Thunderbirds football finally finds its place
UBC football’s 2015 season may be over, but it will continue to live on as a miraculous season that saw UBC break an 18 year Vanier Cup drought.
“I don’t think a university or province can be more proud. [The Thunderbirds] ended up accomplishing a goal that they set out to do and against all odds,” said David Sidoo, director of an organization that fundraises for the team called the 13th Man Foundation.
In 1997, UBC won its third Vanier Cup after 10 straight seasons without any hardware. T-Birds running back Mark Nohra was the recipient of the Hec Creighton Trophy, an award given to the CIS's top football player.
Other notable Thunderbirds alumni who played in the 1997 Vanier Cup include quarterback and former coach, Shawn Olson and running back Akbal Singh who is considered one of UBC's best-ever running backs. Olson is UBC’s second all-time leader in passing yards and Singh remains as the team’s all-time leader in rushing.
The year after the Vanier Cup victory, Casey Smith — UBC's head coach at the time — was unable to return due to liver cancer. Dave Johnson entered as an interim coach before Jay Prepchuk took over in 1999.
Despite the coaching changes, the T-Birds’ performance remained solid in 1998 and 1999. The team finished 6-2 and 7-1 respectively before losing in the Hardy Cup during both years to the Saskatchewan Huskies.
It began in 2000 that the performance of Thunderbirds football began to take a downturn. Between 2000 and 2014, UBC missed a total of nine playoffs and saw four coaching changes.
Prepchuk lost his coaching position after the 2001 season when the team failed to make the playoffs. Lou Deslauriers then replaced Prepchuk the following year, but his tenure did not last long either. Having missed two playoffs and lost twice in the Canada West semifinals from 2002 to 2005, UBC ultimately relieved Deslauriers of coaching duties in 2005.
In 2006, the Thunderbirds promoted offensive coordinator Ted Goveia to head coach. Still, the team continued to struggle, missing the playoffs for three straight seasons from 2007 to 2009. Goveia did not return for the 2010 season.
With Goveia’s departure, Olson — the once famed quarterback — returned to the university as head coach. One item on Olson’s agenda was to bring more off-field support to the struggling football team.
“All the top-level football programs basically have very, very significant influx of resources from outside sources,” said Olson. “Without the off-field foundation of resources and stuff at your disposal, then you never get the opportunity to show what you can do on the field.”
According to Olson, it was at the turn of the century that support from athletic departments started to become essential to the success of varsity football teams in Canada. He believes that UBC fell short in this area during his absence, which led to the several lacklustre seasons.
“In 2000, if you had a choice between Laval and UBC … there would have to be some crazy reason for you to choose UBC,” said Olson.
“All the top-level football programs basically have very, very significant influx of resources from outside sources,. Without the off-field foundation of resources and stuff at your disposal, then you never get the opportunity to show what you can do on the field.”— Shawn Olson, former UBC quarterback and head coach.
After more than a decade of disappointment, UBC had its best season in 2011. Coming off of a 6-2 regular season, the T-Birds placed second in Canada West and entered the Hardy Cup for the first time since 1999. However, due to the use of an ineligible player, CIS football forfeited all of UBC’s wins and the 2011 season was recorded as 0-8 in the record books.
“That moment more than any other … was one that stunted our growth. It really prevented us from taking the next step in the program development,” said Olson.
Still, the 2011 season saw quarterback Billy Greene become the first T-Bird to receive the Hec Creighton Trophy since Nohra, and Olson named Canada West Coach of the Year.
During Olson’s years as head coach, UBC missed the playoffs in 2010, 2012 and 2014 as well as lost in the Canada West semifinal in 2013. Olson ultimately parted ways with the team by the end of the 2014 season.
Desperate to see progress, UBC football fought to hire Blake Nill as the next head coach. With seven Vanier Cup games under his belt and a history of creating CIS championship teams, Nill sought to transform the culture of the football program.
“Coach Nill brought in the idea that you had to compete, that you had to earn everything that you’ll be given,” said Brandon Deschamps, who played running back from 2011 to 2015.
Deschamps also said that the arrival of a new head coach required many veteran T-Birds like himself to demonstrate that they were capable on the field.
“You had to prove yourself to [Nill] and I think that was a big thing for a lot of the veteran guys,” said Deschamps.
After assuming command of the football program, Nill’s first order of business was to recruit the best players he could find. With the entry of recruits like Michael O’Connor, Trivel Pinto and Stavros Katsantonis to the team, UBC placed first in CIS recruiting for the 2015 season according to Canada Football Chat.
“[Nill] is probably the best recruiter in the country… I think it was the first time that UBC’s been ranked number one in CIS recruiting for an off-season,” said Sidoo.
Alongside Nill’s efforts, the football team was also beginning to receive off-field support from the newly established 13th Man Foundation, which Sidoo founded towards the end of the 2014 season. One of the foundation’s projects in 2015 was the Learning Centre, which aimed to help football players achieve academic success.
With the hiring of Nill, the drafting of new recruits and support from the 13th Man Foundation, the T-Birds’ first reality check came during an exhibition game against the Laval Rouge et Or, who had won seven Vanier Cups since 2003. To Nill’s satisfaction, UBC came out with an impressive 41-16 win.
After the showdown against Laval, the T-Birds set their sights on Nill’s former team — the Calgary Dinos — for the first regular-season game. This time, against another top CIS team, the weaknesses of UBC began to expose itself as the team fell 49-16.
With the loss against the Dinos, the T-Birds were under intense pressure on their return to Thunderbird Stadium to host Homecoming. In front of 6,950 spectators, UBC defeated the Regina Rams 27-20 to compensate for the previous loss.
Following the home opener, the T-Birds beat the Manitoba Bisons on the road before dropping to the Saskatchewan Huskies on the return home.
Despite an inconsistent start to the season, UBC football finished with a winning streak for the remainder of the regular season, coming out with a final season record of 6-2 and placing second in Canada West.
After four straight wins, the 'Birds showed no signs of stopping as they got past the Manitoba Bisons 52-10 in the Canada West semifinal and advanced to the first Hardy Cup game since 1999.
As the T-Birds routed the Bisons, the team came to the cold realization that their next opponent was to be Calgary — the top-ranked CIS football team. At a time when even Nill anticipated defeat, UBC came out with an astounding 34-26 victory to stun the entire nation.
After upsetting the Dinos, the Thunderbirds went on to beat the St. Francis Xavier X-Men 33-9 in the Uteck Bowl to earn their ticket to the Vanier Cup. There, they faced the defending champions, the Montreal Carabins. After another intense game, the Thunderbirds came out on top 26-23, successfully ending the cup drought.
Having won against successful CIS teams and captured the Vanier Cup, Nill believes that “the UBC football team in 2015 has to be considered one of the top programs in the country.”
“The teams that everyone was saying would be the top three were Calgary, Saskatchewan and Manitoba,” said Nill. “This past season, we ended up playing those three teams six times and our record in those games was 4-2.”
In preparation for the 2016 season, Nill has the important task of recruiting running backs to replace Deschamps, who is now at the end of his five-year eligibility, and other key players.
“Recruiting running backs is a big deal for us in the off season and we’ll work hard to make sure that we do a good job with that,” said Nill.
Even with Deschamps’ absence next year, Nill believes that the handful of freshmen players like O’Connor and Pinto, who will be returning next year, will continue to be an important driving force for the team.
“[The returning players] understand what has to be done and the way things need to be done. That’s going to make it a little easier for us there to garner success next year,” said Nill.
Still, whether the UBC football team can repeat its 2015 performance next year remains to be seen.
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