TORONTO—From a CIS-wide standpoint, it's hard not to be a bit conflicted about this year's Vanier Cup matchup (which we'll be running a live chat for, starting at 7:30 p.m. Eastern). On the one hand, the clash between the McMaster Marauders and the Laval Rouge et Or is a dream final for Canadian university football, considering the incredible show those teams put on in last year's Vanier (a 41-38 double-overtime victory for McMaster), Hamilton-based McMaster's proximity to the game (which has undoubtedly played a role in the record-breaking ticket sales) and their dominance this year (the Marauders and Rouge et Or are currently ranked first and second respectively in the FRC-CIS poll, and held those spots for much of the year). On the other hand, though, seeing Mac and Laval face off again suggests CIS is becoming tilted towards top teams, especially when you consider that this year saw the same four conference champions as 2011 (for the first time in CIS history) and a pair of semifinal blowouts and when you consider the impressive finances and facilities both McMaster and Laval have.
We've explored Laval's decade-plus of CIS dominance in this space before, but McMaster's is a more recent phenomenon. Although the Marauders have been playing since 1901, they haven't been a dominant force for much of the Vanier Cup era. The trophy was created in 1965, and the Marauders only appeared in the title game once before last year, losing in 1967. They improved dramatically under current Western coach Greg Marshall (who led the Marauders from 1997-2003), claiming the Yates Cup (the Ontario championship) four straight seasons from 1999 through 2003, but it's under current coach (and 2012 CIS coach of the year) Stefan Ptaszek that they've really taken off. Ptaszek, who'd shown plenty of promise as an offensive coordinator with the Laurier Golden Hawks from 2003-2005, took over as Mac's head coach in 2006 and has built the Marauders into a true CIS powerhouse. Similarly, Laval's Glen Constantin has established the most dominant program in CIS history, winning a record five Vanier Cups since taking over the Rouge et Or's head job in 2001. As impressive and remarkable as the coaching jobs both have done are, though, their programs' success isn't all about them.
The football programs at Laval and McMaster have also benefited from tremendous financial support from boosters and the corporate sector, and that's played a key role in their success. The facilities at both schools are incredible, as are the coaching staffs; these teams can afford plenty of top assistants, which isn't always the case in CIS. Those are crucial reasons why they always land top talent. Both schools' on-field success certainly gives them a recruiting edge too, as college success tends to self-perpetuate, but the remarkable facilities and impressive coaching staffs definitely help. In essence, these teams (and some of the other CIS powerhouses, but not many) have substantial financial edges over the majority of their competition.
Does that mean CIS teams should be be restricted in what they spend on facilities and coaches? From this corner, absolutely not. What the Marauders and Rouge et Or have done is more to be admired than despised; these schools have built top-tier programs that not only can dominate at the CIS level, but can also keep some of the top football talent in Canada and develop it for higher levels such as the CFL or the NFL. The quality of CIS play and CIS players has been consistently improving recently, and the extensive facilities and coaching at programs like Mac and Laval has played a role in that.
Disparity is still terrible for CIS as a whole, though, particularly from attracting fan, broadcast and media interest week to week. Blowouts aren't easy to sell. From this perspective, the success of these teams is a call for other schools to step their own programs up. Getting the money is never easy, but athletic success has its rewards; the football programs have brought tons of national attention to these schools, most of it favourable. If other schools can follow the path the Marauders and Rouge et Or have trod, that could be great for CIS football. If they're going to consistently be the only ones at the top of the heap, though, that's more concerning.