From possible oblivion to national champion, UBC football makes dramatic return to prominence

How have things changed so dramatically for the University of B.C. football program?

This week head coach Blake Nill and his victorious Thunderbirds will present the Vanier Cup to a gathering of the board of governors, now able to bask in its reflected glory.

Less than two years ago, however, football and 28 other varsity sports were subjected to a sports targeting review by the same university, causing former head coach Shawn Olson to wonder, “I don’t see how they could do it. Cutting the football program would be like cutting the faculty of law or saying we’re not going to have a music department.”

It was a difficult time for coaches and student-athletes, with uncertainty and fear hanging in the air. But it was also a call to action, one that saw former UBC player, investment banker and philanthropist David Sidoo form the 13th Man Foundation with other like-minded business people and civic leaders.

From the chaos of the sports targeting review, rose the ability of donors and alumni to target specific sports with the backing of private money, a philosophical shift on campus that allows some varsity sports to be operated on a semi-professional basis.

“It (the sports targeting review) actually gave us a huge window of opportunity,” Sidoo explained, following UBC’s dramatic 26-23 win over the defending champion Montreal Carabins in the 51st Vanier Cup. “It brought alumni together who were not happy just to see the football program get by. We hadn’t won the Vanier Cup in years (1997). It was an opportunity to step up and make it happen, to get leaders in the community engaged. I’ve always been about turning a negative into a positive.”

Sidoo isn’t into half-measures. He personally has contributed significant seed money -- “let’s just say, seven figures” -- in the re-generation of UBC football, which includes the $1.1 million UBC Football Academic Centre, made possible by a $800,000 grant from the 13th Man Foundation, and the hiring of Nill, a seven-time Vanier Cup finalist with the Saint Mary’s Huskies and Calgary Dinos. The pair had bumped into each other on numerous occasions before, with Sidoo bugging Nill to leave the perennially contending Dinos for the also-ran T-Birds (38-81 overall prior to the 2015 season).

Nill finally decided to take up the challenge last December. He did not come cheaply. Widespread speculation is that he’s easily the highest compensated coach in CIS football, in salary and other inducements.

A self-admitted “hard ass” , Nill is adroit in matters such as player effort and team chemistry, but his greatest ability is his tireless efforts in recruitment. After the T-Birds upset the No. 1-ranked Dinos for the Hardy Trophy, the Canada West championship, on Nov. 14, Nill spent the rest of the day scouting the Calgary high school championships, getting a bead on future recruits.

He stayed in character in the aftermath of Saturday’s national championship at Stade Telus in Quebec City. When his tears had dried, Nill was seen chatting up four CEGEP (Quebec junior college) linemen about the prospect of joining the Thunderbirds. He had begun work on the composition of his 2016 team already.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Sidoo said. “ He never stops recruiting.”

The best coaches and general managers in football are magicians, who accomplish tricks when the mechanics are so well hidden that the audience is thoroughly surprised when the reveal happens. But UBC’s 10-2 season and national championship, so unexpected following a 49-16 defeat to Calgary in the season opener on Sept. 4, surprised Nill and Sidoo as much as anybody.

After seeing a 16-0 lead dissolve into a 23-23 fourth quarter tie with the Carabins, the T-Birds had a chance to win the game with 96 seconds left, but muffed the chance on a low snap to Trevor Casey, the holder for kicker Quinn van Gylswyk. Miraculously, the T-Birds got the chance to win it again after an interception by Anthony Blackwell. Quarterback Michael O’Connor, the Vanier Cup MVP, resolutely led his team downfield before van Gylswyk stroked the winning points -- a 20-yard field goal with no time left. van Gylswyk, who is also the team’s punter, was the only T-Bird named to the All-Canadian team. One all-star representative on a team with a 19-year-old freshman quarterback and a median age under 20 isn’t supposed to win football championships at the CIS level.

“Michael threw off his cape and said, “Let’s get this done,’” Sidoo said. “That’s the way it’s been all season. Every time we needed a guy to make a play, somebody did. Blake and I hugged each other and cried like little kids. ‘What did we just do?’”

It was the third Vanier Cup championship for Nill and the fourth for the T-Birds. The first came in 1982, when Sidoo, then known as Dave Singh, was a defensive back for a power-packed squad led by quarterback Jordan Gagner and running back Glen Steele.

“Fourteen guys from that (’82) team went pro,” said Sidoo, who went on to play six seasons in the CFL. “But this one was so unexpected. It was a Cinderella story.”

What a trick it was, too: Turning a pumpkin into the Vanier Cup.

(Photo: The UBC Thunderbirds won the Vanier Cup Saturday with a 26-23 victory over the University of Montreal. Photograph by: Rich Lam )

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© 2019 13th Man Foundation.

The 13th Man Foundation is not affiliated with UBC and is a separate and independent legal entity that sets its own fundraising priorities.