Coaching football wasn’t always a career that Blake Nill intended to pursue. Today, he is the current head coach of the Thunderbirds football team and his name has become almost synonymous with U Sport football success.
A native of Hanna, Alberta, Nill always saw himself as having the build to be a football player. For him — a man standing at 6’6’’ and weighing in at 275 pounds — getting into the sport was not a coincidence.
“The reason I got into [football] is genetics,” said Nill. “When you’re my size, you got to play football when you’re a kid.”
Nill began his collegiate career at the University of Calgary, where he played as a defensive lineman from 1980 to 1982. He then received a draft into the CFL in 1983, landing with the Montreal Concordes as the 19th overall pick. He went on to spend a total of five years in the CFL, playing for Montreal, Hamilton and Winnipeg.
Yet his career in football did not end there.
After earning his bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees from Concordia and St. Francis Xavier University respectively, Nill set his sights on earning a master's in education, hoping to become a teacher. It was here that he discovered what was to become a long-term career as a football coach.
“As a coach, it was accidental. I just wanted to get into education. I applied to the school and they told me they would accept if I coached their football team, and that’s how I got into it,” said Nill.
Nill began coaching in 1992, starting as the defensive coordinator for the St. Francis Xavier X-Men. It didn’t take long before he struck gold. In 1996, the X-Men entered the Vanier Cup to face the Saskatchewan Huskies. Although the game ended in a loss, it was a season to remember for Nill.
“To get St. FX to the Vanier Cup was very special and we played well. We almost won [the championship],” said Nill.
After six years as defensive coordinator, Nill moved on to become the head coach for the St. Mary Huskies. By now, Nill was committed to a career in coaching football.
“It kept me from going back to Alberta and being a teacher, but what happened was that when I got the St. Mary’s job, it was a big deal for me because I wanted to remain in football,” said Nill.
Again, success came early for Nill as he made four trips to the Vanier Cup in 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2003. Two of those years — 2001 and 2002 — ended in championship titles. Nill saw his time at St. Mary’s as a continuation of a legacy that former coach Larry Uteck — who the Uteck Bowl was named after — had established.
After these accomplishments at St. Mary’s, Nill transferred to the alma mater of his college football days — the University of Calgary — in 2006. Unlike St. Mary’s, which had been a powerhouse team at the time of Nill’s entry, Calgary was a team that hadn’t won a playoff game in 10 years.
“I felt that at that point, I was ready for a change. I had accomplished everything I could at St. Mary’s and Calgary needed a turnaround,” said Nill.
As it turned out, Nill was able to turn the team’s luck around. Although the Dinos were second to last in Canada West during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, the team moved up to the second place spot by 2008 and to the top spot in 2009.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, every season from 2008 to 2013 ended in a Hardy Cup Championship. Three of those seasons — 2009, 2010 and 2013 — ended in Vanier Cup appearances.
Having successfully transformed the Dinos from a lacklustre team to a powerhouse in Canada West, Nill was determined to do the same when he came to UBC in 2015. At the time, the T-Birds had, coincidentally, a similar situation to the Dinos in 2005 — having made the playoffs only twice in eight seasons.
“I just believe that as a coach in a competitive situation … you’ve got to make a change every now and then to keep the fire going,” said Nill.
At UBC, the turnaround came even faster for Nill. In his first year as head coach, the ’Birds successfully ended their 18-year cup drought after several disappointing seasons.
Nill believes that there are three key reasons to his coaching success.
“I surround myself with very good people, and I’m a good evaluator of talent and I outwork,” he said.
His ability to evaluate talent showed during the 2015 season when UBC placed first in CIS for recruiting.
Despite his many successes, the most recent season — which ended in a 3-5 record and an exit from the playoffs at the Hardy Cup finals — was a disappointment for Nill. Still, he sees potential in the ’Birds.
“We’re competitive, but we just did not have enough plays to get the job done,” said Nill.
Nill’s philosophy for building football programs has also remained largely unchanged. For him, the goal for the next season — as it has been with his previous teams — is to continue instilling a culture and spirit of winning at UBC.
“It is a consistency issue, but that only improves if you become a more veteran team and you learn the culture of winning,” said Nill.