At UBC, coach Nill wants to build 'Laval of the West'

Spring camp continues under Blake Nill, who aims to build winning culture with Thunderbirds

The University of B.C. didn’t recruit Blake Nill as the head coach of the Thunderbirds football program.

Dave Sidoo did. He didn’t let up.

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“He was calling me, kept calling me,” said Nill on Tuesday at Thunderbird Stadium, overlooking the field named for his recruiter. “I kept saying, leave me alone. I wasn’t interested. I was the head coach of one of the best teams in the country already.”

Nill said yes to Sidoo, resigning from the University of Calgary on a Monday and on a Tuesday appearing at UBC, where on Dec. 9, he was introduced as the 18th head coach in T-Birds’ football history. “No,” isn’t a word in either man’s vocabulary.

“I’ll tell you clearly, it was Dave who brought me here. He’s the one who reached out to me, he’s the one who sold me on the potential and helped me see his vision and now I can safely say that it’s our vision,” said Nill.

“He offered me a chance to build the Laval of the West Coast,” said Nill.

Sidoo helped create the 13th Man Foundation, an influential backers group supported by the university’s athletic department and laden with T-Birds alumni from the 1982 Vanier Cup winning team such as Jerry Dobrovolny, Kevin Konar and Sidoo, as well as David Negrin and Richard Jackson.

The foundation is approaching alumni to tap into the city and province’s vast network of potential donors and fans with the goal of putting a competitive team on the field year after year and fill Thunderbird Stadium with blue and gold.

In Laval, Nill has an example and a nemesis. The Rouge et Or of Quebec City’s Laval University quickly became one of the most successful university sport programs in the country after they joined the CIS in 1996. In less than two decades, Laval won eight Vanier Cup championships and is the only team to have played for four consecutive national titles. Its championship record is 8-1.

By that standard, Nill won’t be satisfied with winning the Vanier Cup once. Laval is a dominating force in the CIS with a deep coaching staff, enormous talent pool, strong identity and winning culture.

On five occasions, the Rouge et Or have ended Nill’s season before he was ready to call it a day.

“I came close a number of times and had trouble with the Laval program,” he said. “That’s the thing — my season at Calgary in ’08, ’10, ’11 and ’13 ended with Laval.”

Most recently in 2013, the loss was in the Vanier Cup.  “I thought for sure I’d win one in Calgary,” said Nill.

In Sidoo and the 13th Man Foundation, Nill says he has an ideal partner, one that will spend the money and drive the program forward with him at the helm.

thunderbirds football

Dave Sidoo, a former Thunderbirds defensive back and director of the new backers group, the 13th Man Foundation, sits in the stands he aims to fill with UBC alumni and T-Birds fans waving blue and gold. Photo Dan Toulgoet

The coach has a recognized ability to draw talent and has already made several major moves on staff and personnel, including bringing with him from Calgary former B.C. Lions coach and Grey Cup champion, Steve Buratto, at the T-Birds offensive coordinator. Nill also signed Michael O’Connor, a Canadian quarterback who has five years' of eligibility at UBC since leaving Penn State after last season.

“I’m going to make sure the kids know about UBC and every football athlete knows about UBC,” said Nill.  “The other thing that’s is so important — your ability to achieve success on the field is directly parallel to your ability to raise money.

“I’m passionate about three things. Put me in front of the kids, I can get them to play. Put me in front of a family and their son, and I can convince them to come. Put me in front of an alumnus who has a potential to help out, and I can make him see the big picture.

“I need to have the opportunity to exploit my skill sets on all three of those. Athletics now has people like me who have just raised the bar to a certain point — and I’m not saying that to blow my own horn — but everywhere in the country, there are coaches like me and they want to win. I want to win more than anything and I know what it takes. I will outwork anyone that I can and I will do what it takes to be successful and to do that, I need help.”

His definition of success is not strictly a Vanier Cup, but nearly.

“I measure success on two fronts, two that are measurable,” said Nill. “I want my young men to graduate and I do everything I can to support them academically, by giving them the tools necessary to graduate. And, at the end of the game, I want one more point than the opposition. That’s how I measure success in my world.”

He says he has a lot to work with at UBC, calling the T-Birds “the most talented program I’ve taken over.”

But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean it’s ready yet. They need a culture change. Like what happens to the coaches at times, the players can become complacent and used to a certain outcome and just everything becomes the norm and when your nom is not being successful, it’s easy to feel like you’re doing everything you can, but in just in the last five days on the field, the men have seen that things can be done differently and they’re starting to buy in.”

Nill, a father of two, is living in the West End near English Bay but will settle in Kitsilano where he’ll soon find plenty of hot yoga studios to practise what he started in Calgary.

The six-foot-six former CFL defensive linesman has the bright eyes and an irrepressible boyishness of a 53-year-old man who gets up every day to do exactly what he wants. And he’s good at it.

Raised in Hanna, Alta., Nill played professionally and was also a youth care worker in Montreal and Calgary before taking on the role of defensive coordinator at St. Francis Xavier in 1992. From 1998 to 2005, at St. Mary’s in Halifax, he set a new benchmark for reaching the Atlantic Championship six times and led the Huskies to two Vanier Cup wins in 2001 and ’02. In 1999 he was named the best university coach in the country and was a finalist six times.

Most recently with the University of Calgary, Nill repeated his record-setting conference championship feat by leading the Dinos to six straight Canada West finals, winning the Hardy Cup a record number of times. In nine seasons, he amassed a 47-17 record and went 15-7 in the post-season.

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Photo Rebecca Blissett

UBC hasn’t had a winning season in a decade and has gone 26-51 since 2005, not including the 2011 season when the T-Birds’ 6-2 record was scratched from the books because of an ineligible player. Shawn Olson was fired in November after a 2-6 campaign.

In 17 seasons as a CIS head coach, Nill has a career record, oncluding the regular season and playoffs, of 130-47.

He also attracts talent.

In February, Michael O’Connor announced he was leaving NCAA powerhouse Penn State, where he wasn’t getting the minutes he wanted, to play a full five-year eligibility in the CIS with the Thunderbirds. Nill convinced him it was the right move, and O’Connor, who was ranked No. 6 in the 2013 recruiting class by ESPN, was accepted to the Sauder School of Business on his 3.9 GPA.

Since training camp began last week, O’Connor sees the gaps on the field but also sees a lot of potential. He is also prepared to be patient.

“To rebuild a program, you know there’s a lot of work to be done but that’s part of the selling point — that you can come in here and make a change and see it over a four- or five-year span and be part of building something and being part of its roots,” said O’Connor, who is from Ottawa and will live on campus.

“We have some good players here but there is definitely a lot of work to do,” he said. “The summer will be really important for us and it’s always like that with a new coach in any program — there’s always going to be a lot of change in the first year, with a lot of things to overcome. The future is very bright for us.”

And when it comes to realizing the goal of becoming the dominant team in the Canada West, the quarterback who never played Laval shares his coach’s ambitions.

“It’s going to happen,” he said. “My personal goal is to win multiple national championships.”

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mstewart@vancourier.com

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