No one has ever described the leaders of university sport in Canada as adventurous. Cautious, yes; hidebound, even? Perhaps. Progressive? Seldom.
Consider the powerhouse Laval football team. At a time when teams across the land were having financial difficulties, along came Laval with a community-based model, one that led very quickly to a string of national championships. Was Laval seen as the great innovator, a team that led the way to raising the level of intercollegiate ball in Canada? No. It was widely derided as the villain, the team that spoiled things for everyone else.
Last fall, Ontario University Athletics thumbed its nose at 110 years of tradition when it allowed the Queen’s Bands to be barred from a game at Carleton. Just because the hugely successful NCAA, which embraces tradition, allows time for visiting bands to play during games is no reason for the penny-ante OUA to do so. Instead. Let’s not celebrate this uniquely colourful element as an asset of the entire league; let’s instead cater to the lowest common denominator, schools with no more to offer to the collective experience than a techno-geek with a soundboard.
Those who remember the Vanier Cup of 20 years ago or more will recall it as a true showcase of not just football, but university sport in Canada. Run by an arm’s-length board of directors, with a permanent office and staff, it was held in the nation’s biggest city, in the country’s biggest venue. It had all the trappings—and media attention—befitting a national championship.
That didn’t sit well with the non-football institutions, who in the CIS outnumber the ones with football teams. The solution wasn’t to challenge the other sports to bring their national championships to the level of football’s; it was to disband the office, take over the Vanier Cup itself, award it ad-hoc like the other events, thereby killing the tradition, killing the spectacle, depriving itself of the opportunity to host a crowd in excess of 20,000—all in the spirit of egalitarianism, to appease sports that never in their wildest dreams could ever hope to have the cachet of football in the intercollegiate landscape.
Suborn mediocrity? Spurn tradition? Left to its own devices, the CIS would take the Rose Bowl out of Pasadena.
It’s against that background, and amid the growing competitive rift between the top teams and the others, that coaches in Ontario and a group of entrepreneurs from western Canada are trying to foster and grow intercollegiate football.
Let’s first look at what’s going on in Ontario, where the OUA is poised to rubber-stamp recommendations to limit such things as the number of players who can attend training camp, how many players can be carried on a team's roster, and even how many changes of uniforms a team can have.
The plan is intended to pull the reins on well heeled teams such as Western, Queen’s, Guelph and McMaster, whose budgets clearly exceed what the folks at places like Waterloo and York have to supplement such things as recruiting and coaching.
Designed, for instance, to keep the good schools from stockpiling players on scout squads who otherwise might be good enough to play elsewhere—just to keep them away from other schools, an accusation that has been leveled for years—the plan has merit if it stops that practice, but it assumes that the incoming freshman makes his academic choice solely based on his sport, and that he will do so rationally. It makes no account of such factors as family legacy, proximity, or the wish of a young man to test his mettle in a more competitive environment, even though he recognizes his chance of playing might not be as great as in a weaker program.
Critics have claimed that roster limits will doom the more ambitious programs to mediocrity, a claim that is, of course, nonsense. It’s irrational to believe that if teams can agree to play only 12 men at a time, and to dress only 47 for a game, they can’t survive with a common 90-man roster. If you can’t find 90 decent players for your roster from 110 at training camp, and you can’t find 47 good ones to dress from those 90, from among whom 24 are good enough to play on any given Saturday, your problem isn’t with the roster limit; your problem is your inability to recruit well.
So keep the crocodile tears to yourself.
Out west, meanwhile, a group of investors has floated a plan to create the Northern 8, to provide the best teams with a partial interlocking schedule with the other top teams in the land. The goal is to get back on TV; thereby increasing fan interest, nation-wide, and eliminating some of those time-wasting, prove-nothing games with the driftwood in their own conferences.
Those are laudable goals, but the overall plan has some serious—potentially fatal—flaws, beyond a convoluted schedule plan that would befuddle Archimedes.
• What if fans stay home to watch the national game on TV, instead of going to the home-town game?
• What if the schools with the best teams aren't the ones rich enough—or philosophically inclined—to be part of it?
• What if a team like perennially weak Toronto sticks up its hand and says it wants to take part, because it sees membership in the Northern 8 as a means to attract better players? What if only three other schools in Ontario opt in? How could you say no? Does that weaken the competitive element you’re trying to sell to fans and networks?
• When it comes to move teams up based on their previous performance, how do you do it? This isn’t like, say, European soccer, where the top B division clubs one year move up to supplant the bottom two A division clubs the next. University teams aren’t structured like that; there’s an ebb and flow. Quite often—usually, in fact—a team has a superlative year largely because of its fourth- and fifth-year players, players who won’t be there the next year. You’d be promoting a team that is no longer worthy of being there.
• What do you do with the 2001 Manitoba Bisons, the 1998 Concordia Stingers or the 1993 Varsity Blues, those one-hit wonders that suddenly had a marvellous season, only to return to relative obscurity the next year. The next year is too late for them to be part of any upper tier. Those ships will have sailed, with all the good players on board.
• What about the non-included teams. There are only 27 university football teams in Canada. If eight or 10 of them are part of a super conference, those eight or 10, presumably already winning the recruiting battle, suddenly have another weapon to use in that campaign. Does that not deepen the rift between have and have-not teams? Does that lead to schools dropping football?
Some would say so be it; if you aren’t prepared to make the necessary commitment, that’s your choice, but is it the mandate of schools striving toward excellence to push those other programs out of existence as they do so?
Should Queen’s be part of such an upper echelon?
Supported by alumni who are second to none in terms of loyalty and generosity, the Gaels could probably afford it, and the old boys would no doubt want to pursue it. As well, it would be consistent for a team like Queen’s, which annually recruits from coast to coast, and represents a university that isn’t shy about proclaiming excellence. After Western and McMaster, the most perennially successful teams in the conference, based on performance Queen’s would definitely be considered worthy, though equally valid claims could be made by Guelph, Laurier and Ottawa based on their success over the last decade.
The interesting thing for Queen’s, if it did decide to take that leap, is the new stadium.
In 2012, Queen’s last year in the 10,000-seat Richardson Stadium, the Gaels were second in Canada only to Laval in home attendance. If you need more paying customers to afford to play at the higher level—and the converse is also true, that a better product will attract more fans, creating the need to accommodate them—will the proposed Richardson III, and it’s 8,000 seats, be too small by half before it even gets built? Perhaps Queen’s needs to wait until enough money has been raised to build a bigger place, or at least, can afford to build it in such a way as to expand, if necessary, at a future date.
Clearly, for Queen’s, it would be a very dynamic question, as it will be for many institutions, but it seems there’s a collective belief that the status quo needs to be fixed: The good teams want to aim higher; the others want a framework that will keep them from falling too far behind. The time would seem to be right to have some serious conversations—and to have them soon—about how to create a framework where every university in Canada that wishes to play football, at whatever level it wishes to do so, can find a suitable place to play.
The flaws in the Northern 8 proposal are not reasons to dismiss it out of hand. They're challenges to be met by universities that genuinely care about the future of the game.