" 'We have to get the Ontario teams used to the fact of travelling. Their travel budget for the whole year would be what it costs us for one game out here; they don't have anything longer than a three-hour bus trip. It's something we're willing to work at and it's healthy for the whole country.' " -- Brian Towriss, Saskatchewan Huskies coach
Hard heads can lead to heavy hearts. There's too much geography and not enough history to believe this can happen. It should happen and it can happen.
It would be great to see Saskatchewan-Western or Laurier-Regina games in the regular season, to give two random examples. Any fan who wouldn't want to see that instead of some of the one-sided contests that are a fact of life in each conference is no kind of fan. To be fair, the OUA has put some miles between it and those days when talk of being "the Ivy League of Canada" set blood to boiling in a few athletic-department offices across Canada.
The U of S is spending $50,000 to fly out Concordia for an exhibition game. For an OUA school, where's the practical incentive to spend that money to fly out to play the Calgary Dinos instead of getting on the bus to and pinning a 60-7 tail on a donkey team? Assuming ticket prices are $12-$15, and each fan spends a few bucks on food and drinks, that means getting a few more thousand fans out on a Saturday afternoon. That's a tough selling job. It doesn't take a minor-league baseball operator in Ottawa to know that to many Saturday afternoon = three hours of sitting in the stands does not compute in Canada like it does in the U.S.
Towriss is not the first or last Westerner who's had a tough time getting his mind wrapped around how Ontario types get weirded-out about travelling. As a Queen's fan, one adjustment that had to be made when the Golden Gaels changed conferences in 2001 was getting used to 2 p.m. kickoffs after years of 1 p.m. starts in the O-QIFC. The reason for the later start was so that the visiting teams in southern Ontario could bus up in the morning and save a night of hotel accommodations for the coaches, players and any affiliated travellers.* Most teams now start their games at 1, however.
Towriss has a point. Something has to be done to address the appearance of the OUA not being competitive nationally, which hurts the perception of CIS football in Toronto, Canada's media capital. The conference won't be to live off Laurier's 2005 upset of Saskatchewan forever. It's true that all four conferences have produced a Vanier Cup winner within the past six years, the shortest span since 1977-80, when there was a Western-Queen's-Acadia-Alberta line of succession.
However, that only covers the two weeks at the end of the season. There's a lot more to be done about week-to-week competitiveness and public interest.
There are too many people who dismiss the CIS game out-of-hand because, as one colleague who played a couple years at an Ontario school once put it, "It's the same schools as when I was playing that are winning."
What to do, then?
There probably are a few Ontario schools who want to do a lot more with their football programs than they ever could playing their schedule entirely within the province's borders. This is as good a time as any to link to an Out of Left Field post written right after Laval's win in the 2006 Vanier Cup that argued for realignment of all teams in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.
The aim was to make the point that leagues don't have to be formed across geographical and regional lines. It should be based on how much commitment a school has to its football program. Talk about a novel concept for Canada.
This isn't an argument for creating a Division 2. In the States, Bishop's, with 1,800 students, wouldn't be playing a university the size of Laval or Montréal. Bishop's or Mount Allison should have every chance to field a competitive team that is representative of the student body and, in theory, compete for the national championship. However, look at NCAA basketball. Davidson made it into the Elite Eight during the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Kansas, which has more faculty than Davidson has students. Davidson wasn't denied a chance at college basketball's greatest prize because of its small size and academic requirements, but it wasn't being forced to play heavyweights during the regular season, either.
One way to achieve this in the CIS for football would be to arrange the 20 teams east of Manitoba into two leagues. There would be an eight-team superconference -- call it the Big East -- of the schools who want to take football seriously. They would be able to offer scholarships, build Cadillac facilities (which in some cases, could be combined be used as a high-performance centre for Olympic sport athletes, although that might be a little pipedreamish) and provide the beer and circus for alumni and the surrounding community. (If they don't want it, well, businesses lose money every day.)
The other 12 schools (or more) would play in a league that's more about football as a student activity, recognizing that it's a big carrot for many young men to attend university. It might also encourage some schools which discontinued football or which are now big enough to support it to form teams. The growth of minor football in Ontario and Quebec suggests there's enough talent to stock a few more teams.
Belonging to the "Big East" wouldn't entirely be based on enrolment. (Just look at the lists at the bottom of this post for an answer.) However, the schools who want to be part of a competitive football league, be it Laurier with less than 12,000 students or Saint Mary's with 8,800, could go for it.
At the same time, if some larger school was content to have a team just to have a team, it could do that.
Laurier, Laval, Ottawa, Saint Mary's and Western are likely suspects to be in the Big East. For the other three teams, Concordia, Montréal, McMaster are maybes. Queen's, Guelph or Sherbrooke could be in there too.
The 12-team division would have its own playoffs, with some setup to ensure that the championship game pits is an Ontario vs. Atlantic/Quebec matchup. Canada West and the imagined Big East would get one benefit for the national playoffs. We'll borrow the practice of the women's basketball Final 8 and have a designated wild-card spot for the conference of last year's national champion.
That would mean, this season, Canada West would have two teams in the bowl semi-finals, since Manitoba won it all last season. Success should perpetuate success, right?
This is all very sketchy, but the point is that we could level the playing field for the have-nots, have the top teams playing each other more often and create more buzz around the bowl games. Imagine the buzz in Québec if plucky Bishop's went up against Saskatchewan in a Uteck Bowl at sold-out Molson Stadium, while elsewhere, Laval was playing in a semifinal.
Imagine two schools from the same conference meeting in the Vanier Cup.
This all could be done with minor cost increases, without lengthening the season. A conference regular season and playoffs would still be done in 11 or 12 weeks. One added benefit: An eight-team Big East and Canada West could play some crossover games -- which is exactly what Brian Towriss is seeking.
It's all about the art of the possible.
The Big Ten:
Toronto (63,000), Montréal (41,055), York (39,100), Concordia (38,809), Sherbrooke (35,000), Ottawa (30,882), Laval (28,902), Western (25,000), McGill (23,758), Waterloo (22,368)
The less big ten:
McMaster (19,113), Guelph (17,332), Queen's (13,500), Windsor (12,291), Laurier (11,869),
Saint Mary's (8,800), St. Francis Xavier (4,267), Acadia (3,000), Mount Allison (2,200), Bishop's (1,817)
Huskies pre-season game a gamble (Kevin Mitchell, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Aug. 7)