Football: Laval will be on top until that honest conversation about a sustainable sport happens

When you live inside your head the way I do, the trade-off is that whatever gain there is in creativity — pffff, probably not much — is offset by the What Should Be blue-sky thinking getting in the way of the What Is reality.

Regarding university football, one should can find a lot of positives with a new season in the offing. There's a small flow of Canadian-trained players to the NFL. One of the two Canadian quarterbacks holding down a CFL roster spot, the Calgary Stampeders' Andrew Buckley, played for the Calgary Dinos. That's an improvement. The calibre of play at the the top tier of the university game, especially at skill positions, is much better than it was a generation ago. More coaches receive full-time wages.

And yet . . . the game still feels beset by an unhealthy imbalance, like that guy in the gym who fails to work out all the muscle groups.

There is no splitting the double-team block of the Funding Gap between the big programs and everyone else, and Withering Mainstream Interest. Did anyone else notice that for the Vanier Cup, as noted in the penultimate paragraph of an Aug. 11 Hamilton Spectator story, will seating capacity will be capped at 14,000? That's a reasonable target, but also a sign of the times; it also shows that the Vanier Cup runs that the McMaster Marauders had within the past decade did nothing to make watching the national championship a staple of the Hammer's sporting diet.

In the long term, university football is going to continue to face diminishing returns unless significant changes are made to its structure. This isn't about realignment or superconferences or interlocking schedules, even though any and all of those are welcome developments. But at some point there needs to be a bear-pit session that addresses some particular questions, including but not limited to:
  • How does the cost-of-living for a student-athlete at a particular school affect football competitiveness. Fancier facilities or better coaches' salaries are separate from this point. Let's say there's a rush end from a middle-income family who wants to study engineering, and could maybe start at Queen's, but would certainly start at Toronto or Waterloo. He might still end up at Queen's since Kingston's off-campus housing market is much less heated than Toronto's. That's a societal thing but it can be reflected on the field.
  • What central planning is there to build a sustainable 30-team sport? Granted, central planning smacks of creeping socialism, but development doesn't happen randomly and willy-nilly. Presently, the only way expansion happens in university football is if donors assume all the risk and the administrators say, "Well, okay." Perhaps it should be that way everywhere, but there are certainly smaller universities who could support football if the wider sports community helped them with the start-up costs.

    At this writing, three of the four sport conferences have a football league with odd numbers, which isn't great.

    Having a Director of Development who's engaged with the CFL and Football Canada could help immensely with founding new teams at former football-playing schools or universities that have grown in the last 30 or 40 years. That office would also look at trying to attract more international players to U Sports. Schools do this already when a coach has a contact in Mexico or Europe, but it could be a lot bigger.
  • What reasonable accommodations would help the AUS be more nationally competitive? I'll admit I was too Tricoloured by lived experienced when the age cap (the so-called "seven to play five rule") came into effect. Queen's, toward the end of the last century, struggled since it was lining up 19- to 23-year-olds against 22- to 27-year-olds from Concordia, Laval and Ottawa in the old O-QIFC. I was a snob about it, admittedly.

    No Atlantic team has gone to the Vanier since the rule took full effect in the late-aughts. Allowing AUS to have a few "overage" players might help the smaller conference make a Vanier Cup again some time before the polar ice caps melt. Maybe six OAs, three on each side of the ball, would help a little.  
Of course, all of those ideas force the people who control the purse-strings to look away, and perhaps even work against, their self-interest. Tough sell. But there are fault lines in university football that seem intractable, and the capability to correct those is limited only by one's own thinking.

As noted last year . . . from June 10, 2016:

Finally, football. It was tempting, whilst citing the book Billion-Dollar Ball, that the difference between college-sponsored football down south and Canadian university football is Big Money vs. No Money.

That would be about the biggest crock of all time. There is a lot of money in CIS. However, how does it grow the game when UBC, Guelph, Carleton, Laval, Montreal, Queen's and Western have boosters pouring money into their programs by a factor of 4:1 or 5:1 over smaller schools? Last anyone checked, you sort of need competition to have a league. You cannot have everyone else being the Minnesota Twins to several regional versions of the Peak Steinbrenner late-1990s New York Yankees.

 What is holding back football, is that a lot of the public cannot take it seriously since the coaches and boosters take it too seriously. Seeing Michael O'Connor lead UBC on a Vanier Cup run (in 2015) that went through Calgary, the Maritimes (St. FX in the Uteck Bowl) and Quebec (Montréal in the Vanier) was awesome on one level. On another, it sucked to know that it wasn't some true underdog story; booster David Sidoo and UBC's 13th man foundation were simply making the Thunderbirds another regional "have" team. The 'Birds had been done for a while, but this was simply the underachiever acing the final exams.

That's great on its own, but apart from L. David Dubé with his Northern 8 concept, who among the moneymen is talking about building something sustainable for a 30-team sport?

Not to keep picking on UBC, but how will that 2015 run look in hindsight if they just roll through the next few seasons? It might be impossible to fix that, but end of the day, the CIS and the university presidents have the hammer. They have been known to say no to a good offer. It would not be easy, but they need to get through to people that all that well-intended investment needs to be spread to all of the football teams. They are coming to a point where they might need a national co-operative to support football.

That will be a tough sell, but you would think multi-millionaires and billionaires who love football that much would be comfortable with something where their beloved alma mater wouldn't have automatic W's against underfunded Waterloo or Windsor every year. And oh yeah, fix the Vanier Cup playoff structure.
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