Just like it is south of the 49, the undisputed king of university athletics in Canada is football.
Only twenty-six schools out of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport’s (CIS) 54-member institutions play the game, but it’s still the sport that gets most of the attention. TSN, The Score and Shaw TV all broadcast weekly games, and the national championship game, the Vanier Cup, receives primetime coverage.
Although less than half of Canadian universities field a varsity football team every weekend, it still remains the biggest collegiate sport in the country. This is despite the fact that schools in the country’s largest urban areas and the most academically prestigious institutions with CIS football programs underperform woefully year after year.
The University of Toronto, for instance, went a brutal 0-49 over seven consecutive seasons before bouncing back into the winners column with an 18-17 win over the University of Waterloo Warriors in the fall of 2008. Four years later, they still continue to not qualify for the Ontario University Athletics’ (OUA) post-season playoffs.
The University of Waterloo suspended its football program for an entire season in 2010 after two of its fifty-plus players tested positive for steroids. The team has since failed to bounce back after re-entering OUA play, posting low-digit wins over the past two seasons.
The University of British Columbia (UBC), which posted a 6-2 record last season (before having their wins stripped due to an ineligible player), advanced to the Canada West championships off the back of their Hec Creighton-winning quarterback, Billy Greene, last season, seemingly proving an exception to the rule. However, the team has since fallen off the CIS football map after their remarkable campaign last season.
The T-Birds now sit at 1-4 with their only win coming against the University of Alberta Golden Bears, who themselves have not won a legitimate game since Nov. 2010. This includes a 0-5 record so far this season, which also makes the Bears the CIS’ only winless football program in the 2012 football campaign.
The U of A can also be included in schools that are considered academically rigorous and prestigious, but are dreadfully abysmal on the field. Indeed, the Bears have seemingly begun to descend into a potential rut at the bottom of CIS football to share similar turf with their OUA counterparts.
What may help to explain this phenomenon is the difficulty coaches face in recruiting the top athletes — especially in football — at schools where academic rigor and competition for grades in classes are at an all-time high. Indeed, being a student-athlete requires a huge time commitment that inevitably cuts into time that most students spend studying for classes.
Thus, when it’s time for many of these athletes to apply to universities, it’s usually the institutions that offer a lower-admissions cut-off rate or more money in non-academic scholarships that usually sway elite-level athletes to play for their programs. This inability to attract a high level of top talent thus leaves many top academic schools clutching the short end of the stick.
However, not all top academic schools are facing gridiron obscurity. The three schools in CIS that are currently defying the logic of being academically renowned schools but crappy football powers are the Queen’s, McMaster and Western universities in southern Ontario.
These three schools seem to have no problem in fielding some of the top talent in the country, despite their high admissions standards and the academic rigor of their programs. The Gaels, Marauders and Mustangs are all ranked in the CIS football’s top-ten rankings, and have all advanced to or won the country’s top prize, the Vanier Cup, in the past five years — all on the backs of players who have been able to thrive at academically rigorous institutions while performing lights out on the football field.
The successes of these institutions can also be attributed to the traditional campus experiences that they offer outside the classroom. Cheer teams, marching bands, generous alumni and a rabid student fan base, along with support from the faculty and the wider community in these smaller university towns help to contribute to this experience. In addition, all three schools have first-year student populations that mainly reside on campus, further contributing to the traditional college experience.
So what about U of T, McGill or the U of A, who, try as they might, seem to have a hard time in attracting elite talent that allow them to compete with the best of the CIS? Is it time to create an “Ivy League North” in Canada where schools that want to remain academically focused, like Waterloo, can refuse to offer athletic-based scholarships to prospective athletes? Or is an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) style tier-two system a better approach to these disadvantaged schools?
If, in fact, the disparity between the top academic schools and the rest of CIS football continues, and these schools suggest that something be done to rectify the situation, the CIS should ensure that the schools that take immense pride in their performance off the field do not continue to embarrass themselves on it.
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