UBC coach returns to his roots at St. F.X. for national semifinal against X-Men
He had his fingerprints all over the last St. Francis Xavier X-Men football team to go to the Vanier Cup nearly 20 years ago.
Now Blake Nill returns to Antigonish this week for the Uteck Bowl in an effort to keep the X-Men from going back to the national championship game.
It was 1996 and Nill, a young defensive coordinator under John Stevens, helped the team to an upset win over Ottawa in the Atlantic Bowl in Halifax. The X-Men went on to lose the Vanier Cup to Saskatchewan.
So much has happened in Nill’s legendary career since. He took a rag-tag Saint Mary’s team, coming off a 1-7 season in Larry Uteck’s final campaign, to six AUS titles and four Vanier Cup appearances, two resulting in national championships, between 1999-2003.
Asked by the alumni to return to his native Alberta to guide the struggling Calgary Dinos, he went back in 2006 and made that franchise a consistent national contender, even though a national title eluded the program.
Now, in the greatest Houdini act of his coaching life, he took a 2-6 UBC Thunderbirds to the Canada West title in his first year, defeating the juggernaut Dinos he built in the title game. UBC hasn’t been out of the conference since 1997, when they beat Mount Allison in the Atlantic Bowl.
Lest anyone think otherwise, there are few patches of green in the country any more dear to Nill than St. F.X. He came there as a student and football coach, finishing one degree and joining the football staff after his playing career in the CFL ended.
Years later, while coaching at Saint Mary’s, he returned to St. F.X. once again to complete a Masters program.
Earlier this week, he had an exchange with former X-Men athletic director Packy McFarland, who brought him to Antigonish in the first place.
“I owe so much to him and so much to St. F.X. for giving me an amazing opportunity to get my career started,” the 53-year-old Nill said in an interview this week.
He went to St. F.X. thinking it would be a quick round trip. He’d finish his course work and head back west.
But football kept him there for six years. Eventually he even taught physical education. “It was an unbelievable experience.”
It’s not his first trip back to Nova Scotia for a big football game. He brought the Dinos to Saint Mary’s in 2009 for the Uteck Bowl, destroying the Huskies and former assistant Steve Sumarah, on the way to a Vanier Cup appearance.
Popular wisdom says any team that could defeat top-ranked and previously undefeated Calgary 34-26 at McMahon Stadium would be a shoo-in to trample the X-Men in this year’s national semifinal. After all, the AUS has been in the Vanier Cup only once since Nill’s last visit with the Huskies 12 years ago.
But St. F.X. wasn’t supposed to beat a powerhouse Ottawa team on that windy afternoon all those years ago either.
“You’re probably talking to the one guy that knows the value of AUS football,” said Nill, who has former X-Men receiver Greg DeLaval on his coaching staff. “You won’t have any issue with me coming in overconfident and thinking the cat’s in the bag.
“I know the will of these kids. When we come into Antigonish I can just imagine what it will be like on campus. And so I’m preparing my guys fully for just the skill level we’re going to face.”
The Thunderbirds, 8-2 on the season after consecutive playoff wins, will practise at Huskies Stadium on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before heading to Antigonish for Saturday’s 5 p.m. game.
Nill scoffs at the notion that the Thunderbirds are a big, bad powerhouse out of the west ready to tear apart the X-Men, in the national semifinal after a 14-12 win over Mount Allison in the Loney Bowl.
“We’re a young, inexperienced football team ourselves. We’ve overachieved this year in Canada West and we’re not good enough to take anyone for granted.
“Greg and I are both preparing for a very difficult contest. And we have mixed emotions. I know he still wears his X ring and I told Packy I’d wear mine for a day or two when I was down there.”
Nill chafes at the personal accolades. They don’t matter to him and never have. Winning matters.
“The first thing I’ll take credit for is I’ve surrounded myself with an incredible staff. That’s what I’ve always been able to do — find good people. I was able to do that quickly here.
“And I inherited a few very good football players and a big part of it was we able to have a pretty successful recruiting year in my first year. A lot of those recruits are making big plays for us.”
One of those recruits is Penn State transfer Michael O’Connor, who threw for 374 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s upset.
Should anybody be surprised it is the Thunderbirds on the flight east on Wednesday?
“Oh, absolutely,” Nill said. “I (coached) against UBC for the last nine years and I believe my record was 12-2.
“I looked at our schedule and I thought we could probably be in three games and we needed to win those so I could keep the momentum with recruiting and rebuilding. Somehow we won six.”
(Photo caption: UBC Thunderbirds head coach Blake Nill leads his team into Saturday’s Uteck Bowl in Antigonish against the St. Francis Xavier X-Men. Photo:JACQUES BOISSINOT / CP)