as the year goes on, then maybe by the end we can go from competing to challenging, if things go your way.
“This isn’t about me.
“It’s a unique situation, yeah, because of the years I spent there, the ties I have there and the respect I have for that program those kids. But Wayne just wants to win and so do I. Calgary just wants to win and so do we.