Club version of Red Bombers poised to play Canadian football at UNB

By Dave Ritchie

It's first down. The Red Bombers are pinned deep on their side of centrefield.

It looks daunting.

Their playbook is all about doing the little things right. No big bombs here. Cool under pressure. Methodical in the approach. Get everybody involved. And operate as one smooth offensive machine.

With chin straps firmly attached and positive they've got the right game plan in place, the Red Bombers begin their drive to paydirt.

Slowly but surely they build some momentum. The doubters start to buy into the game plan. The fans are feeling the excitement. But there's no getting ahead of themselves. The defenders aren't about to give up their turf easily. It's not about risk and reward. It's about taking care of business and operating as one smooth offensive machine.

It's a time-consuming drive. But the Bombers are now in position. It's third down and goal to go. The fans are cheering. Anticipation is high. There's a lot at stake for a lot of people. It's do-or-die.

Can the Bombers get it done? Can they push across that bottom line? And can they find paydirt?

Paydirt for a group of alumni from the days when Canadian college football used to be played at College Field and there was a team called Red Bombers operating out of the University of New Brunswick is getting CIS football reinstated at UNB.

Over the years, they've tried the big-play approach and it's got them nowhere. But times, to quote Dylan, might be a changin.'

When the sport at the school ceased to exist any longer in the spring of 1980, there was hardly a ripple. The team had been losing. The coach didn't want to continue. The program was a financial drain. And there were but five high school teams playing the sport in New Brunswick. Minor football wasn't an option either.

That was nearly 30 years ago.

The football landscape has changed. Seventeen high school teams now play the sport at the varsity level. There's viable minor programs operating in the three biggest centres. There's a Maritime senior league, dominated the last few seasons by a team out of Riverview. Heck, there's even a Maritime senior women's circuit that seems to be growing in popularity each year.

And beginning this fall, there will be a Red Bombers football team playing out of UNB's Chapman Field.

It will operate as a 'club' team and play in what will be known as the Atlantic Football League. Eligible players will be between the ages of 18-24. Three teams will make up the inaugural season. Barry Ogden's Sea Wolves will play out of University of New Brunswick in Saint John and operate much like the Red Bombers. The third entry is a club team out of the Moncton area directed by former Football N.B. president Dan Fougere.

The league will play Canadian-style rules. Three downs. Fields 110-yards in length and 25-yard end zones where possible. Rosters consisting of 40 to 45 players per team. The hope is to play games on Saturday night under the lights in the three centres, although the high school schedules might dictate a Friday night scenario instead.

A league executive, playing schedule and league constitution will be finalized at a meeting scheduled for Sussex June 16. Teams will open camp the first week in September with the plan to begin playing on September 26. Each team will play four regular season games followed by a semifinal between teams two and three and a final between the penannt-winner and semi survivor.

The idea is a three-year pilot project to see what kind of interest can be generated, and then move forward (or backward) from there. Translated, that could mean more teams in a viable Atlantic circuit.

Or for a group of UNB football alumni, a different kind of paydirt for the two university-based programs.

There's no hidden agenda here. There's a reason why UNB's football alumni is spearheading this particular Red Bombers operation. And why Bob Skillen, who is the chief advancement officer at UNB, is heading up the fund-raising operation with his UNB involvement helping to faciliate that effort.

Larry Wisniewski, who directed the football fortunes of the FHS Black Kats for several winning seasons and just recently retired from teaching at UNB, is the general manager heading up the Red Bombers. He's made the commitment "to handle the off-field aspects'' for the team over the three-year period.

He's currently putting a coaching staff in place - there are a couple of options for the head guy that he's not prepared to reveal - and an executive that he says will include representation from the teaching faculty at UNB and the players themselves "who need to have some input as to how we want to operate,'' says Wisniewski.

Oh yeah, and it's good optics, too.

As a "club'' team, the majority of the players will be under-graduate students at UNB, supplemented by others who fit the age criteria if the need warrants. Under the 'club' designation, 65 per cent of the players "must be from up the hill.'' Wiz says the ideal scenario is to have a team made up entirely of UNB students.

"Heck, we'd like to see St. Thomas think about forming its own team in the next year or two,'' he says. "You want to have as many teams as you can get. We're looking at something developing at Dal. Maybe in P.E.I. The potential's there.''

Wisniewski says it's not realistic to expect front-line players coming out of high school programs to end up playing at UNB. "Your top guys are being recruited by CIS schools and that's where you expect them to go.

"We're looking at the guys who might be further down the depth chart who are looking first and foremost for a place to get a good education and still get to play some quality football. And there are guys who might want to stay close to home when they're looking at their (educational) options.''

The Red Bombers are responsible for all operating costs, in other words, they're autonomous in every way from the varsity athletics program at the school. As a club team, they don't fall under the CIS gender-equality restriction as well. That stated, Wiz wants to develop a working relationship with the UNB athletic people.

The school is prepared to make Chapman Field available as the playing venue, and there could be costs incurred with that, says Wiz. There's also the difficult matter of finding a practice facility, preferably College Field which is owned by the university and run as a city field.

"There's a real issue in this city with the lack of facilities and the demand. I see that (practice time) as one of our biggest challenges,'' he says.

Upstart costs including the purchase of equipment, etc. has been priced out in the $40,000 range, says Wiz. Operational costs figure be close to another $10,000 factoring in fields, officials, transportation. "It costs close to $1,200 to put on a game,'' he says.

Another potential issue is the playing dimensions at Chapman Field. The field is regulation size, but the end zones are smaller than the 25-yards used in Canadian rules. Wiz says they'll do a walk-through at the venue with an officiating crew to find a compromise.

Daunting? Heck, nobody said it was going to easy. And they haven't even kicked the ball off yet.

Wiz says the game plan is simple: to prove credibility, to demonstrate that a football program operating autonomously from the university can be a viable entity from a financial standpoint. No guarantees. It's a gamble for sure.

His is an all-inclusive approach, working in collaboration with the university instead of fighting it. Finding harmony among the UNB people, alumni and players alike.

So when the time comes and it's third and goal to go for the UNB Red Bombers, finding paydirt might just be that little bit easier.

David Ritchie can be contacted at or by calling 458-6484. His weekly column runs on Wednesday.