Today, in the first of a three-part series on the future of Canadian university football, Pat Sheahan of the Queen's Golden Gaels, the dean of Ontario football coaches, talks about the implications of soon-to-be-imposed limits on rosters and—of all things, uniforms—in the OUA.
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
It was one of the most storied football teams in the land.
Fordham University in New York City had a four-year run in the 1930s of 24-3-7. Those 24 wins included 20 shutouts, and there was an undefeated season in 1937. A fellow named Vince Lombardi was one of the linemen known as the Seven Blocks of Granite.
The other big schools of the day, Notre Dame and Army, made sure a game with Fordham was an annual fixture. There were consecutive bowl appearances in 1941-42—a loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, and a win over Missouri in the Sugar Bowl.
Home games were never played on campus; they needed big-league parks like Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds to hold all the people who wanted to watch Fordham play. By comparison, the professional New York Giants were a poor cousin in Gotham’s football family; in 1939, when it was time to broadcast a football game on television for the first time, the producers made sure Fordham was one of the teams playing in it.
After the 1954 season, however, football was dead at Fordham. University administrators could see the way U.S. college football was going, and they didn’t like it. To continue to play with the big boys, financial commitments—and academic concessions—would have to be made that simply weren’t palatable. If you can’t reasonably strive for excellence, better not to compete at all, they determined.
Its legacy no longer enough to justify it, the Fordham football program was killed.
Football returned to Fordham many years later, starting as a club program, then moving through Division III, to today, when it’s playing in a sub-strata of Division I, against teams like Columbia, Lehigh, Bucknell and Penn, fine institutions all but by no means of the football ilk of Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Missouri. A sellout crowd of 7,000 in the stadium on campus is now the standard.
Canadian intercollegiate football finds itself at that kind of crossroads. This spring, it’s expected the OUA will put into law numerous restrictions on football teams, limiting roster sizes, the number of players who can attend training camp, even the number of uniforms a team can have. At the same time, universities have been asked to consider creating a super league, the so-called Northern 8, in which the top teams in the country would supplement their traditional conference schedules in a partial interlocking schedule that, proponents hope, will boost attendance and attract national media attention.
The example of Fordham provides a parable that Canadian university football teams ignore at their own peril, Queen’s Golden Gaels coach Pat Sheahan believes.
Sheahan, the dean of Ontario University Athletics football coaches—his 26 years as a head coach second in Canada only to the 31-year tenure of Brian Towriss at Saskatchewan—discusses with sportkingston.ca the implications for the future of Canadian Interuniversity Sport football.
Today, we present an edited transcript of an interview, where he talks about the restrictions Ontario universities will soon face:
Q: What are the parallels between Fordham in the 1950s and Canadian university programs today?
A: “(In the 1950s) the business of football was taking over. There’s no question that CIS sport has become competitive. It used to be a lifetime achievement to win a national championship. Now there is outside funding, you have alumni groups involved, and they don’t want to throw money away so the kids can have a good time. They want to invest in something that’s geared towards excellence, something that they can be proud of, and at the end of the day say, ‘Hey, I supported that.’ The feelings that they have as former players, and graduates of the school, to see the school held up in a certain light, that’s important to them, and important to a point where they’re willing to invest in it. ‘Have a good time, fellas, we’ll have pizza after the game.’ There’s a lot of influential and well resourced people who have no interest in that.”
Q: What is the role of football in the greater scheme of contemporary campus life?
A: “I happen to believe that participation in competitive athletics is a very important part of a student’s overall education. It’s not a diversion; it’s not something that you do outside. You talk about the broader learning environment but we often refer to participation in varsity sports as something outside that. It’s very much a part of it.
“I believe what happened (in the U.S.) was the varsity entity had become an entity onto itself. It’s big business; it’s controlled by money; it’s a major contributor, not just to the athletics department, but some of these funds that are being generated (by athletics) are being used by the university for very worthwhile purposes.
“To fuel the finance, some people think that compromises have been made. There’s one very prominent Big 10 school where 70 per cent of the athletes would not be admissible to the school if they weren’t athletes. When you start having these ethical compromises, these academic compromises, the mandate of the program becomes, ‘What are we doing here?’”
