1909 Grey Cup Champion Toronto Varsity Blues [photo courtesy University of Toronto]
It was great to see Chad Kelly re-sign with the Argos for the next three years. Ironically, he followed it up with arguably his worst performance of the season against the lowly Ti-Cats. Hamilton QB, Taylor Powell, actually had a better statistical game than Kelly who completed 65% of his passes for an 85 passer rating. Not embarrassing numbers, but not up to his usual standard. He is capable of much better.
The Argos played poorly but still won the game. They won the LOS scrimmage, out-sacking Hamilton 5-0. Javon Leake averaged 25 yards per punt return. The Argos rushed for 124 yards and 5.9 yards per carry. Adarius Pickett had 10 tackles including one for a loss. The o-line again made the difference, controlling the game in the second half.
Kelly had two INTs. The Argos took nine penalties again! They are taking too many penalties and need to clean this pattern up before the playoffs. In a close game this will be decisive. As the Argos put further distance between themselves and the rest of the East Division they will need to re-focus on the details so as not to fall prey to hubris and being seduced by their great press. If they have an achilles heel this season it may be themselves. Bringing the campy hammer out to celebrate is fun but it also suggests that this team might benefit from a dose of humility. It will be up to the coaching staff to ensure that they don't peak too early, improve on this performance and don't get complacent. CFL history is littered with teams that went 15-3 and did not win the Grey Cup. It was great theatrics but the hammer is a red flag to me.
Around the League
Two of the three Labour day games were indeed classics. The Saskatchewan vs Winnipeg overtime finish was especially entertaining and memorable. These games made the CFL destination viewing on Labour day weekend. Speaking of destination viewing and the CFL's variable schedule, more games on statutory holidays would give the CFL better brand association and promotional/sponsorship opportunities. Labour Day has now been closely linked with the CFL. It's time to consider doing the same with Canada Day, the August 1st holiday, Canadian Thanksgiving and perhaps even Remembrance Day in November. July 1st is the unofficial start of the Canadian summer. The CFL needs to lock it down and Thanksgiving too. It's low hanging fruit.
The Calgary vs Edmonton game was also very entertaining. Tre Ford played his fourth consecutive outstanding game and has singlehandedly resurrected the Elks moribund offence and restored hope in the franchise. He ran all over the Stamps in Flutie-like fashion meanwhile completing 63% of his passes and putting up a 110 passer rating. In his four starts he has yet to register a passer rating below 110. On a team as bad as Edmonton, thats huge. He has quickly become the league's most electrifying player. In his two losses, the Elks defence gave up big leads and folded like a cheap tent. That's not on Ford, that's on Chris Jones and his defence. Nevertheless, Jones managed to throw shade on Ford in his post game comments, and talked about how he used his legs a lot but missed some throws against cover zero. Jones needs to stay in his own lane and make the necessary defensive adjustments to make a stop when the Elks have the lead late in the game. It reminded me again of the 2021 Eastern final, when Dane Evans completed 12 consecutive passes and the Argo defence was unable to force a single incompletion in the entire second half. That was not on MBT.
Speaking of MBT, it was not uncommon for him to have visible conflicts with his coaches on the Argo bench, but you never heard them criticize him publicly. Everyone took the high road, publicly. Jones should try this approach, unless he wants to drive Ford out of Edmonton. He seemingly hasn't forgiven his third string QB for outplaying his "franchise" QB that he signed for hard money and anointed in the off-season. Some of his comments have received surprisingly little scrutiny by the media. Jones called out Ford's work ethic while he was not dressing and then told him to "stay in his lane" when he questioned the aggressiveness of the play calling in the loss to Winnipeg. South of the border, comments like these about a black QB would not go unnoticed in this day and age. They are reminiscent of old tropes used to justify discriminatory personnel decisions in a bygone era.
Another USPORTS football season has begun and the usual suspects, Western and Laval, are juggernauts while York and U of T are juggernots. I'm very concerned about the York football program. More on that later.
A few weeks ago, under cover of peak vacation time, the Simon Fraser University parted ways with their Athletic Director, Theresa Hanson. It came as a surprise to no one following a student-athlete and donor relations fiasco of epic proportions at SFU. It also marked the end of the beginning of the return of SFU to USPORTS football. It was also a deja vu moment for fans of university sports in BC.
Back in 2013, UBC Vice President, Louise Cowin, announced a Sports Targeting Review at the University, an ominous name to be sure. Shortly thereafter things started to get Orwellian. The University responded that it was "not about the money" when athletes and donors realized it meant "targeted for elimination". Soon the University started to move the goalposts and renamed it the "Sports Review Project" after news broke that the university was going to cease funding the men's hockey team, baseball team and women's rugby team. Athletes, coaches and donors went berserk (the UBC ice hockey centre is named after former CFL Commissioner and generous UBC donor, the late Doug Mitchell). A good summary of the debacle can be found here. Suffice it to say that former UBC President, Stephen Toope, was forced to walk it back and UBC administrators started to leave their employ. One of these, coincidentally, was the same Theresa Hanson who would later become the Athletic Director of SFU. Throughout the targeting review she was the UBC's Director of Athletics, Operations and Student-Athlete Services. A position that apparently qualified her for what she would be attempting to do at SFU earlier this year. Deja vu indeed.
