QUEBEC — Blake Nill is no stranger to Quebec City.
The veteran Canadian university football coach will play a championship game at Université Laval’s Telus Stadium for the fourth time since 2009 when his sixth-ranked UBC Thunderbirds take on the fourth-ranked Université de Montréal Carabins in the Vanier Cup game on Saturday.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing in Quebec City,” Nill said Wednesday at a news conference. “I’d rather play in Quebec City where there’s passion for football than play somewhere where there’s not.”
When Laval won the bid to be host of the CIS championship game it was thought its powerhouse Rouge et Or, would be playing for an eighth national title.
Instead, the Carabins upset Laval in the Quebec Conference championship and coach Danny Maciocia’s squad will be gunning for a second Vanier Cup title in a row, after beating McMaster on home turf last year.
A crowd of about 13,000 is expected, down from the standing room only throng of 18,543 when the Rouge et Or won at home in 2013 but still quite good for CIS football.
Nill, a two-time Vanier Cup champion with Saint Mary’s in 2001 and 2002, made a surprise jump to UBC this season after nine years with the Calgary Dinos, who lost Vanier Cup games to Queen’s and to Laval in 2010 and 2013, all at Telus Stadium.
That losing streak ended in a pre-season game on Aug. 29, when his Thunderbirds, who went 2-6 in 2014, trounced the Rouge et Or 41-16 in a pre-season game. UBC went on to go 6-2 in conference play, then beat 8-0 Calgary in the playoffs.
“This year defies logic for our program,” said Nill. “We were coming into a program that hasn’t had the culture to succeed for quite a while.
“This group is not the biggest, fastest or strongest I’ve ever had, but what they are is the most resilient group I’ve had. They overcame a coaching change, which is very difficult for student athletes at their age.”
UBC reportedly found boosters to make a big offer for Nill. It paid off when his renowned ability to recruit top athletes resulted in UBC landing first-year quarterback Mike O’Connor, an Ottawa native who spent last season with Penn State.
Now UBC is gunning for a first Vanier Cup since 1997 and a second in its history.
“The win at Laval was pretty special,” said Nill. “I remember at halftime one of my assistant coaches asked ‘what’s happening here’ and I said ‘I don’t know.’
“But the feeling there quickly diminished when we were getting pounded in Calgary the following week.”
Maciocia, the former head coach and general manager of the Edmonton Eskimos, has spent five years building the Carabins into a team able to match Laval on every level. He lost a handful of key seniors after least year’s Vanier Cup, including standout linebacker Byron Archambeault, but was able to plug in new bodies and stay on top.
“We’re very proud to be back,” said Maciocia. “This was a special year. Not many people thought we could do it.”
It was only natural that he would end up facing a team coached by Nill, the former CFL defensive lineman from Hanna, Alta., who has had contenders where ever he has coached.
“It doesn’t surprise me the success he’s had in a short period of time,” said Maciocia. “He’s one of the better recruiters in the country.
“He’s got a template and it works for him, whether it’s at Saint Mary’s or Calgary or UBC.”
Photo: UBC Thunderbirds head coach Blake Nill talks to his players as they defeat the St. Francis Xavier X-Men 36-9 to win the Uteck Bowl in Antigonish, N.S., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. UBC will face the Montreal Carabins for the Vanier Cup. Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS)