Article by Ryan Mccabe, canadafootballchat.com. View the article here
The U Sports landscape has been shifting beneath our feet at a rapid pace recently – just check the name if you need any proof – and one of the more intriguing storylines has been the rise of UBC from a perennial basement dweller into Vanier Cup Champions in the blink of an eye.
Most fans around the country say the powerhouse schools will always lead the pack while the rest fight for scraps, but David Sidoo had a different vision in mind when the 13th Man Foundation was developed to help back an ailing football program in 2014.
Sidoo tasted Vanier Cup glory with the Thunderbirds as a player in the 1980s, went on to become the first Indo-Canadian to play in the CFL, and then turned his attention to the world of business where he’s found no shortage of success. But he didn’t take this project on for his own personal gain, instead, he did it for the student athletes who deserved the same type of experience and success he enjoyed at UBC.
Sidoo makes it clear he doesn’t believe you can just throw money at a problem, and he estimates that they likely don’t spend as much as the top teams like Laval, Montreal, or even Western, but what the 13th Man Foundation knew they needed was to build a solid foundation which begins at the top with a role he likes to refer to as the “Chairman”, and that man was Blake Nill, who many speculate is the highest paid coach in U Sports history
“What we’ve done is given Blake Nill full reins of the program and we’ve helped assembled a great
coaching staff that can teach these young men. With that, comes expectations, and I know Blake feels you should be held accountable, and when you’re supported like that from the University, the athletic department and alumni, expectations are high.”
The formula certainly worked in 2015 when UBC went on their magical run and upset Montreal in the Vanier Cup, but the plan never changed due to the short term success they experienced. The plan was always to build a championship calibre program from top to bottom that can survive for years to come, and looking back at when he strapped on the pads, Sidoo says the entire student athlete environment has taken a giant leap forward in terms of academic assistance, medical treatment, and the overall monitoring of concussion protocol – which is an area the T-Birds staff has tried to lead the way,
“How they train and the frequency with which they train it’s much different than when we played – we were all about the brawn and the weightlifting – there wasn’t a lot of other core exercises, plyometrics, and the new training technology that reduces injury. I think the concussion protocol now is much better than it was before and UBC has done some real strong studies the last two years in terms of measuring concussions and how to deal with players that unfortunately get injured in a game. I think just the general experience in the games across the country has really improved a lot – when you’ve got a strong alumni and a strong university backing then football can be a real marquee sport.”
That last statement is one that challenges every university across the board other than maybe Laval or Montreal, because in the world of U Sports they’re always trying to find ways to innovate and become a more attractive option for young students compared to their American counterparts.
UBC has done a lot in this area by interviewing students first-hand to discover what would make them attend more games – unsurprisingly beer and tailgating were common answers – but this extends beyond the action on the field by building a new Academic Centre, offering mentorship programs for players, and they also have a new stadium in the works that’ll become home to multiple T-Birds athletic teams and school events.
It’s important to note that none of these things actually involved winning, and Sidoo firmly believes it’s the responsibility of every school from coast to coast to make sure they’re offering the same type of atmosphere to their student-athletes,
“I think universities across Canada should look at marquee sports and the experience that the student-athletes have in attending and being apart of a university. We don’t have to be like the Americans, but clearly if you look at basketball, football and hockey, those are the three major marquee sports that universities across Canada should really support,” he said. “Students who’ve gone to a football game that is packed against your rival, they’ve had some of the best experiences there. Students are the the ones who are paying the bills for the school, and I think it’s really incumbent on a university and their athletic department to make those experiences really cool.”
This is an entirely separate issue than the on-field product itself, because whether people want to admit it or not, U Sports is high quality football minus all the glitz and glamour of the NCAA.
Winning is still very important to the model at UBC because it’ll ultimately drive student interest more than anything, so Sidoo has tried his best to communicate with the University about what he believes the student-body is looking for when attending a football game, and leaves all the football stuff to Coach Nill,
“We’ve given a lot of advice to the University about how to market the sport in an efficient manner and how to engage the student population, we’ve extended invitations to all the deans from all the faculties, so we get involved in a multitude of different areas,” he explained. “But the one area we don’t get involved in – and it’s important – is decision making on the team. We made him [Nill] the highest paid for a reason because he’s successful and he knows that the expectation is to win every year and that’s how you gain momentum as a program.”
“What they need to have is a Chairman who is the Head Coach like a Blake Nill, Greg Marshall, Wayne Harris or Brian Dobie, you need guys that are at the top of the sport and make it competitive. You don’t have to win all the time, but you need to have competitiveness which builds pride at the university, and I think every school across the country should invest in that.”
The final prong of UBCs rebuild has been cultivating the game at the grassroot levels, and the end goal for any program is to keep their local talent at home because when you’ve got 27 schools competing for the top players, it’s important to control your immediate surroundings since that’s where your program has the biggest impact. Sidoo’s goal is to not only build a thriving program at UBC, but a thriving community across the province that he believes is underrated in football terms, and that all starts with getting the younger generation engaged with UBC and forming future U Sports athletes or fans,
“Even with the coaching staff we have assembled right now, that doesn’t always guarantee you to get local talent in your province. In the 80s and 90s, we won Vanier Cups at UBC and primarily all of the kids were from B.C. We’re a little bit disappointed in the fact we don’t have more B.C kids here, we’d love to see more homegrown talent recruited, but this is Blake’s football team, it’s his decisions to make and he has 100% support from the University and our 13th Man Foundation. He’s got complete autonomy from coaching to recruiting, but it’s always nice to keep your homegrown stars playing at home if you can. And if anyone can keep these kids here its Coach Nill.”
Article by Ryan Mccabe, canadafootballchat.com. View the article here