Tough-love coach Blake Nill makes believers out of Thunderbirds

CALGARY — Get with the program.

Not everyone did when Blake Nill, a self-admitted “hard ass” football coach, joined the University of B.C. Thunderbirds last December.

“It’s a different approach. It’s my approach: accountability, hard work and no excuses,” Nill explained, following UBC’s improbable victory over the top-ranked Calgary Dinos to take the Hardy Trophy for the first time since 1997. “That’s the way I’ve always coached. It’s tough. It rubs some people the wrong way. Even when I recruit guys, I tell them I’m a hard ass. I am like this. But that’s all I know.”

Canadian university football’s top-ranked and undefeated Dinos were toppled by the upstart Thunderbirds, 34-26, in the Canada West championship game Saturday at McMahon Stadium, by far the biggest upset in a weekend in which all four CIS conference championships were won by visiting teams.

The T-Birds move on to play the St. Francis Xavier X-Men, 14-12 winners over Mount Allison Mounties, in the Uteck Bowl next Saturday in Antigonish, N.S. Guelph Gryphons downed Western Mustangs 23-17 in the Ontario University Athletics title game and play the Quebec champion Montreal Carabins, 18-16 over Laval Rouge et Or, in the Mitchell Bowl, the other CIS semi-final.

One more win and UBC is in the 51st Vanier Cup game, Nov. 28, at TELUS-University of Laval Stadium in Quebec City. The three-time champion Thunderbirds last won the Vanier Cup in 1997, at SkyDome in Toronto.

“I can’t explain it,” Nill admitted. “They’re not the most talented group. They’re not the biggest group, the fastest group. But they’ve hung in there. They’ve stayed together. And they believe in one another. We’ve had less than 60 players (53) at most of our practices.”

A university football program normally has a complement of around 90 players, but Nill knows he drove a number of candidates and returnees away who were not prepared to make the commitment he demanded. In a recent column in the Calgary Herald, it was reported that “99 per cent” of the Dinos were happy to see Nill move on to the west coast this season after nine seasons in Calgary. In the same story, Nill was referred to as a “screamer” and an “intimidator.”

However debatable his methods, Nill gets results. The T-Birds rebounded from a 2-6 record last year to finish 6-2 and took second place in the conference behind the 8-0 Dinos. But it still took a great leap of faith to believe UBC was ready to take down the Dinos this early in Nill’s rebuild. Calgary defeated UBC, 41-16, in the season opener on Sept. 4 and placed 16 players on the Canada West all-star team, among them quarterback Andrew Buckley, the 2014 Hec Crighton Trophy winner. The Thunderbirds had two.

“We had a lot of guys quit on us,” says running back Brandon Deschamps, one of only two fifth-year players on the ‘Birds. “When that happens, you start to feel like it’s us against the world. You feel that the guys you share your locker room with are your brothers. You’ve made it through the fire together.

Through adversity, we’ve been fighters. And we’ve kept moving forward.”

Part of UBC’s uniqueness is the pairing of 19-year-old starting quarterback Michael O’Connor with 72-year-old associate head coach/offensive coordinator Steve Buratto, who pulled off perhaps the second biggest coup of his coaching career. Buratto was head coach of the B.C. Lions 15 years ago when they became the first 8-10 team to win the Grey Cup. That game was also played at McMahon Stadium.

“He’s a mature 19, but he’s only 19,” Buratto says of O’Connor, a transfer from Penn State. “A great deal was expected of him because of his background. He’s grown through the season. The biggest thing for a quarterback is to get on the same page as his receivers. When that mental link comes together, they’re really difficult to handle.”

O’Connor, who attended the Lions‘ Kamloops training camp this year as a CIS invitee, threw for 374 yards and two touchdowns against the Dinos. Shut down in the second half, the ‘Birds relied on a tenacious defence and the kicking of former Victoria Westshore Rebel junior Quinn van Gylswyk -- he had four field goals and punted for a 49.1-yard average -- to turn back the Dinos.

“He’s so knowledgable about the game,” O’Connor says of Buratto. “His game plans take advantage of our strengths and the other teams weaknesses. I feel like I’m learning something new from him every day.”That accelerated learning curve has the T-Birds winging east this week to a Vanier Cup semi-final.

Not bad for a little football team that wasn’t expected to go places.

(Photo: Canadian university football’s top-ranked Calgary Dinos were tripped up the University of B.C. Thunderbirds in a 34-26 Hardy Trophy upset victory Saturday afternoon at McMahon Stadium-Richard Lam , PNG)

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