Thunderbirds: Coach Blake Nill paves his way with passion

First-year UBC football coach has won seven Hardy Cups

Blake Nill is stomping loudly on his old grounds.

This weekend in Antigonish, N.S., the first-year head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds football team will have the chance to do what he did last week at McMahon Stadium in Calgary: visit a team he used to coach and knock them off on their own turf.

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On Nov. 14, the Thunderbirds eliminated the country’s top-ranked and undefeated Calgary Dinos in a 34-26 win, widely considered one of the biggest upsets in Canadian college history largely because of Nill’s previous nine-year tenure with the losing side.

When the coach says the win was emotional, there’s no doubt. Nill brought life back to the Dinos program, recruited far and wide for its talent, and won a record six straight Canada West championships and reached three Vanier Cups (without success, alas). 

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The UBC Thunderbirds pose with the Hardy Cup at McMahon Stadium Nov. 14, 2015. Photo Rich Lam / UBC Thunderbirds

He’s already surpassed expectation at UBC since joining another program in need of reviving. The Hardy Cup returns for the first time since 1997, the last year the T-Birds also won the Vanier Cup. (And, alas, went through the Atlantic to get it.)

Against the 8-0 Dinos, UBC’s first-year quarterback and Penn State transfer Mike O’Connor threw for 374 yards and two touchdowns. UBC’s defence was tremendous, forcing two fumbles to disrupt Calgary’s fourth quarter drives.

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A UBC player hoists the Hardy Cup. Photo Rich Lam / UBC Thunderbirds

After the game, the coach was speechless. The victory joined the ranks of the five most memorable games in his coaching career that now sits at 139 wins and 49 losses.

Also on his list, the 1996 Atlantic Bowl and the ensuing bus ride back to Antigonish with the St. Francis Xavier X-Men. It was yet another of the greatest upsets in Canadian collegiate football. Nill seems to stockpile great games, which he’s won and lost.

“I still get emotional talking about it. It was a cold Saturday and I can remember when this team came on to the field, it was like a giant coming toward us and we were in for a beat down,” he told the Courier on Monday.

After his X-Men dispatched the Ottawa Gee-Gees 5-13 at Huskies Stadium in Halifax, hundreds of fans lined the road back home, turning it into a parade route.

“When we were out of Antigonish, at about the 10-mile point, there were cars in the ditch the whole way,” he said. “You’ve got a school that has 3,000 kids in the middle of nowhere and we beat the University of Ottawa, which was an amazing program at that time.“That is what I’m trying to tell the guys right now — you better not downplay the motivation that this group of athletes is going to play with. We need to prepare as fully as we did for Calgary.”

UBC, 9-2 so far this season, left Tuesday night for Nova Scotia. They will stay in Halifax until travelling to Antigonish to play the unranked 7-3 X-Men in the CIS semi-final on Saturday, Nov. 21.

Kick-off is 1 p.m. Vancouver time. Sportsnet is broadcasting the game.

The winner plays for the 2015 Vanier Cup, set for Nov. 28 in Quebec City.

Along with the Dinos, in this upset-heavy post-season the Nos. 2 and 3 teams were sent packing. Laval lost and so did Western. The door is open against St. FX, but Nill won’t take that opportunity for granted.

“You can look at it from an objective viewpoint, you can say yes it does [mean opportunity], but football is a game of emotion and accountability and we need to prepare for this St. FX team with every ounce of respect that we can give them and every ounce of energy that we can muster. That is what you have to learn in the game. You have to respect your opponent fully.

“The moment you lose respect, the moment you become complacent, over-confident or unassuming, you’re done,” said Nill. “One of my best players at Calgary was interviewed [before the Hardy Cup] and he was saying, ‘Coach Nill, he’s a great coach but it’s going to be a great feeling to beat him.’ He would never had said that in my time there. Even if it’s just a crack in the door, you set yourself up for the opposition to knock you off. And that’s what happened.”

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Fifth-year T-Birds running back Brandon Deschamps had 12 carries for 77 yards in the Canada West championship Nov. 14, 2015. Photo Rich Lam / UBC Thunderbirds

Early this season, the Dinos crushed the T-Birds 49-16.

With him from Calgary, Nill brought coaching staff that includes offensive coordinator Steve Burrato, receivers coach Greg DeLaval, and athletic therapist Courtney Kapustianyk, as well as several academic advisors.

Remarkably introspective for a leader who was condemned as a “screamer” by the Dinos in a sour comparative story about Calgary’s new coach, Nill runs a U.S.-style football program built on the tenets of discipline, accountability and hard work. He does not exclude himself from these expectations.

In his inaugural year, the T-Birds carried a roster of roughly 60 players, smaller than many programs by 30 personnel. The weeds of complacency outed themselves, an objective that pleased the coach.

“For whatever reason, they determine that this system is not what they want and that is fine. I’ve never once questioned a young man for making a decision that football wasn’t in his vision anymore,” said Nill. “You can’t play football without passion. It is just too much work. It takes a toll, both emotional and physical, and if you don’t have passion for this sport that you must live and die for, it’s tough to play the game and that is why you always have some young men at some point in their lives who say, ‘Coach it’s just not worth it anymore.’ You have to respect those decisions and carry on.”  

mstewart@vancourier.com

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