UBC football: From farm to field, coach Blake Nill has brought the harvest

Blake Nill’s role as head coach with the UBC Thunderbirds goes far beyond just the X’s and O’s of what goes on on the field. Arlen Redekop / PNG

He grew up on a ranch in tiny Hanna, Alta., but Blake Nill never followed the herd.

Instead, as he morphed from a hard-nosed CFL defensive lineman into one of the most successful coaches in Canadian university football history, the winning has followed him wherever he has gone.

On Saturday, (12 p.m., Shaw TV), as the head coach of the reigning Vanier Cup champion UBC Thunderbirds, the 54-year-old Nill leads his team into the Canada West’s Hardy Cup conference championship game against the same Calgary Dinos program he turned into a perennial national title contender over nine seasons (2006-14).

Now 19 seasons into a head coaching career that began at St. Mary’s in 1998, Nill has led his team to 15 conference championships, winning 13 of them with a shot at 14 today. He’s also led his teams to eight Vanier Cup finals, winning three of them.

Yet he’s man with a unique perspective on life and football. Earlier this week, Nill sat down with The Vancouver Sun to answer five questions:

Q: The Hardy Cup marks the fifth time since you came west to UBC that you will have faced your former Calgary Dinos team. The stakes are huge. It’s a game that doubles as a national quarterfinal. What makes this game different for you than the first four?

A: Last season it was (uncomfortable), the fact that it was all still so fresh and that you felt loyalty to certain coaches you had worked with. There has been a lot of turnover since, but I am sure they don’t want to lose to me and I don’t want to lose to them. But I think the one thing you’re going to see most is that the personal component has been taken out of it a lot more. They realize, and we do too, that there is a football game to play. I can’t be at the forefront. I am on this side now, and I’ll take a professional approach and just do what it takes for our team to be successful.

Q: I know you’re a multi-sport advocate. If you had to pick one other sport that all of your recruits had to play through their high school years before coming to UBC, what would it be?

A: Well, if they were lineman, I would want them to have been wrestlers. If it’s not the most difficult sport to compete in, it’s at or near the top. It requires so much physical conditioning and mental toughness. And for all the other guys, it would be basketball because it requires such movement and burst. It requires good hands, good vision and the ability to adjust on the fly.

Blake Nill’s role as head coach with the UBC Thunderbirds goes far beyond just the X’s and O’s of what goes on on the field. Arlen Redekop / PNG

Q: You’ve been the head coach of 18 previous university teams in this country and each of them is unique unto themselves. You’re 2016 team finished at 3-5, just the second time you’ve ever had a losing record. What makes them different from the rest?

A: You know what? It’s been the fact that we have tried to grow this team at such an accelerated pace this season. And I would call it emotional growth. There were such huge expectations placed on this team at the start of the season and they were forced into having to mature very quickly. For the most part, they hung in well and they have learned how to handle it.

Q: Besides your actual coaching responsibilities, what else fills your week as the head coach of the UBC football team?

A: It’s the safety, security and needs of my players. When you recruit an athlete to come to UBC, he’s 18 and he is the most prized possession of mom and dad. So you have to be more than just a football coach. You have to be someone who is there for the stresses in their lives, and in doing this job for a very long time, I have dealt with every imaginable situation.

Q: Your passion for football is obvious. Is there anything else in your life that has you just as excited?

A: I grew up on a ranch and for my whole life, I have consumed a lot of red meat. But I’ve been trying to adopt to a more plant-based vegan diet. My cousin Jim Nill (former Vancouver Canuck 1982-84) and I both grew up in agriculture-based families and our dads were business partner.

Jim and his wife switched to a more vegan lifestyle and I am just now beginning to understand how significant that is.

I haven’t totally bought in, but I am moving quite significantly in that direction. It’s nothing that I push on people. But I think it’s important to have a more holistic lifestyle, being more minimalistic in what it is that we really need to enjoy a healthy lifestyle, to think about conservation and to make proper use of our land. I hope our players see it because what I want for them is to assume a role of leadership that goes beyond sports and academics and into real-life education.

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