It was early April when the University of British Columbia formally introduced its new star quarterback, 19-year-old Michael O’Connor from Ottawa. Out on the field at Thunderbird Stadium before an assembly of journalists, O’Connor tossed crisp passes to teammates and showed off the powerful arm that in 2014 won him a scholarship to Penn State, one of the NCAA’s most historic football programs.
But here he was in Vancouver. By luring O’Connor west after he decided to leave Penn State, UBC was making a declaration: It would no longer be mired at the bottom of university football in Canada. Backed by funds raised by rich alumni, the school had already hired a top coach, and the new boss recruited O’Connor away from serious NCAA suitors. Based on preseason play, it appears those efforts appear to be paying off, and the once-great Thunderbirds, winners of Vanier Cups in 1982, 1986 and 1997, start the new CIS season this week looking ready to rise again.
O’Connor, the most visible component of this Thunderbird transformation, is something of a unicorn, that rare Canadian who had the promise to make a mark in the singular position in North American sports. He is an ideal physical prototype, 6 foot 5, 230 pounds. So it was a surprise to many that he opted to leave Penn State and commit to play for the UBC Thunderbirds, at a level of football that is at best second-tier and attracts the attention of few. “I was miserable there,” O’Connor said of Penn State in an interview this week, as UBC’s season was about to begin.
The coach who had recruited him had left for the NFL, and he’d been relegated to third string. “I didn’t enjoy the game any more. It was almost like a burden.”
When O’Connor decided to leave Penn State last winter and major American schools such as Syracuse were in pursuit, UBC made a Hail Mary move. O’Connor was a prize.
UBC football itself was at the beginning of a resurrection, only a couple years after the program was on a list of sports that might be cut by the university. In the past decade, UBC had lost more than two-thirds of its games, its stadium was in tatters and one of the field goal uprights was askew.
David Sidoo couldn’t stand it. Son of Indian immigrants, Sidoo had grown up in the Vancouver suburbs – his parents raised five kids on the $12,000 a year his dad earned working in a sawmill. Sidoo played football at UBC and was captain of the 1982 Vanier Cup winner. He then played in the CFL (Saskatchewan and B.C.); in business, he became a financier at Yorkton Securities, and later a private investor. In 2010, he pulled off an oil deal that made him millions.
Sidoo has an infectious enthusiasm, but for all his success – a mansion overlooking English Bay with art by Camille Pissarro and A.Y. Jackson on the walls – he saw his football days as the essential trampoline in his life.
The university game is not the same as it was in Sidoo’s days. When UBC last won a Vanier Cup, the privately funded football program at Laval University in Quebec City was brand new. Laval has since has changed the game. With a budget of roughly $2-million a year – most of it private cash and more than double the budget of most university teams – Laval dominates Canadian university football, winning seven of the past 12 Vanier Cups.
The Laval model has become a beacon. The University of Calgary is an imitator, but hasn’t been able to upend Laval. The University of Montreal is another upstart – and last season the Carabins upset Laval on the way to a Vanier Cup.
Sidoo began work to turn UBC into Laval West. He rounded up alumni including David Negrin, president of billionaire Francesco Aquilini’s empire, and they built a fund of $3-million to bolster the football coffers.
Friends describe Sidoo as the type of guy who doesn’t chase what’s available, but goes after what’s not available. He turned his eye to Blake Nill, who had a sterling reputation of turning around terrible teams.
Nill, however, was ensconced at the University of Calgary. His only shortcomings there were three losses in the Vanier Cup – twice to Laval. Sidoo, backed by UBC administrators Ashley Howard and Louise Cowin, convinced him to move, and after Nill showed up in December, he went after O’Connor. Nill figured he had “a minus 1,000-per-cent chance.”
But Nill, like Sidoo, is a charmer. He grew up in small-town Alberta. He is 6-foot-6 and a former CFL lineman. His cousin Jim runs the Dallas Stars. Nill’s blue eyes burst with energy, his body in constant motion. As a coach, he’s more of a big brother than an authoritarian. He radiates intensity.
O’Connor considered Nill’s pitch and decided to at least visit UBC. The football opportunity was interesting, and the university’s top-tier Sauder School of Business was as well. O’Connor – whose father is a police officer and mother is a bookkeeper – imagined a postfootball career in real estate development. Vancouver started to make sense: After signing on with UBC but before the start of classes, he spent the summer working for Aquilini and Negrin, learning the real estate business.
“Priceless,” said O’Connor of his summer job. As for what convinced him to leave the NCAA behind, he added: “It was what UBC had to offer.”
O’Connor’s immediate challenge is to help revive the Thunderbirds, who were dead last in Canada West in 2014. Sidoo, meanwhile, has buzzed about, spearheading renovations at the stadium and construction of a new academic centre. There are new goalposts, too.
Before a spring practice, Nill stood at the front of a room at the stadium, his team gathered. He spoke for 25 minutes, tactics and such. He then invoked his 2013 Calgary Dinos team, a squad of mostly of first-time starters that made an unlikely run to the Vanier Cup.
“You won’t quit here,” Nill said. “I have more will than all you guys combined.” He paced the front of the room. He gesticulated. He spoke about the Dinos beating top-ranked Western 44-3. “We dominated them. They didn’t even want to play the game at the end. You’ve got to be like that, guys. You’ve got to want to dominate people. That’s why you play. You do that here, and you don’t get arrested. That’s why you play. Okay, let’s go.”
The future, for one game at least, arrived a lot earlier than expected. Last weekend in Quebec City, in an exhibition game, UBC beat might Laval 41-16. It was shocking. Laval, until it lost to Montreal last November, had won 70 games in a row at home. Adding to UBC’s arsenal was advice from Warren Moon, the CFL and NFL Hall of Famer who won five Grey Cups in Edmonton. A friend of Sidoo’s, Moon visited UBC’s training camp in August and made a few suggestions. One of them helped lead to an O’Connor touchdown pass against Laval.
Sidoo was jubilant for days. “I had more fun than I’ve had in a long time,” he said on Tuesday. But the first game of the regular season, in Calgary on Friday night, loomed. Another stiff test. “I’m a little nervous,” Sidoo admitted.
After Penn State, the dream of being an NFL quarterback is distant, but not completely out of reach for O’Connor. “He has the ability to play in the National Football League one day, if he continues to keep improving,” Moon said. “That’s a long ways down the road.”
O’Connor remains as outwardly calm on the eve of the season as when he arrived. He has a buzz cut, blue eyes, a light bit of a beard on his chin. He’s been constantly asked why he’s here and whether he clings to the dream of being a professional quarterback.
“Anything I say, what good will that do?” said O’Connor. “All I can do is go out and work. I will hold my piece for now. In the next four or five years, we’ll have an answer.”
But, surely, Thunderbird Stadium feels provincial compared with the crowds of more than 100,000 at Beaver Stadium at Penn State. UBC would be lucky to draw 5,000.
“A little bit small,” O’Connor conceded. “It’s not such a bad thing. It’s a lot of fun up here.”