The great Gryphons

n. A fabulous beast with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion.

That's about as good as it gets when it comes to school monikers in CIS — although what, exactly, a gryphon would be doing in southwestern Ontario is beyond me.

Guelph may have home field advantage on Saturday, but they have to qualify as the biggest surprise still in the mix, especially considering all of the big dogs in the OUA were wary of Western going in.

Even five years into covering the league, I still haven't had a chance to get to know every program and every coach, and Guelph's been one of those on-the-fringe clubs that I never had reason to write about. This season, I think most OUA observers were banking on a Laurier at Ottawa Yates Cup, but with two underdogs now vying for the right to tromp out to the prairies for a bowl game in mid-November, it gives me a chance to get to know a new team.

Guelph coach Kyle Walters was in his office early this afternoon when I gave him a call (and here's the piece for the dead-tree medium).

The first thing out of my mouth was how big of a surprise it was that Guelph had now taken out two of Ontario's top teams...

"Everybody would assume we were the underdogs, but we played them (Laurier) very tough in the regular season, so we weren’t surprised," Walters said.

At 34, my guess is Walters is the youngest head coach in CIS football right now. There are only 27 jobs across the country, and those are generally pretty coveted, so you see a lot of lifers in the role.

It's a big difference talking to a guy like Walters, only a few years removed from playing in the CFL, and someone like Laurier's Gary Jeffries, who has seemingly seen it all in CIS ball. Not better or worse mind you, but certainly different.

Walters also said he thought there was more parity in the OUA this season: "A lot more parity this year, for sure.

"I think some of the middle-the-pack and lower teams are putting more emphasis on football, which hasn’t always been the case. Now, those programs are trying to catchup with the programs that have always taken football seriously."

How does Guelph match-up against Western?

"We probably played one of our better games against them in the regular season. Defensively, they’re big and strong up front — they’re loaded with talent. They don’t give up big plays, and offensively, Randy McCauley is as good as anybody in the league. He can make a touchdown every time he touches the ball. But they’re unique offensively in that they’re one of the few teams that has the ability to run the ball when they want and pass the ball if you take away the run. They pose some issues for us, defensively."

I've noted this before, but Guelph was one of the top teams in the country at limiting teams on the rush, which should make for an interesting match-up for Western's Greg Marshall.

I also asked the coach how his team has improved since the regular season:

"What we’ve improved on is closing games out. With a young team, an inexperienced group, sometimes when things don’t go well, you kind of pack it in, or don’t step up to the challenge. What I’m most excited about the past couple of games is that things haven’t gone exactly right for us and we’ve been able to pull the game out at the end – which is the biggest improvement for our guys.

"It couldn’t have gone much worse for us after 15 minutes [against Laurier, when Guelph went down 24-0], and it would have been pretty easy for our players to pack it in and say we’re overmatched, we’re out of our league here. But they didn’t: They just kept fighting and chipping away – and before you know it, we’ve got a football game.

"As poorly as we played, to only be down 10 was kind of reassuring for us [at halftime]."

He also noted that he's expecting a big, big turnout from the Western fans, which should make for an interesting atmosphere on Saturday. I know I'm planning on being there.

A bit more background on Walters that I wasn't able to fit into my piece:
  • He graduated from Guelph in 1996 with a Bachelor of Science degree, the same year he captained the Yates Cup winning club. They also won in 1992, his rookie season.
  • Walters started his football career as a running back, but an injury moved him into a free safety role (he was an all-Canadian for his final two years in that position)
  • He was picked in the second round of the 1996 CFL draft by the Ticats
  • He's from St. Thomas and grew up watching Western play
  • He's a certified high school teacher
One of the things you'll notice almost immediately watching Guelph play is how composed Walters is on the sidelines. He's not your typical brash college football coach, and it's been said before that he chooses his words carefully.

It's really going to be interesting to see if the Gryphons' rise this season is the start of something at the University of Guelph because I get the sense Walters is a hungry, young coach, someone who's going to be out there recruiting heavily and looking to put his team in contention every year.

Guelph's record in the years since Walters graduated to the CFL and before he became head coach:

1997: 6-2
1998: 3-4-1
1999: 3-5
2000: 3-5
2001: 3-5
2002: 2-6
2003: 2-6
2004: 4-4
2005: 3-4

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