|Climate conducive to consider resurrecting football at
By Dave Ritchie, Sports Editor
Sure, there are considerable hurdles that need to be cleared. And they've been well documented. But the time appears ripe for the return of Atlantic University Sport football at the University of New Brunswick.
It's been a long drought. Nearly 30 years in fact. It was in the fall of 1980 that then UNB athletic director Malcolm Early announced the sport would be suspended for a year. That was the spin, but the reality was pretty obvious. It was dead to rights.
To be fair, there were telltale signs that it was going to happen. The Red Bombers were at a low ebb. The team wasn't winning much. Beating the (Mount Allison) Mounties was the rallying cry towards the end.
The head coach, Jim Born, wanted out. The venue - College Field - was starting to show signs of wear and tear. The bleachers needed work. To hear players tell it, the turf was treacherous and needed a major overhaul.
Recruiting out of Quebec was becoming more difficult, and the impetus didn't seem to be there anymore.
High school football in New Brunswick consisted of five schools basically out of Moncton.
There was no presence in the capital region. In fact, it'd be another six years and a lot of angst for the Parents for Football before the sport would be introduced into Fredericton High School. There was nary a minor program in existence.
The city was about to get a professional hockey franchise - the AHL's Express - and people were getting on board for that.
So when it became official - the Bombers had indeed, bombed out - there was no hue and cry from the student body or city folks that the sport be spared.
The UNB football alumni didn't storm the athletic office demanding the head of the athletic director.
The school didn't come apart at the seams. It was business as usual.
And the sun continued to shine on those beautiful fall days.
OK, times have changed. Allowing for the notion that absence does make the heart grow fonder, it's fair to suggest the football climate has evolved in these regions.
For instance, there are 19 high schools playing Canadian-style football in the province, including three in the immediate region.
Have you been to a high school game lately? These kids are big. And better yet, they're good. So is the coaching.
A grad out of Leo Hayes (Josh Sacobie) is one of the most proficient passers in CIS history. A former FHSer (Sean Hickey) quarterbacked Mount Allison to its last Vanier Cup appearance. The punter on that team (Ron Squires) also played at FHS. Shawn Linden was a star slot back at McGill. Running back Dave Hickey racked up big yardage at St. Francis Xavier. Defensive end Josh Thomas was an All-Canadian at Acadia and likely would have been played pro ball if he hadn't hurt his hip.
Heck, Dan McCullough, who played his high school ball at FHS, is currently with the B.C. Lions in the Canadian Football League. At the risk of failing to mention the most obvious, suffice to say there are several former N.B. high schoolers playing (and excelling) in university ball these days.
What's made these kids even better are the solid grassroots programs now in effect. No longer are kids giving high school coaches the hairy eyeball when asked to assume a three-point stance. They know what that means now.
The Capital Area Minor Football Association offers programs for kids as young as seven all the way up to the bantam (14-15) level. There are senior teams in both men's and women's divisons operating out of the Capital Association and playing in Maritime Leagues.
In other words, football is now a big deal, from the youngster starting out to the high schooler looking to play university ball to mom and dad playing at the senior level.
We've touched on the merits of football as a sport generating school spirit. There's no better orientation session for incoming kids: gathering on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September watching your buddies play football. Check out the crowds for most other AUS sports. You've got alumni and city folks, but students are hard to find. Football in the AUS seems to have a more solid student following.
With just four teams, the Atlantic Conference would dearly love to have teams return to UNB and UPEI for instance. The rumour making the rounds is if UNB brings in a team, UPEI would follow, particularly with a new facility being built to accommodate the Canada Games being played there this summer.
UNB has its new turf field at Chapman replete with football markings. With the considerable upstart cost, it would have to be a Laval-type situation where a group outside of the school would finance the team.
Alumni types tell me there's such a group in place. And that once a team becomes reality, money won't be a problem.
Talk is cheap, of course.
But if there's a will, there's always a way.
David Ritchie can be contacted at email@example.com or by calling 458-6484.