Q: What changed?
A: “By the sixties, some rosters (in the U.S.) were in the neighbourhood of 200 players. When you start to have 150, 160, 170 scholarship athletes and 35 walk-ons … the whole idea of recruiting becomes we’ll recruit them so you can’t get them—‘Yeah, he’s a good player, and I don’t know if he’ll ever play here, but he won’t be playing against us if we get him …’”
Q: Is that happening here, today? The limits proposed are 110 maximum at training camp, 90 on the roster. Are they reasonable?
A: “There’s a school of thought that says, ‘Let’s get 150 in here so we can get 80 who can play; let’s bring in 50 extra players, we should be able to find 15 somewhere who might play.’ Does anybody think about the other 35? We’ll collect their training-camp fee, we’ll give them a club sandwich and they can walk off the field three or four days later, but we’ll keep their money and (training camp) ends up being a fundraiser.
“It’s widely known that some schools have 120, 140, 150 kids (at training camp). I’m not saying (those kids) are being sold a bill of goods … but we know 50 of those kids are not going to make the football team, and are never going to play, but we’re collecting their fees. They’re on field three, four or five days, whatever the conscience can afford, and the rest of them are basically practice-roster players; they’re kids who are there to practise so your front-line players don’t have to do practice duty.”
Q: Don’t you need those extra players to have a viable practice? Isn’t that part of the learning experience for a varsity athlete?
A: “Some of that is part of everybody’s career. Not for everybody, but for a large number there is a tour of duty on the scout team. Everybody remembers it: ‘I spent the first year getting run over by the first-team offence …’ that kind of thing. Your roster size has to be big enough to be able to practise. That’s where a lot of young guys get their football, but we’ve got a situation where certain schools (have) 140, 150, 160 guys.
“To compete with that, does everybody need 140, 150, 160 guys? If that’s the case, we’ve increased the cost of football, we’ve increased the cost of training camp, we’re gouging another 40 or 50 kids for a training-camp fee who are never going to play.”
Q: What happened in the U.S. that may apply now in Canada?
A: What the NCAA decided the 1970s was, ‘We don’t need 200 guys, so what would be a reasonable number?’ They settled on 120 scholarships. There were prophets of doom and gloom, saying ‘This is really going to water down college football; 120 players isn’t enough.’ In 1978 that went from 120 to 105 with 20 walk-ons. Then Title IX came in, (requiring) one-for-one male-to-female scholarships. The well-established football programs screamed to high heaven. They went down to 85 scholarships, and you could have 20 walk-ons, only 105 players on the field, and everybody said, ‘This is going to kill football.’
“It hasn’t hurt their recruiting; it hasn’t hurt the talent, and it certainly hasn’t hurt college football to reduce the numbers. What it has meant is that recruiting is becoming more of a professional science.”
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: “People are going to have to look at Claude Scilley and say, ‘Well you know, we’d like to have Claude, but we have three other guys that are kind of just like him, and if we bring in Claude, we’ll have a fourth guy like that, and, yeah, it would be nice to have him, because it means Queen’s wouldn’t have him, but you know what, he really isn’t one of those guys who is capable of playing.’ There’s going to be much more science go into the process of recruiting rather than this en masse giant marketing thing, and let’s weed them out after we get them in the corral, similar to gathering wild horses.”
Q: Last year, 15 games in Ontario—one third of the 45 regular-season games played—were decided by 41 points or more. Clearly there’s a belief within the OUA that the league is evolving into haves and have-nots, so roster limits were proposed, and supported by the majority of schools, in a bid to level the playing field, so to speak. Is that a good idea?
A: “The teams who are in the habit of having huge numbers in training camp, or think you have to have 150 to be competitive, they’re obviously pushing back, but the vast majority of schools in the OUA have agreed that, yeah, we (don’t need that). It’s a gradual next step for the OUA, to keep the cost of football to something that is manageable, to challenge the coaching staffs.
