December 05, 2011
It wasn't just the CFL making coaching news Monday, as word has come out that the CIS powerhouse Saint Mary's Huskies have parted ways with head coach Steve Sumarah. On the face of it, this is quite surprising, as the Huskies have seemingly elected to get rid of one of Canadian university football's most successful coaches and a man with deep ties to the school over a season that was a slight setback at worst.
Yes, Sumarah's Huskies were uncharacteristic underdogs to Acadia in the Loney Bowl (the AUS championship) this year and failed to win it for the first time since 2006, and yes, they finished the year unranked, but they still went 6-2 in conference, won a playoff game and earned a berth in the conference final. Even more importantly, this year only really seems like a setback because of the success the Huskies enjoyed during the rest of Sumurah's tenure. He took over the team in 2006 following Blake Nill's departure for Calgary and went on to win four straight conference championships from 2007-10, earning a berth in the 2007 Vanier Cup along the way. He also picked up the Frank Tindall Trophy as CIS coach of the year in 2009.
Sure, Sumarah's teams didn't win a national championship, but that's perhaps the best run enjoyed by any team not named Laval over that stretch. Part of that's thanks to the weakness of AUS, but Sumarah (seen at right above with Manitoba head coach Brian Dobie before the 2007 Vanier Cup) did an excellent job of maintaining Saint Mary's hegemony atop the conference. He consistently recruited nationally, bringing in the best possible recruits the Huskies could attract and giving them a decided talent edge in AUS. After a rocky start in 2006 where they went 3-4 in the regular season, Sumarah's Huskies took off once his recruits started to mature, and they reeled off three straight 7-1 seasons. 2010 was a bit of a step back, as SMU only went 5-3 during the year, but they still managed to win an AUS title and advance to a national semifinal. They weren't all that far away this year either, so firing Sumurah seems quite drastic.
It's also interesting to see SMU pull this so suddenly. As Monty Mosher of the Halifax-based Chronicle-Herald reports, Sumarah's contract expired this coming March, but he had no idea he wouldn't be back. In fact, he got the news shortly after doing some West Coast recruiting following a coaches' meeting in B.C., which suggests he was convinced a deal would be struck:
"We are not renewing Mr. Sumarah's contract," said Steve Proctor, the university spokesman. "We wish Steve well. He's been a great asset to the university. He was the (head) coach for six years and was an assistant coach for a number of years before that.
"We're just looking toward the future. Now is a good time. The season is over. We reviewed and we want to move forward and we want to give a new coach an opportunity to create his own team and get him into recruiting, which is already starting."
Sumarah had no inkling he wasn't about to take the Huskies into next season. He spent a few days recruiting in B.C. after attending coach's meetings in Vancouver late last month.
Proctor said the decision to change coaches was not made on Monday, but that's when Sumarah received word he would not be back.
When asked if the decision to change coaches had anything to do with any form of misconduct with either the coaches or the players, Proctor said it did not.
With no misconduct, this becomes even more curious, as Sumarah had a great deal of history with the school. He joined Saint Mary's in 1998 as Nill's assistant and went on a terrific run with the Huskies before ascending to the top job. As a Halifax native and a guy with so much invested in the program, it's highly unlikely he'd be jumping ship for a more prestigious school any time soon, either. The late timing suggests SMU may already have someone else in mind, but there aren't exactly a lot of high-profile established CIS names looking for work at the moment, and there are plenty of other jobs open as well. It's going to be very interesting to see where the Huskies turn, but from this corner, they may have just fired the best man they could get for the job.