There have been plenty of notable coaching changes over this offseason, but one announced this week combines one of the biggest differences in job description with one of the shortest geographical moves. That would be the Simon Fraser University Clan's hire of Kelly Bates, who was previously the B.C. Lions' running backs coach and Canadian draft coordinator, but didn't have his contract renewed following B.C.'s hire of Jeff Tedford as head coach. Bates is not just going from a position coach to a head coach, but also from Canadian professional football to American college football, which can be a difficult transition. Fortunately, the geographical transition won't be as hard; Bates' new job is at the SFU campus in Burnaby, just 10 and a half miles from his old job at the Lions' facility in Surrey.
Bates is heading into a unique situation. When the NCAA approved a Division II pilot project for Canadian schools in January 2008, SFU and UBC had confirmed interest, and there were reports of four other CIS schools considering it. SFU's the only one that's made the jump so far, though, becoming the only Canadian school in the NCAA when they joined the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in 2010. So far, that hasn't gone so well on the football field; the team went 9-27 in conference play under Dave Johnson from 2010-13, then 2-7 last season under former Lions' offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine (who left SFU earlier this offseason to take another CFL OC job with Saskatchewan). They've produced some solid talent for the CFL in that time, including lineman Matthias Goosen and linebacker Casey Chin, but it hasn't translated into being competitive in the GNAC regularly; Johnson's best seasons in terms of conference play were a 4-6 mark in 2012 and a 3-7 one in 2013, and the 2-7 mark under Chapdelaine was a further step back. Will Bates be able to help turn the Clan around and make them consistently competitive?
On one hand, the way this coaching search played out bodes poorly for SFU. Chapdelaine left them for a lower-ranking position (although it may pay better given the Roughriders' resources), and the candidate they first picked out of a pool of three finalists, Glen Fowles, backed out during contract negotiations. Bates wasn't even part of that initial group of three, and neither was Lions' receivers coach Khari Jones (who was reportedly the runner-up this time around). Moreover, B.C. elected not to keep Bates on for this coming season, so it's not like the Clan lured him from a better job. That doesn't look great for the university's profile and its status in the tier of coaching opportunities.
Still, this is a match that could potentially work out well for both Bates and SFU. Bates has plenty of playing experience, as he was an offensive lineman with the University of Saskatchewan in the CIS ranks, then played in the CFL from 2002-2011, mostly with the Lions. He also has coaching experience from his last couple of years with B.C., but what may matter even more is the background he has on the personnel side. He's worked as the Lions' Canadian draft coordinator for the past several years, and they've made some solid picks in that time, such as offensive linemen Kirby Fabien and Matt Norman. Having an eye for talent can be crucial as a college head coach, and Bates' past success as a player and coach should help him in recruiting. We'll see how he adapts to the NCAA and how he does in what's become a very challenging recruiting environment (cross-town CIS rival UBC brought in famed head coach Blake Nill this offseason, and he's already landed a former five-star NCAA quarterback, amongst others), but Bates may prove to be the right man for the job, even if he wasn't the Clan's first choice.