Q&A: TSN's Rod Smith on "all Canadian" CIS football

TSN's Rod Smith is one of the most recognizable voices in Canada, having been with TSN as a reporter, anchor and play-by-play man for more than 20 years. Smith, who played in national semifinals as a Queen's lineman in 1979 and '81, will have the call for TSN next weekend in the Mitchell Bowl between the Dunsmore Cup and Yates Cup champions, was gracious enough to answer a few of our questions:

cisblog.ca: First off, what makes you excited to be calling CIS action for the first time since the 2002 Vanier Cup?

RS: Two things. First, I’m excited BECAUSE I haven’t called a CIS game since that '02 Vanier . It’s been a long time. And though I’ve never regretted making a full-time commitment to Sportscentre I’ve really missed broadcasting football. Secondly, I still get fired up for the same reason I always did. I played in two national semi-final bowl games and lost both times. Never made it to the Vanier. It would have been my biggest thrill in sports if I had. So I suppose I’ve lived vicariously through the many players who did make it to the Vanier Cup.

cisblog.ca: In your mind, where does that Vanier stand as a unique Canadian sports event?

RS: It’s all Canadian. It’s the ultimate prize for players and schools from coast to coast. It’s been around for more than forty years. And it’s a great sport for rallying school spirit. Hockey’s our national sport, but the Vanier Cup has always had a special place in the Canadian sports landscape.

cisblog.ca: A lot of CIS diehards are intriqued that TSN has reacquired rights to the Vanier Cup and both basketball championships. With TSN2 fast establishing itself, should people be hopeful the network(s) will start to carry more games? There's a bit of a market for it.

RS: I honestly can’t speak for TSN and it’s future plans for covering CIS events now that we have TSN2. But I certainly hope we’re planning to do more, whether I’m involved or not.

cisblog.ca: From your point of view as a media vet, what could Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the conferences and schools, be doing to get more on the radar screen of the major outlets? It's all well and good on our end to say, "They (the networks) should be doing this," but what do you need to see?

I like the way you phrased that question, because I don’t agree with simply blaming the mainstream media for ignoring great stories in Canadian amateur sport, including the CIS. Sometimes it’s hard getting information about university athletes aside from their age, date of birth, hometown, and major. I used to long for good human interest stories, things that would make a viewer care more about whom they were watching. I’m not suggesting the CIS should be responsible for doing the media’s research, but it never hurts to market your product any way you can.

cisblog.ca: You were Queen's centre in 1979, the last time it met Western this late in the season. What's etched in memory about that season, the guys you played with, the coaches?

RS: It was my rookie season, and Queen’s was the defending Vanier Cup champion. It was both intimidating and inspiring at the same time. That the team was the most confident and most talented I’d ever been a part of, and I treasure the memory of playing there that year. Most of the veterans were back, including Metras Trophy winners Dick Bakker and Jim Muller, future CFL O-lineman Ross Francis, Vanier Cup MVP Ed Andrew and 5th year centre Pat Plishka. Pat hurt his knee during the opening game, leaving me to start the rest of the season. The only other rookie to start that season was quarterback Bob Wright, who wound up playing for 5 years and becoming a Gaels Hall of Famer. It was another good season for Queen’s. We went 6-1, avenging our only loss in the playoffs when we beat Ottawa U. Because we were in a division called the OQIFC we didn’t play against teams from southern Ontario, which made our Churchill Bowl showdown against OUA champ Western that much more intriguing. For many years, despite each school’s illustrious football history, Western and Queen’s hardly ever played against each other. This was a National semi-final, and between the winners of the previous 3 National Championships. I can still recall the eerily tense bus ride from our London hotel to J.W. Little Stadium that Saturday morning in November ’79. The tension would be occasionally broken by the sight of countless oak trees, all spray painted with golden ‘Q’s and a players number underneath. We all got a laugh out of that. Queen’s engineers, reknown for their pranks, had been out in full force the night before. But the piece de resistance was yet to come. When we got to the stadium, we saw that someone had spray-painted "Queen’s" in huge letters across the middle of the field. I’m sure Western just loved that! They managed to get rid of the gold paint, but you could still see the letters easily, in brown instead of gold.

I don’t remember too many details of that game. It’s just as well. The Mustangs dominated, winning 32-14. The play that stands out was a run by their feature back. A big kid in his second year with huge legs and great speed for someone his size. He could run inside or out. And when he got outside against us late in the game he was gone, scoring the touchdown that put the game away for good.

I found out that kid’s name. Greg Marshall.

cisblog.ca: You only had the one season under legendary Queen's coach Doug Hargreaves before transferring to Ryerson to pursue broadcasting, but how has his example stayed with you?

RS: I actually returned to play for Queen’s in 1981, so I had 2 years under Doug. He was firm, but fair. He didn’t do much yelling and screaming, but you knew when he liked what you were doing and you certainly knew when he didn’t. His motto was "We are striving for perfection on every play. On EVERY play. As a young player I didn’t get to know him as well. That’s the way it is for every head coach. At first, stronger relationships are forged between players and their unit coaches. I actually got to know Doug a lot better in later years when I went into broadcasting. I got to work a number of Queen’s games, including the 1992 Vanier Cup when he won his second and final championship. I always respected him, but I learned to appreciate his coaching style more once I matured and saw it from a different perspective. Everyone saw this serious, low-key man on the sideline, but what they didn’t know is that he has a great dry sense of humour. And as much as he took football seriously he was always more concerned about a young man’s development as a student and a person.

cisblog:ca: One your fellow former Gaels put me up to asking this: Describe the time -- I'm told it was part of a rookie initiation or at a football dinner -- that you had to be Doug Hargreaves.

RS: During the 1981 season Bob Wright and I developed an impression for Doug when he wasn’t around. We wouldn’t dare do it in front of him! But it became kind of a locker room tradition that season whenever the coaches weren’t there. It started with facial expressions, then his trademark walk. We both got pretty good at it, so I decided to work on the voice too. At our year end party I decided to do the impression in front of everyone, including Doug himself. I’m not sure if he liked it, but he laughed anyway. Fourteen years later, while MC-ing his retirement dinner, I dusted it off and tried it again. I think he appreciated it more that time. After all, impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery!

cisblog.ca: Lastly, who do you like in the Yates Cup, Western or Queen's?

Queen’s. But not because I once played there. And no, I don’t seek revenge for a bitter playoff loss 30 years earlier. In truth, this game is close to being a toss-up. Both quarterbacks, Brannagan and Faulds, are brilliant. Riva's a tremendous back, dangerous running and catching. But I give the edge to Queen’s on defence and home field. The Gaels deserve to be a slight favourite, but given the way that October 17th game at Richardson ended it could once again come down to last possession.

(Special thanks to Rod Smith.)
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