A new era has begun for UBC's football program, making the Thunderbirds the most interesting team in the CIS after a number of years as an enigma.
A roster loaded with talented individuals but hasn't found recent success. A school with lots of football history but had become disconnected with its alumni. The program was representing a school with one of the most proficient athletics programs in the country but was not among the big spenders in amateur sports' most expensive sport.
Now, for added intrigue, the Thunderbirds have landed one of the biggest names in coaching, two of the biggest NCAA transfers in recent memory, and have recently upset the historic dynasty Laval Rouge et Or in the preseason. They get set to host over 5,000 fans for homecoming. Their reenergized fan base will see almost a million dollars of investment in to refurbishing stadium and a brand new academic support facility.
UBC is once again relevant in the greater football conversation. Its rebuild seems to be fast tracked, as have the expectations, which is why I decided to talk to new head coach Blake Nill about the state of the program and switching Canada West allegiances.
Donnovan Bennett – This year the schedule makers had a flair for the dramatic. What was it like to go back to Calgary last Friday for your first regular season game with UBC?
Blake Nill - It was a little bit emotional. I've had awhile to prepare for that. I've been prepping for it personally but when I got there it hit me what type of program we built. Going on the field with UBC, you could see the difference in their team and ours. You could see the difference physically. Calgary is physically bigger, stronger and faster than us at this point. And the way they carried themselves is different. We played well and hung in for the most of the game. But their confidence is something we don't have yet. For us, the biggest thing is believing we can compete at an elite level.
DB – You mentioned preparation. What did you do beforehand to prepare?
BN – Well, I knew for some time it was happening so I had some time to think about it. There are a lot of loyalties involved. Most of the kids over there I recruited and individuals on the coaching staff and on the support staff are some of my closest friends. To not be on their side, to be a rival takes preparation. There is some time to think and say to yourself this is going to be different in the visitors' dressing room and on the opposite sideline.
DB – This is not new to you. You've changed schools before but Saint Mary's to Calgary is out of the conference. Was the dynamic different this time around because you are making a move within the same conference?
BN – That's a big part of it. I had some experience with that as an assistant at St. FX. I left a coordinator role to become a head coach at Saint Mary's but this is different. From head coach to head coach is different and now you're a direct rival. You're the face of the program. So in that way it's tough because you aren't just leaving a lot behind you're the direct competition.
DB - You beat Laval in Quebec City in the preseason then lost to Calgary on the road on a short week. Probably the toughest two-game stretch any team will play this year. Which performance is a better indicator as to where you are as a program right now and what your level of performance will be this year?
BN - When you break down the Laval and Calgary games, three out of the four halves we were very competitive. We turned the ball over twice in the second half against Calgary and that directly led to14 points. I truly believe that without those turnovers it is a different game. We're going to have growing pains and performance issues. I don't foresee too many times we're going to be in a comfortable situation where we can take our foot off the gas pedal. We're going to have to fight and scratch for everything we get in every game. I hope we compete to be in the post-season. I'm not sure where we're going to be by the end of the year with our injury situation so the post-season will be tough but that's what we're competing for.
DB - What type of feedback did you get from the alumni and fan base after you upset Laval?
BN - A lot of very excited people. It was a big win. It was probably one of the biggest wins the program has had in the last 15 years. It just shows the potential this program has if it's put in the right situation. We had a good recruiting class. We have good athletes. The Laval game was simply us coming out more emotionally invested. There is no question they didn't play their best game. But they did have some dominant football players lining up on the field so it showed our potential. We're looking to build on it and build on parts of the Calgary game, and we will build on it.
DB - What is your biggest challenge at UBC?
BN – It's getting the culture changed. I am here on campus at a school with a high academic reputation, good facilities for the most part, and a great campus. The challenge is finding the players we need to succeed and getting the culture of those 50 kids in the locker room to succeed. There are some good players here right now who are used to doing things a certain way. Whenever there is change there is some pushback no matter if it's deliberate or not. We need to get kids who want to succeed and create a culture where we're doing things a certain way and expecting to have good results.
DB – You've competed against them and you've done your due diligence and research before you took the job. Why has UBC struggled of late?
BN - You can't pinpoint it on one individual. The biggest thing I believe is you have a culture within the school. If football is to be successful it has to be a team effort, the administration the alumni, the backers are a big part of it. It has to be a priority for the entire school. If you look at some of the issues in the past you can attribute most of it to what I'm talking about. I think the school didn't understand the level of commitment it takes to compete now in football and some programs passed them by. The alumni have to be strong. A few guys came to the forefront but as a group the alumni underachieved. Over the past 15 years they have had struggles and at times they have had marginal success. The level of commitment of a Laval, Calgary, Western, Mac, that's what it takes and that's why those schools have been successful.
DB - How is your pitch to a recruit different at UBC than it was at Calgary?
BN - First thing that I look at is I don't recruit to start so much from a UBC perspective as from my own perspective. I'm going to tell the kids to look at my past at the three schools I've been at and what I've done there. I look to utilize that quite extensively. Then comes in the academic reputation of this institution and this is an amazing campus, this is an amazing city. Vancouver is a world-class place to live. If I can get some wins and get competitive this thing will take off and be a premier place to play.
DB - When you went to Calgary you had a transfer in QB Erik Glavic help fortify the program. One of the guys I call a "culture setter" and obviously as a Hec Crighton winner helps the on-field performance. Now you have Penn State transfer Michael O'Connor at the same position come to UBC. How does that help exacerbate the rebuild?
BN - It's big. Right away when he committed to come to UBC it put the program in the spotlight. It put us in the spotlight for a while and that allowed us to build on it in recruiting. It profiled the type of athlete we can attract. He's going to be an amazing quarterback. Michael's one of the most efficient I've coached but who he's going to allow us to reach is far more impactful. It has a greater effect than most people realize.
DB - Not too long ago people were talking about whether or not UBC was going to lose their football program. How much of your job is changing the national perception of the program?
BN - It's part of it for sure. You said it earlier. I did my research. I was approached by a group of backers who had a vision. Now their vision is our vision. I came here sold on the fact the school wanted winning football, the backers wanted winning football. So far it's turned out that way. We want to make the program a premier showcase for the CIS. If we are successful here it will be.