Bleeding Tricolour: Doug Hargreaves provided a guide toward loving CIS football

(First and foremost, read Claude Scilley's obituary piece on Doug Hargreaves. It was a mic drop; it's almost foolish to think there is a need for another piece.)

Well before terms such as team culture got buzz-phrased to death, Doug Hargreaves was nurturing it at Queen's every day, being the mindful keeper of that gold, blue and red flame that burns on fall Saturdays in Kingston and in the hearts of Gaels the world over.

Flowery, I know. It seems to be about the only way to lead off a personal post regarding the iconic Queen's football coach, who died at age 84 on Tuesday. It seems slightly more novel to talk about the lasting influence of Hargreaves and  his best Queen's teams. The people who truly knew him have the anecdotes and aphorisms, and Google can fill you in on his accomplishments.

There was nothing idealistic or intellectual about latching on to the Gaels during my adolescent/early teenage life phase, which is when people begin locking in their influences and tastes. I needed to identify with something positive and successful. In those years, 1988 through '92, Hargreaves' second Vanier Cup-winning season, the Gaels were winning a lot, competing in the Dunsmore Cup game every season.

In a boy's eyes, he was exactly whom you would expect Queen's to have on the sidelines. Demanding but compassionate, competitive but not cutthroat, and mindful of the big picture. Someone who was book-smart but who also had common sense. Admittedly, all of those are labels, and Doug defied easy summation.

I also realize that "expect Queen's to have" phrasing seems backwards. Part of Hargreaves' life work was creating the taste that Queen's football is savoured by.

While other elite universities in the U.S. and Canada that were football powers in the early and mid 20th century have moved on entirely or pulled back from the big time -- look the Ivies, the University of Chicago, McGill, Toronto -- Queen's expects to be competitive in OUA and CIS. That stems from the direction that Doug Hargreaves and his coaches provided from the mid-1970s through the mid-'90s, before the torch was handed off to Bob Howes and then to Pat Sheahan.

Hargreaves understood what football means at a university in a small city such as Kingston: a game, a lark, some glorious escapism for 3½ hours on a Saturday when the leaves are charging and winter is looming. They also understood that, to a fault, there are boundaries on how big university football is allowed to get in Canada. It can be part of the fabric of the campus culture, but hey, let's not lose perspective like they do in the NCAA, guys. The tail can't wag the dog.

There is little argument with Stephen Brunt's contention that Quebec City is the only place in Canada where football matters is much as it does in Saskatchewan. Laval, which was just forming their team when Hargreaves was nearing retirement, has taken university football up to 11.

On a small scale, in almost randomized pockets, it might matter more to a real-life sub-Reddit of Queen's and/or Kingston people. Going back many generations, Kingston, relative to most Canadian cities its size, is a place that puts a premium on making your own.

Historically, it was an outpost that was kind of far from the major cities, but in a way that allowed it to be a nexus of English Canada's tendency to be being a borrower culture. That ketchup answer also covers why Kingston produces a disproportionate number of successful musicians and authors.

Queen's Football is a mash-up. It offers a scale model of the American experience of a university having a football team that represents not just the university, There's a bit of transfer of the British Commonwealth rugby experience, that of a barbarian's game played be gentlemen. There is also a Scottish characteristic of needing to be in, but dissociating when it's convenient. Way back when, it meant a lot to Queen's, and it certainly helped build the brand, that the Gaels were the small school of working-class engineering majors playing in the Old Four with McGill, U of T and Western.

That is how you get people indulging in a staple of American life while watching Canadian football accompanied by bagpipes.

(Brief vignette, since Tom Denison kind of provided the prod for this post. It's Sept. 28, 2002 and Queen's, with Denison at quarterback, is pouring it on against U of T at a packing Homecoming game. Two years removed from that 1-7 nadir of 2000, it's cathartic. The noted professor Geoff Smith, standing on the sidelines, stage-whispers to the CFRC 101.9 FM sideline reporter: "Let's see how a school with a de-emphasized football program fares here.")