Athletic Directors in Canadian universities are the consummate sports bureaucrats, outside government, and they wield a lot of power inside the university. Their respect of the interests of donors are key to successful resourcing of the various teams. Without these donations the teams would not be able to hire competent coaches, offer scholarships and recruit and field competitive teams. UBC and its teams have been very successful at this which made its Sports Targeting Review inexplicable. It was a bad idea, badly executed. This year SFU went one step further in the self sabotage of its brand when it actually cancelled its flagship football team without due process.
Hallmark signs of university football teams at risk of folding include:
1. Inexperienced or incompetent athletic directors.
2. Inadequate resourcing (funding, coaches salaries, scholarships, scouting).
3. Poor and inexperienced coaching
4. Years of lopsided losses
5. Changing the team's name/brand.
Why is this important to Toronto? The reason I point this out is that the two university football programs in the GTA have fallen on similarly hard times, for different reasons. Like SFU, long streaks of blowout losses and non-playoff seasons make a university team highly vulnerable to being cancelled.
Like SFU, York's nickname was deemed not politically correct enough. With much misplaced fanfare SFU changed its name from Clan to Red Leafs. York's was changed from Yeomen to Lions. Seriously, neither was an improvement and lacked imagination to say the least. The only Lion that has ever set foot in York region was in a circus. SFU administrators should have consulted the english department before they settled on Leafs. Conn Smythe gets a pass as he was not an english major and the Maple Leafs aren't representing a university.
Canadian universities have some esoteric nicknames. Clearly, the University of Guelph was consulting more closely with its Greek history department than its business and marketing faculty when it chose a Gryphon as its mascot. Queen's was once known as the Presbyterians before the university officially adopted the Golden Gaels as a more secular nod to its Scottish origins. Remarkably, there is a direct connection between Dinosaur discoveries and the area of southern Alberta in which the University of Calgary is located. That is both cool and authentic. Meanwhile back in the GTA there were no Raptors either. Ottawa Gee Gees anyone?!
A couple of decades ago the York vs Varsity games routinely drew 25,000 fans to the old Varsity Stadium. The student bodies from both schools enthusiastically came together, win or lose, to celebrate a common experience of Canadian football. Sadly, the demolition of the Varsity stadium, without a whimper of opposition from the University leadership, marked a downturn in competitive teams from these schools. This season marks 30 years since Varsity last qualified for the Vanier Cup, a game that they won in front of a large crowd at Skydome. The University of Toronto has an extraordinary history of winning football, including four Grey Cups. Incredibly, the first three Grey Cups were won by the Varsity Blues. Justifiably, the University of Toronto is routinely ranked in the top 25 of universities, globally. It is the largest public university in North America. It has all the ingredients to be among the top five university football programs every year. It isn't, and there is no excuse for the University to hide behind. The team is not being adequately supported. University leadership needs to fix this. A strong Varsity football program would also be good for the profile of Canadian football all across the GTA and beyond.
The issues at York are more challenging. York has produced many outstanding players for the CFL, former Argos Ricky Foley, Jeff Johnson and Andre Durie come immediately to mind. Unfortunately, winning seasons have been very few and far between. York has never appeared in the Vanier Cup.
Why is this ?
1. An inexperienced Athletic Director with few immediate options. Alex Dominato came into this role after serving primarily as a compliance coordinator with previous universities. His predecessors left him a mess to clean up. He is up against it.
2. The football team is under-resourced and unable to provide a competitive salary for a top notch head coach. Unable to attract a transformative head coach, the University chose to appoint two incumbent assistant coaches as co-head coaches. It was spun as innovative. It is not innovative. It is confusing, if not desperate. In the meantime the coaching vacancy and recruitment process set back the recruitment process for new players a full year due to uncertainty. York's problems are going to get worse. Their student athletes deserve the same level of effort and commitment from their University leadership as the student athletes are giving on the practice and playing field themselves.
In their opening game York was blown out 83-0 by Western. Never mind what I think is bad form by Western in running up the score, it's a very bad sign for York. My fear is that the blow outs will continue indefinitely and make the football program more vulnerable to closure. Blow out losses also made SFU more vulnerable to cancellation by its administration, even though the conditions for cancellation were created by their own poor leadership. So what can be done to help rescue York and perhaps even U of T? After the first two weeks of the season they are both winless.
In BC, Amar Doman has stepped up to support the Shrum Bowl, between UBC and SFU by promoting it and moving it to BC Place stadium. It will be rejuvenated when SFU football eventually rejoins USPORTS. Ottawa U and Carleton U play the Panda game at TD Waterhouse stadium, home of the Redblacks. This annual game routinely attracts more than 20,000 spectators.
The York-Varsity rivalry needs to be revived, and maybe the Argos and MLSE can help. This game should be supported and moved to BMO Field. The quality of football teams in the USPORTS is proportional to their budgets. In order to be competitive, teams don't require an operations cap, they need a budget threshold. It's a huge success factor. It's not for the Argos to solve their respective problems, but they can provide an important helping hand by promoting this cross-town rivalry. It's in their wheelhouse and the returns to amateur football in the GTA, USPORTS goodwill, and their own brand and reputation in the community would be significant. What GTA high school football star would not want to play at BMO against their cross town rival in front of 25,000 of their families, fellow students and local football fans!? That's a big recruiting advantage.
The Argos and Ti-Cats play for the Harold Ballard Trophy, perhaps his most positive legacy. How about a Tanenbaum Cup to the winner of the Red and Blue Bowl?