If there’s been a theme for the 2015-16 collegiate sports season at UBC — one that marks the school’s 100th birthday — it’s been not only the continued success of its teams on the national stage, but also the success with which the athletic department has promoted those events.
Now, as UBC closes out a season in which it made a Cinderella run to the Vanier Cup national football title and later hosted the CIS Final 8 men’s basketball championships, the school has made a hire that seems to ensure its status as a Canadian varsity giant will continue.
Gilles Lepine, 61, who was introduced Friday as UBC’s new athletic director, left a similar post at Laval University in Quebec City. There he was a hands-on factor in increasing the popularity of a football program that has won a record eight national titles.
“If my comfort zone was right here and happiness is right here,” he explained, holding his two hands apart when asked to explain his need for a new challenge, “then I am totally out of my comfort zone. But my wife and I said, ‘Why not, we have one life to remember’ and the perfect place was here in Vancouver.”
And if every athletic director can be defined by their specialties, it seemed apparent that Lepine’s will be a forward-thinking ability to market an athletic department’s two big-ticket properties — football and men’s basketball — in order to improve the status and health of every other program in the department.
“No one program is more important than another, but we have to take care of our market-driven sports,” said Lepine, who not only taught a course on organizing sporting events for eight years at Laval, but has also served as the chairman for four Vanier Cup national finals. “If we are hosting, say, 5,000 people coming for a football game, we have to take care of those people. And with that, we can bring a lot of energy in media attention, sponsors and fans. I can use football as the main engine of a train to explore other possibilities.”
I look at sport as a thing to sell, a product. It’s theatre. And when you create good theatre, people come. – Gilles Lepine
Lepine won’t begin at UBC until the summer, but he is aware that a number of options are being discussed concerning full-scale makeovers to both Thunderbird Stadium and War Memorial Gym, as part of the athletic portion of UBC’s grand athletic and recreation master plan.
Those changes, if approved at a June board meeting, would go a long ways toward giving him the same kind of base he used to maximize the potential of Laval’s football program and regularly draw crowds in the 12,000-range at Laval’s Telus Stadium.
“I saw that at Laval, that when we upgraded the stadium, how you could create incredible things and that people were proud to come,” said Lepine. “I look at sport as a thing to sell, a product. It’s theatre. And when you create good theatre, people come. And that’s what a new facility could bring here.”
This past season, UBC drew an announced crowd of 6,950 to its Homecoming Game, a number that most felt was conservative. Still, it was the largest on-campus sporting crowd in a generation, and something Lepine knows can be built upon.
His job, as he so accurately described Friday, was to move the department forward by recognizing the needs of the student body and the general fan base and then acting upon it.
“Wayne Gretzky said that his job was not to be where the puck is, but where the puck will be,” Lepine said. “And the puck will be here.”
Photo: Gilles Lepine dons some Thunderbirds gear as he is named UBC's new athletic director. Arlen Redekop / PNG