He goes by several names that all mean the same thing: Blue chipper, prized recruit, top prospect, boss stud. And, every year, the most coveted kid in his high school football program might see Blake Nill at his door, selling the educational, social and physical benefits of the Canadian university that employs him.
Nill is a head coach/turnaround artist, first with the Saint Mary’s Huskies, then again with the Calgary Dinos and now, for a third time, with the University of B.C. Thunderbirds. The T-Birds have emerged from a blue fog of futility and find themselves in Saturday’s 79th Hardy Trophy game against the Dinos at McMahon Stadium. The game will be televised nationally on Global TV, starting at 11 a.m. PST.
UBC last won the Canada West football title in 1997. More recently, the Dinos dominated the championship game for six straight seasons, 2008-2013, under Nill.
He knows that the T-Birds are playing an excellent football team Saturday, mainly because Nill largely put it together. After nine years, six Canada West conference titles and three Vanier Cup appearances, he headed west last December, lured by the blandishments of the 13th Man Foundation, a group of business people and community leaders dedicated to resurrecting UBC football, and the challenge of starting over again.
UBC looked to someone with a history of presiding over quick turnarounds — and that certainly was Nill’s M.O. with the Huskies and Dinos (where he was 130-47 over 17 seasons).
“Deep down, I wanted to win right away and be successful right away,” Nill said. “Leaving the Calgary program and coming here ... I’ve seen differences and I expected differences. But I tell you something: the players, the coaches, the administrators, the alumni, everyone I’ve associated with over the last eight months, genuinely wanted to see football succeed here, on and off the field. It motivates me to try and be successful. And, you know what, we’ve had a very good year. Probably one that exceeded most expectations.”
Mirror, mirror. Upon reflection, the T-Birds are not the Dinos — yet. While UBC flipped the field, going from 2-6 to 6-2 in Nill’s first season, one of those losses was to the Dinos, in the season opener, by a resounding 49-16.
Calgary went on to finish 8-0 and remains undefeated in the playoffs following a 37-29 semifinal win over Saskatchewan. UBC crushed defending Canada West champion Manitoba 52-10 in the other semifinal behind the quarterbacking of NCAA transfer Michael O’Connor.
“I recruited and coached (Andrew) Buckley (the Dinos starter, and 2014 Hec Crighton Trophy winner). I recruited and coached Erik Glavic (the only player to win the Hec Crighton Trophy for two different schools, Saint Mary’s and Calgary),” Nill said. “Our quarterback is ahead of both of them when they were 19 years old.”
In recruiting, a coach looks for any edge he can find. Nill used his son, Taylor, and Facebook to reach out to O’Connor when the highly touted Ottawa native decided to leave Penn State. He also goes after prospects hard by the conventional route, selling Calgary native Kirby Fabien, now the starting left guard of the B.C. Lions, in his mom’s living room on the belief that he could go much higher.
“That’s one of his best talents as a coach — his ability to recruit guys,” Fabien says. “He’ll tell you the truth. He’ll tell you every off-season — ‘I’ll find a better recruit (than you).’ You knew the next kid coming in was a blue-chip player. That makes you just want to work harder.”
(Photo: UBC head football coach Blake Nill speaks to the media in Surrey, B.C. Thursday February 12, 2015. Photograph by: Ric Ernst, PNG)
(Photo: UBC Thunderbirds quarterback Michael O’Connor warms up under the watchful eye of head coach Blake Nill during CIS Canada West football action against the University of Calgary Dinos in Calgary, B.C., September 4, 2015. Photograph by: RICH LAM, PNG)