VANCOUVER — From a 2-6 football team a year ago to a No. 6-national ranking, a 6-2 regular season, and a berth in Saturday’s Canada West Hardy Cup conference championship final (11 a.m., Global TV) against host and No. 1-ranked Calgary Dinos (8-0), the UBC Thunderbirds have become the toast of B.C.’s university sports community this season.
Earlier this week, the man most responsible for affecting that change — first-year UBC head coach Blake Nill — sat down for a far-reaching interview as he prepared his new team to face the one he’d built over the past nine seasons before signing on as the ‘Birds head coach in December.
(UBC head coach Blake Nill is a study in focus. (Rich Lam/UBC athletics)
Q: You’re a Vancouver guy now. Since your hiring in December, what the most Vancouver thing you’ve done?
A: This summer, I swam every day at Kits pool. I tried to embrace a healthier lifestyle and I saw it as a stress relief. I found that swimming was a great way to think, to decide what the next strategic step was going to be. One day I did 25 lengths of the pool. That’s 2.6 miles.
Q: You have consistently commended the performance level of your roster this season, yet you have never hidden the fact that the depth of talent is not where it needs to be. With that in mind, how has UBC football arrived at the quarterfinal stage of the 2015 CIS season?
A: When you look at depth and how it relates to our on-field product this season, the success of our season right now is quite remarkable. I think it’s more of an indication of the will of the players and their desire as a group of individuals more than it is actual talent and numbers. The reality is, the teams I’ve coached in the past (at St. Mary’s and Calgary) had athletes that were bigger, stronger and faster on the whole. But you can overcome a lot when you have the will and the desire to do it, and I think more than anything, that is what you’re seeing with this group of athletes here.
Q: Why did you leave Calgary? In your nine seasons there, the Dinos won six Hardy Cups and made three Vanier Cup appearances?
A: The bottom line was that I had run my time there, I thought. When I got to Calgary (in 2006), I think the last playoff game they had won was the Vanier Cup in 1995. We built that program for nine seasons and at the end, I just felt that I’d had my kick at the can with the program.
Q: Last week, in a Calgary Herald article, your former team portrayed you in a less-than-flattering light. A first-year member of the coaching staff went so far as to say “I’d say that 99 per cent of the team is pleased with the change” that saw top assistant Wayne Harris become your successor. And Andrew Buckley, your former starting quarterback, was quoted as saying of Harris: “He’s very different from our last coach. His style is so much more … empowering.” Your reaction?
A: I’m a straight shooter, and I think there are two reasons for those comments. One, (the players) are still hurt from me leaving there. In any program, you are dealing with young men who just don’t have their lifelong-maturity skills yet. So I understand that. When I left St. Mary’s it was a similar situation. There were guys that I thought had my back that turned on me right away, because now you’re a competitor. And I think that’s the other reason for the article.
For almost a decade, no one came into Alberta to recruit. (The Dinos) were a program that based a lot of its success on talent from Calgary and the southern Alberta area. Now, I am looked at as a competitor to that existence.”
(Thunderbird nation gave coach Nill UBC’s biggest home crowd in 25 years earlier this season. (Rich Lam/UBC athletics)
Q: Still, it had to hurt?
A: Obviously there is going to be some gamesmanship to downplay your role in the current program, so I understand that. But it’s tough to take when you gave your heart and soul to the team for nine years and not only you, but your family. My entire family moved out from Halifax. There were personal sacrifices made, and the reason I did come to Calgary is because I was asked by the alumni to try and turn a flailing program around. I thought I did that with total genuineness.
Q: Have you talked to coach Harris since that article was published?
A: No. But again, I get it. I don’t think there’s any animosity between myself and Wayne. We’re competitors now, yes, but Wayne helped me build that Calgary program, and I have always said that one of the things I do better than perhaps anything as a coach is surround myself with the right people. Wayne deserves a chance to lead them.
Q: Still, you’ve got to face a juggernaut team on Saturday, a team that you built.
A: The ultimate test for the new tenure there is going to be when my recruits are no longer on the field, and that is where everybody is going to be judged. They have 16 (Canada West) all-stars this season and every one of those all-stars has my name signed on a commitment letter. They will move on and then Wayne will have a chance to really put his stamp on it and I think he will thrive. Right now, my job is make sure that on the field that I can at least compete with that program.”
Q: When you took over at UBC in the off-season, what kind of campaign were you projecting for this team?
A: When I looked at the schedule at the start of the season, I thought we could easily be a 2-6 team, or at best 3-5. But we took some major steps forward, including winning our first game of the season at Laval. That was a big traction thing.
Q: I am hearing incredible things about your next recruiting class, but the one you brought to UBC on short notice has been superb with players like quarterback Michael O’Connor, free safety Taylor Loffler and receiver Trivel Pinto. Did you surprise yourself with how quickly you got those players?
A: To get the kind of players we got coming off a 2-6 season is remarkable. I didn’t approach it so much on just selling UBC. I tried to sell them on me and I based it pure statistics. I said this is my career record over 17 seasons (132-48), this is how many national championship games I have been in (seven), this is how many I have won (two). I told them how many players I have put in the pros (23 CFL draft picks at Calgary alone) and what the graduation rates have been. Then I explained the advantages of UBC and when I put it all together, it gave us a good foundation.
Q: You’ve talked about a Calgary influence here in the program at UBC. Can you expand on that?
A: The Calgary program has pretty much dominated Canada West football for the last six or seven years, other than hiccup here or there. It’s been a pretty remarkable run there, and when you bring in people like myself, (associate head coach and offensive coordinator) Steve Buratto and (receivers coach) Greg Delaval, and we have therapists and academic advisors from Calgary here. For certain there is a continuity that this group knows what it takes to be successful and looks at things maybe with a different lens than other people. So when a message is being delivered that contradicts what is the norm, it’s going to cause change, whether it’s a good change or not. Fortunately for us, for the most part, that message has been accepted.
Q: You’re the first head coach in maybe 90 years of UBC football who has been able to work out a boardroom that overlooks the field here at Thunderbird Stadium. I am talking of the view you have from one of the rooms here in the new UBC Football Academic Centre. David Sidoo and the 13th Man Foundation came up big to launch the centre. What has he been like to work with?
A: When Dave approached me initially I was very cautious and skeptical. I would get three or four offers a year to go to different programs. I was very happy at Calgary and things were going well there. But Dave explained his vision to me and that this might be something to look at. He is a very persuasive man, but the one thing Dave has done since moment one is that he has followed up on everything he has said to me. I told him we need to have an academic program that is at the top in order to recruit and he understood it.
Q: So what happens after this season?
A: It all comes down to recruiting here. When you combine my past, the school’s academic reputation which is superior, the City of Vancouver, the weather, all that’s missing is a little on-field success and if we can consistently change that part, this is going to be a very attractive place for a lot of people.
ROAD TO THE VANIER CUP
A look at this Saturday’s four conference championship games, all serving as national quarterfinal contests:
HARDY CUP (Canada West) — UBC at Calgary (11 a.m, Global TV.)
LONEY BOWL (Atlantic) — St. Francis Xavier at Mt. Allison (10 a.m.)
DUNSMORE CUP (Quebec) — Montreal at Laval (11 a.m.)
YATES CUP (Ontario) — Guelph at Western (10 a.m.)
(Nov. 21 national semifinals: Ontario winner hosts Quebec winner in the Mitchell Bowl, while Atlantic winner hosts Canada West winner in the Uteck Bowl; winners meet Nov. 28 in Vanier Cup at Laval).