BURNABY — The head football coaching position at Simon Fraser University might be the most challenging in any sport, at any level in the entire NCAA.
So what made Thomas Ford put up his hand and step forward to try to reverse the fortunes of a program which has lost 33 straight games and counting?
“First of all, I don’t look at the negatives,” the 35-year-old Ford explained moments after he met a number of Clan players and was announced Monday as the 11th head coach in SFU football history.
“I happen to look at this as a great opportunity,” continued Ford, who comes north following four seasons spent turning Tacoma’s Stadium High from perennial also-ran status to a playoff contender. “It’s one thing to be at a program that has never been. This program has been. I look at some very prime examples at the highest levels of college football, for example Stanford. They have the highest of academic standards yet they still find the top athletes who meet those standards. I don’t see why we can’t transition ourselves to be the Stanford of Div. 2 athletics.”
Prior to its 1965 debut, SFU chancellor Gordon Shrum said that one day SFU “would play in the Rose Bowl” and although that has not and isn’t about to happen any time soon, it was a ‘shoot for the moon’ attitude that Clan football took into its first-ever season.
These days, with a mammoth losing streak threatening to grow even larger, and a fresh start on everyone’s mind, it was actually the perfect time for someone to think and speak unabashedly big.
Ask Ford who he has been influenced by, and the first name offered up by the former running back who helped carry Oregon’s Div. 3 Linfield College to the 2004 national championship is that of a man who best mirrors the kind of positive interaction he displayed with his players on Monday.
“Pete Carroll has been a huge influence on my coaching philosophy,” Ford says of the longtime Seattle Seahawks boss, who despite being the NFL’s oldest coach, is easily its most upbeat. “When his book (Win Forever: Live, Work and Play like a Champion) came out, it was right around the time (2011) I was becoming a true professional in this game and his motivational skills, his positive energy and his want for competition are all things I identify with. Anywhere that I have made it in life, it’s been by working hard and realizing there are no shortcuts.”
Simon Fraser athletic director Theresa Hanson received 200 applications for the head coaching position, which was posted Nov. 30 after the school elected not to retain Kelly Bates following three winless season.
“We went through every single one,” Hanson said. “We went from 200 to six and then conducted interviews. The biggest thing that (Ford) brought was his NCAA experience (he was defensive coordinator at Linfield and recruiting and special teams coordinator at Southeast Oklahoma State) and the experience he had at the high school level, in terms of turning a program around.”
Ford inherited a Stadium High team that had gone 0-10 the season before his arrival and after two seasons, guided them to back-to-back playoff appearances.
Hanson added that throughout the interview process and then through all of the due diligence conducted, the framework of an energetic worker who left no stone unturned began to emerge.
“I am a believer that the little things make a difference and he lives that,” Hanson continued. “He wants his players to succeed in the classroom and on the field. He’s energetic and he has a winning attitude.
“What we found out about him is what you saw today and I am super-excited for the future of our program. I think we have the right guy at the right time to make a difference.”
For his part, Ford told his players that after today, talking about the past is off limits.
“If you spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror then you will crash, 100 per cent of the time,” he told his team. “So from this meeting forward, I don’t want to hear anything about last year. It’s irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the work that you are willing to put in from now.”
Of course he is not blind to the realities of a program which has not made an impact in the GNAC since Dave Johnson was fired following the 2013 season.
As he addressed his players, Ford made sure no one was still at the pity party, catching their attention when he said: “If you want it, you have to go get it. Ain’t nobody coming to pick us up in a limo. I can promise you that.”
Ford’s promise to the win-starved Clan fan base and its proud alumni?
Actions will speak louder than any of his words.
“I think you can say a lot of things, but the difference for our staff will be our actions,” he said. “We are going to hit the streets and recruit, we are going to dial the phones, we are going to be organized with a plan for everything we do. We will earn the trust of our fan base by what we do, how hard we work, by our actions.”
Ford and his wife Shannon have two young kids, four-year-old daughter Zoey, and seven-month-old son Kingston.
He will continue to meet with his players, and will soon name a coaching staff in addition to getting out on the road to recruit new talent.
With regards to the latter, Ford admitted that he won’t always recruit players by the same cookie-cutting measurables.
“When you look at our situation, you just can’t look at getting a bunch of great football players,” Ford says. “You have to find players that will be great at SFU, guys who are willing to be developed over the next four-to-five years.
“We’ll be hitting a 150 square mile radius,” he says of the grid whose epicentre will be the 50-yard line at Terry Fox Field. “Of course we will recruit outside of it, too, but we’re looking at the talent in B.C. and then south towards the tip of Tacoma and Olympia and that I-5 corridor.”
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