A most unique coach was on the wrong end of a most unusual move on Sunday, even though it was hardly a surprise. The University of Ottawa fired Etcheverry one day after the Gee-Gees lost 32-25 to Queen's to fall to 0-5, a last-place record, which adds to perceptions of a program in dire need of a reboot. (There are also unconfirmed reports some assistant coaches could depart.)
It is unheard of to see Canadian Interuniversity Sport team drop a coach after only five games. There's much less of hired-to-be-fired mentality in the collegiate ranks compared to the pros, generally speaking. A CIS campaign, with only only eight regular-season games compared to 18 in the CFL, is such a sprint that the chance that a change will yield better results is usually seen as remote. McGill University made a change last year when Clint Uttley replaced Sonny Wolfe, but that was case of pushing up a planned transition. (Wolfe is still on McGill's staff.) The powerhouse Laval Rouge et Or also made a change at offensive coordinator earlier this season, but it was simply rehiring a former OC.
It's practically surreal in a CIS context, but those who have followed Etcheverry's career will probably not look so shocked. He didn't even make it to the start of the season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2011 after being demoted from defensive coordinator duties. He also had only a partial season with the Toronto Argonauts in the early '00s, so this only adds to the popular belief of a unsuccessful coach. Candid to the end, he acknowledged last week that being fired is part of the coaching life. .
However, Etcheverry's short-lived tenure was the symptom at Ottawa, not the problem. Etcheverry was the Gee-Gees' third head coach in four seasons, even though predecessors Jean-Philippe Asselin and Denis Piché each had winning records. Those who follow the university game closely have fretted for years about fissures in the Gee-Gees' foundation. As Canada Football Chat pointed out, the downtown Ottawa university "has has had trouble attracting good candidates ... because of the lack of financial support and competitive coaching salary levels as compared to other OUA/CIS teams." The workload both ex-coaches dealt with certainly affected how much energy they had for recruiting, which is why Ottawa does not have the depth that it did when it came within one minute of reaching the Vanier Cup in 2006 and when it had 8-0 and 7-1 regular seasons in 2007 and 2010. This fall was expected to be a retooling season, but it just went sideways thanks to the added instability that came with new schemes and a divided coaching staff.
Etcheverry's tenure, highlighted by dusting off the double-wing formation that was his downfall with the Argos, only exacerbated those long-standing tensions. (It is worth noting that Ottawa gave Queen's a game on Saturday while running a conventional attack; QB Aaron Colbon threw 30 passes and tailback Brendan Gillanders had 20 touches for the first time all season, with the latter rushing for 134 yards against one of the best run defences in CIS.)
Making the change now either shows a willingness to act decisively or, if critics of Ottawa director of sports services Luc Gélineau are to be believed, make Etcheverry an escape goat in order to mollify angry alumni. The program at too critical a point to stick with the same old-same old. Carleton is well-funded and could be very attractive to recruits in Ontario and prospect-rich Quebec.
The question with Ottawa is how long it will take to undo the damage. The university is upgrading football to flagship status and will soon have its own campus stadium. That should help impress recruits and invigorate the fanbase. It also needs to re-establish a francophone presence on the coaching staff, since being based in Eastern Ontario requires being able to recruit from the other side of the Ottawa River.
Where Ottawa goes from here depends on who it can attract as its next coach. That might depends on who hires him. Etcheverry was a stopgap on a one-year contract, but even his quick exit might give some good coaches pause about applying for a job with such a high rate of turnover. (Ottawa has had 12 coaches since 1976; fellow traditionally strong Ontario teams Queen's, Laurier and Western have had a combined 10 in the same span.) That concern might speak to need for fresh thinking and new leadership at Ottawa. Simply being decisive now could only be a half-measure.
The Ottawa Gee-Gees were at the edge of an abyss well before Etcheverry signed on in May. All he might have done was press the accelerator instead of the brake.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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