By CLAUDE SCILLEY
It was a long time ago.
The price of oil had just cracked $13 per barrel, as North America felt the pinch of its first energy crisis. Pierre Trudeau was prime minister; Gerald Ford was the U.S. president. If your had an average income, $14,100, you could probably afford payments on both an average house ($39,300) and a new Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale ($5,626).
Welcome Back Kotter was the new TV sensation; out for a couple of months, Jaws was still drawing at the box office. David Bowie’s Fame was No. 1 on the pop music charts; in a week George Carlin would host the first show of what would become Saturday Night Live.
Kingston had just won its second of two Ontario senior A baseball titles in three years. Work was progressing nicely on the harbour in Portsmouth, with the Olympics barely 10 months away. The Kingston Canadians, with future NHLers Ken Linseman, Tony McKegney, Mike Crombeen and Mike Gillis in the lineup, were selling out the Memorial Centre.
Dalhousie University still had a football team, and Doug Hargreaves was its coach. A young quarterback from Brockville Collegiate named Pat Sheahan was casting his lot with the Concordia Stingers.
Just three days earlier, Muhammad Ali had defeated Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manilla. That afternoon, Pete Rose had two hits as the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-3 to win the National League Championship Series.
It was Oct. 4, 1975—the day the Varsity Blues last beat Queen’s in an intercollegiate football match.
Ron Murphy was in the midst of a 17-year run as coach at the University of Toronto. Frank Tindall was in the last of his 29 years as coach of the Golden Gaels. None of the young men who will play today in the latest installment of a rivalry that dates either to 1874 or 1882—depending on the source—had yet been born; indeed, many of their parents were likely toddlers at the time.
Toronto’s 32-10 win that day was the second in a row for the Blues over Queen’s. The previous week, they’d defeated the Gaels 26-0, the fourth of five straight wins over the Tricolour in a three-year span.
Mark Bragagnolo was the main cog for Toronto, one year removed from setting Varsity’s single-season rushing record—1,018 yards, a mark that, by the way, still stands. Among the Gaels that year were a fourth-year linebacker named Jim Daley, who would go on to a coaching career that included several tours in the CFL, and John Rudan, now a leading orthopedic surgeon.
The Blues were enjoying a terrific run: they were 25-3 in the four years from 1974 to 1977, and 6-1 that year. The Gaels stumbled home 3-5 and missed the playoffs for the third year in a row. In the depth of the valley between national championship seasons of 1968 and 1978, they wouldn’t play a post-season game for two more seasons.
How times have changed.
Queen’s has won 14 straight games over U of T since that fateful Saturday 40 years ago, a national semifinal in 1983 and all 13 contests since rejoining the OUA in 1999. In that time the Gaels have treated the Blues like their very own rag doll: But for a rain-drenched Friday night match in 2011 when the Gaels were fortunate to escape the new Varsity Centre with a 13-6 win, Queen’s has posted such victories as 55-3, 61-10, 72-0, 45-0, 53-7, 58-14 and 66-1. Indeed, three of the five most lopsided victories in Queen’s football history have come in the last dozen seasons against Toronto.
It’s bound to be difficult for current members of the Gaels not to have this game already ticked in the win column. Queen’s, 2-2, is coming off a credible, albeit losing, performance against Western, the No. 3-ranked team in Canada; Toronto, 1-2 with the only victory coming against winless Windsor, was borderline inept in a 19-15 loss a week ago at Carleton, generating just 235 yards of offence against a team Queen’s beat 34-24 in Week One.
In that game, the Blues mustered just 69 yards rushing, almost exactly half of what Queen’s back Jesse Andrews gains in an average game all by himself. That statistic, plus the fact that the Gaels have allowed a league-worst average of 388 yards passing thus far, suggests that Blues quarterback Simon Nassar will be putting the ball in the air early and often.
Nassar’s favourite receiver this year has been Boris Isakov, a former high school teammate at Toronto’s Lawrence Park Collegiate who leads the Blues with 17 catches this year. A graduate student in civil engineering, Isakov began his intercollegiate career at Queen’s. He’s coming off a career-best seven-catch, 89-yard reeiving game against Carleton.
His is not the only interesting connection in the game. Marcus Hobbs, the Blues’ backup quarterback, is the older brother of Gaels quarterback Nate Hobbs.
With 583 yards at the halfway point of the season, Andrews is the second-leading rusher in the nation, and he’s on pace to break Mike Giffin’s Queen’s single-season record of 1,157 yards.
Although they’re below .500, the Blues actually are middle of the pack in terms of team defence, allowing almost 150 yards per game less than the Gaels allow. Toronto is well below Queen’s in terms of team offence, however, by about 100 yards per game. After scoring 26 points in the first half against McMaster, Varsity has scored just 30 points—including only two touchdowns—in its last 10 quarters of football.
All of which points to a Queen’s victory, and here’s how today's outcome impacts the remainder of the season:
With two wins in the bank, the Gaels are counting on victories over Toronto and York—and likely conceding defeat at the hands of unbeaten Guelph in between—to go into their final game of the season, the Homecoming game against Laurier, 4-3, in a position to clinch a playoff spot outright with a victory there.
A loss to Toronto creates the spectre whereby a victory against Laurier instead becomes necessary just to finish with four wins, and history tells us that 4-4 doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth—just ask the Varsity Blues of 2013.
It’s been 40 years since Toronto’s regular-season performance against Queen’s last determined whether the Gaels would make the playoffs. It’s an anniversary the Gaels hope isn’t celebrated Saturday afternoon.