UBC Thunderbirds bringing in Blake Nill could escalate CIS football's arms race
Blake Nill might have found his last coaching stop. Or he did it for the ocean air.
The biggest takeaway from Nill leaving a perennially Top 5 Calgary Dinos for a UBC Thunderbirds team that's not far removed from having to justify its existence is that influential UBC alumni, such as Doug Mitchell and Dave Sidoo, are tired of looking up at the Dinos in the Canada West conference. The rumour is that Nill will clear more than $200,000 annually. That is more than twice as much as some university coaches. One can also presume that came along with a promise that UBC, and its supporters, are going to furnish the resources and staff that will allow Nill to perform the wonders that he did in reviving Calgary in the mid-aughties and Saint Mary's in the late 1990s. At Calgary, his teams won six conference titles in nine seasons after winning zero in the previous 10.
Nill was also suspended by the U of C for a game late in the regular season. All that being accounted for, though, one can accept the notion that the two-time Vanier Cup-winning coach had a yen to hit the reset button. After all, his nine-season tenure at Calgary was one season longer than his time with the Saint Mary's Huskies. Everyone has a life cycle.
“There have been situations that have maybe caused a drain on me, but I can say I have the full support of my family,” Nill told The Canadian Press. “This is something I thought I needed to do from a personal point of view. It’s a personal decision more than anything. It’s difficult to sometimes take a leap of faith like this but I’ve done it before.”
The Dinos won a conference title in Nill's third season in 2008 and went to the next two Vanier Cup games, although a victory eluded them. Similarly, at Saint Mary's Nill delivered a Vanier berth in 1999, his second season after succeeding legendary Larry Uteck. In his fourth season, the eastern Huskies won it all. Point being, Nill has a proven ability to turn a team around for the long term.
It is tough to win at UBC, which has a higher bar for undergraduate admission than either of Nill's last two stops. That has likely been a factor in why it's proven tough to win at UBC, just as it has for central Canada schools with a similar academic profile such as McGill in the Quebec Conference and Toronto in the OUA. There are also a lot of options for players in the province, including junior football and the Simon Fraser Clan, who now play in NCAA Division II.
Nill is someone one is inclined not to bet against, particularly if UBC apes CIS football's big spenders such as Carleton, Laval and Montreal and expands the full-time staff to include position coaches, not just Nill and his defensive and offensive coordinators. (Traditionally, or typically, many CIS teams simply pay honorariums to the position coaches.) There is certainly potential to do great things at a school that won three national titles in the paleolithic era before Laval cranked it up.
Calgary probably shouldn't rush to name a replacement; former CFL coach Steve Burrato is the most likely in-house replacement. Meantime, it's fair to wonder what effect Nill's move will have for the Regina Rams, McGill Redmen and Waterloo Warriors, who are each conducting head coaching searches. Whatever Nill is receiving, rumoured or verifiable, is bound to affect the asking price of any other capable coach.
That just ties back to the concerns about haves and have-nots in university football. In the big picture sense, it is good to see UBC take a legit shot at becoming a legacy program. Whether Nill can overcome the barriers his T-Birds predecessors faced while be fun to watch. You can bet the University of Calgary will be watching it very closely.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.