(Very next play, or at least that is how it is remembered. Denison is forced to scramble right and is almost at the boundary when he decides to ignore the coaching point about how a QB never throws late over the middle. His across-his-body throw, naturally, is caught for a touchdown by Nick Corneil.)

The undercurrents that made Queen's Football 'a thing,' as we lazily say on social media, have been diffused through globalization and progress, and we are better for that. What it embodied, though, is always within reach.

Doug Hargreaves' teams conveyed a need to be serious and tough in the face of a tough job. In his era, he lived his core values. He also understood that tradition does not mean staying the same or fading out. There has to be a regeneration, like the one that has finally taken place with Richardson Stadium.

Queen's had their tradition with the head-to-toe gold uniforms, and the Bands, and the Oil Thigh after touchdowns. Doug and his coaches, which during the period I'm referring to included the likes of Bob Mullen, Howes the late Bill Miklas and Hart Cantelon, were tinkerers. The way they ran it provides examples of innovating and maximizing resources.

One could quote chapter and verse on that, based on what has been related to  me about that 1992 team. Mullen, whom last fall helped coach St. Francis Xavier to their first AUS title since the last century, was forever dialling up exotic blitzes; as he himself has put it, he couldn't count to Cover Four. Howes had an offence that was forever shape-shifting, depending on the material he had to work with. Coach Mik would take beefed-up high school fullbacks, defensive linemen and linebackers and teach them the technique of blocking.

Cantelon was a professor who had spent time in Moscow studying Soviet ice hockey in the 1970s, and happened to be a receivers coach on that '92 team. One of his pet projects was making Brian Alford, a track guy, into a wide receiver. Alford did not score a touchdown in the regular season, but provided the moment when the SkyDome went up for grabs in that Vanier Cup by housing a 78-yard pass-and-run touchdown from Tim Pendergast early in the second quarter.

The point of this is not to traipse down memory lane. Hopefully, what is coming across is that Doug Hargreaves was the conduit not only for something to root for, but a way to to stay rooted. The modern world demands adaptability, but one does need to mix and match some principles to her/his interests.

As Doug put it: "Be flexible, and have a sense of humour."

In other words, the course in Football 101 that was on offer in 1990s Kingston was a master class, if you knew where to look and in order to learn a game that you did not play. Ironically with a sport that is so communal, with its need for large rosters and emphasis on pageantry and public spectacle, my absorption in the game was almost completely solitary.

Becoming a football geek was a bit of a refuge, after experiencing rejection in hockey and softball, the sports that were accessible for a shy kid living out in Bath. No one in my family played and my parents did not care for it. At that time, the high school I would be headed to did not offer a team and there was no OVFL in Kingston. So I had to learn by watching it on TV, reading anything about it I could get my hands on, and thinking about it. That was what one had to do before the Internet.

I realize now how fortunate I am that my orbit included people such as Doug Hargreaves, who set the bar and a tone for Queen's. That helped so, so much with trying to understand what really matters in football, and in sports. It was also a tremendous benefit that a great sportswriter such as Claude Scilley was there to not only transcribe Hargreaves' wisdom and wit, but to cast it properly. Growing up reading Claude imparted that sports journalism is not just an account of events, but what those events felt like.

That was not all Doug, of course, but he was the right man during a crucial transition for Canadian university football. Some cultural conservatives think there is a war on football now, but really, those truly in the game should be onside with understanding why they must constantly self-advocate. It is, after all, a collision sport where it is very expensive to equip, train and provide proper care for a single athlete. It also requires a large quantity of people, and it is almost all-cisgender male.

Hargreaves' style and approach was illustrative to that reality in Canadian university football. A lot of people chafe at some of the limitations in CIS, but one should be grateful for the people who showed the way to work within that framework with dignity and integrity.

Football at Queen's has that out-of-time quality. The country has had 13 prime ministers since 1948. The Gaels have had four head coaches.

One cannot know for sure how that football at Queen's would have evolved if another coach had come aboard in the mid-'70s. What is clear is that Doug kept that Tricolour fire stoked, and kept the chains moving.
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