This time last year, football was 2-6 and had failed to make the playoffs. This time last year, former head coach Shawn Olson was fired. Last year, the average attendance at home games was 1,698.
This year, football finished their season with a 6-2 record and upset last year's Hardy Cup winners — the Manitoba Bisons — 52-10. This year, SportsNet is writing about the team's quarterback. This year, homecoming saw almost 7,000 fans attend, and the team has an average attendance of 3,034.
For the first time in a long time, football matters at UBC.
The ‘Birds are head coach Blake Nill’s third Cinderella story. First, Nill coached at Saint Mary’s where he spent eight years and won two Vanier Cups. Then he came to Calgary where he turned a lacklustre program into one that won the Hardy Cup in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 (against the T-Birds), 2012 and 2013. This will be Nill’s eighth consecutive Hardy Cup appearance.
“Whenever I look at opportunities that are presented to me, I want to make sure that I have the potential to be successful. I don’t mind doing the hard work, putting in the time. But I want to know that ultimately it is doable,” said Nill.
UBC’s academics, Vancouver as a city and a growing football program all lead Nill to believe that UBC is ripe for a successful program.
“I’ve got to change the on-field success of the program and that, in turn, will draw players. When you have that complete package, everything will start working. It’s all about recruiting to attract top athletes to your program and your institution."
But a successful program isn’t years away as many assumed it was after the last few seasons.
“We’ve done far better than I think anyone would give us credit for…. When you looked at the schedule that was put in front of us, I said, 'Realistically, I think [it’s going to be tough] in five of the eight games we play. If we play well, we might have opportunities in these three games.'” said Nill, days before the ‘Birds’ Hardy Cup game. "I thought, best case scenario, we would be 3-5 and, worse case scenario, we would be 1-7 or 2-6."
But the ‘Birds surprised Nill and basically everyone else, winning game after game and defeating Laval in a preseason matchup and Manitoba three times this year.
"But what you saw is a group of young men embrace the change and by doing that, they reached levels that they didn’t think they would have been able to in the past."
Although the Dinos are a whole different beast to beat. They walked all over the ‘Birds in their season opener 49-16. They’ve torn apart team after team, beating Alberta 80-18 and Regina 72-8, just to highlight their dominance.
Calgary is now being helmed by Wayne Harris who worked with Nill as a defensive coordinator through his entire tenure as coordinator.
“Coach Harris has done a good job…. He’s one of the individuals who helped build that program. I was happy when he was named head coach, I thought it was the right decision,” said Nill of his former colleague. "His role isn’t as easy as people think ... coach Harris walked right into a fire. He’s got a team that is supposed to win the Vanier Cup, that is supposed to dominated opponents, that has 16 of this years all-stars."
Ahead of last weekend's playoff game, the Calgary Herald reported that,“99 per cent of our team is pleased with the change and Wayne at the helm” and called Nill a “screamer” and an “intimidator.”
“I take all that with a grain of salt,” Nill explains calmly. "There are generally two reasons for these kinds of comments coming out. One of them is that they’re hurt that I left and I understand that ... I realize that they don’t have the life experience yet to deal with situations like that and they go to an innate feeling that they’ve been hurt and consequently you get remarks like that."
Nill also thinks that the comments were politically motivated to downplay Nill’s ability to recruit in and around Calgary.
Regardless of the comments, Nill and his team are proud of what they’ve accomplished in the span of one season and are ready to take on Calgary.
“To them, [Calgary] is a very important game ... they may want to make a statement with this game and that’s fine. It took me nine years to get that Calgary program to where it is now. They can’t expect UBC to be there in three months ... we’re not as good as Calgary right now ... but the one thing we are is that, when you look at the time between the time I left Calgary and now, I think we’ve closed that gap significantly."
“Saturday’s game may be an example of that [progress] or not, but I know from a recruiting perspective and from an on-field product perspective [that] UBC is much better and we will continue to get better."