“If you look at Laval, they’re not bringing in 150 kids, they bring in the right 85 kids. There are some who would argue, ‘we don’t have that luxury (to be able to recruit to the degree where you can identify the right 85).’ Well, you may not have that luxury but you should have the same goal: To make sure that your 85 guys are the best ones you can bring in, not bring in 150 and have to manage them, the extra strain on your medical department, the academic follow-up …
“There are some people who just feel more comfortable with more kids around. What we’re trying to do here is figure out what we need.”
Q: One of the restrictions is clearly directed at Guelph, where they had six sets of game helmets and who knows how many sets of game uniforms last year. The restriction is now two sets of helmets and three uniforms. Is that necessary or is how a team equips itself nobody else’s business?
A: “Everybody says, ‘We’re not mentioning any schools,’ but it’s obvious both Guelph and Carleton have considerable outside funding, and they’re trying to take football on their campus to another level, which is admirable, no question about that, but the reason why limits have come in, let’s face it, is football has a lot of enemies (on campus). The No. 1 beef that people have about football is the cost.
“The schools at the top have more money to play with. Look at the stadiums, look at the facilities, look at the coaches—the schools at the top have more resources, no question about that. Look at the CIS. There are some big money players, and they’re usually playing in November. There’s not too many big-money programs that aren’t in the hunt, because those institutions, and the people who back those institutions, have said that, ‘We think that winning football games is important; we think that bringing national championships and conference championships to our campus is important,’ but if we’re going to have a league, there are some boundaries. What the athletic directors in the OUA have tried to do is create some boundaries so that the competitive aspect of the conference doesn’t become so lopsided (to the point where) it’s basically money (that decides outcomes); that if you’ve got money you can have a competitive team, and if you don’t, you’re going to be subject to cyclical growth.
“If we have 100,000-seat stadiums and every program is generating millions (of dollars), you can have 100 uniforms if you want, because you can afford to pay for them.”
Q: Yes, but if you have a boy who’s making his decisions about his academic and athletic future based primarily on the colour of helmets or the number of different uniforms he might one day be able to wear, is this the type of kid who is likely to make a viable contribution to an intercollegiate program?
A: “I’m going to tell you something right now: The coaching staff at Guelph has done extensive research into the age group. What they have done is tried to market their program so it catches the eye of that demographic. Let’s face it: has the Guelph program ever generated more interest? It’s created its own persona.
“Coach Lang has said many times, ‘We don’t have the tradition of Queen’s and Western, we don’t have the winning legacy McMaster has. We need something different and unique to show we are the Oregon (of the OUA). We’re trying to get in there with the big boys, and demonstrate there is another way of running the program.’
“You have to be very complimentary with the job that he’s done there, but it comes at a cost. At the end of the line, is their program more competitive? The last four years, they’ve been in the hunt. They’ve created this (impetus) within their program, that they’re going to be something different. They’re going to be the checkerboard end zones, they’re going to be the team with the different uniforms. They don’t have 150 years of football tradition to fall back on, so they’re trying to crack in with the big boys (in other ways).”
Q: If helmets cost between $250 and $450 apiece, and six different uniforms, at perhaps $250 to $300 per player, times 90 players—that’s a pretty hefty bill. Is it any wonder teams fear having to compete with that?
A: “You can see where it’s going. Success in college football now becomes a derivative of how much money you can spend on it. We all have budgets; we have to manage them. (Recruits) are being flown in, (said with incredulity) just to take a look around. I have guys on our team who made 11 different (campus) visits. In the NCAA you get five. They’ve said, ‘Do your homework.’
“You can see where it’s headed if there aren’t some limits. You can see why a number of schools in the NCAA who were considered to be top-of-the-line football schools, historically, pulled back, rather than go with the madness. They stayed in football, but at a lower level, with fewer scholarships, and less money being spent. They’re not necessarily looking at their football program as a 30-, 40-, 50-million dollar revenue generator; they’re looking at it as a program that’s worth keeping, but one that pays for itself.”
Tomorrow: The Northern 8—will it grow university football in Canada or decimate it?