Simon Fraser head coach Mike Rigell catches a moment on Terry Fox Field during fall training camp 2021 to chat with top returning quarterbacks Brandon Niksich and Justin Seiber. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of Varsity Letters 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Football

Extra practice time a huge benefit for SFU, UBC heading into Friday’s Shrum Bowl XXXIV, and why the revival of the crosstown classic kicks off a local university football renaissance!

BURNABY MOUNTAIN — Talk to those in the know, and the future of the Shrum Bowl becomes something much more than a game local football fans hope gets played each season.

In its fabled past, both UBC and SFU have had their turns declining the game (it has been played 33 times in 55 years heading into Friday), sometimes over legitimate scheduling conflicts, and other times simply because their respective programs were at opposite ends of the competitive spectrum.

Yet the tight 17-15-1 overall edge enjoyed by the Red Leafs informs just how evenly and hotly-contested the series has been.

Talk to the two head coaches this week over the course of the run-up to Friday’s 34th edition, and the benefits each school has enjoyed with an early-December date (the latest the game has ever been played in the calendar year) suggests a template which will encourage future scheduling co-operation and thus do nothing but help keep the game repeating on an annual basis.

The theme of that template?

Extra practices at a time when its respective rivals have virtually shut things down for the season.

“I approached it by telling all our kids that basically, this is the start of our 2023 season,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill, “and that I expect their full commitment just like it’s the start of any season.

And that extra time to get players reps beyond the norm?

“Every time the kids are on the field it benefits them,” said Nill, a three-time Vanier Cup winner as coach, including 2015 at UBC. “We’re taking advantage of it because we are still young in some areas of the team and for them to have another week of preparation for a big game helps in their growth. We recognize that fully.”

UBC head coach Blake Nill won the 2015 Vanier Cup behind the arm of B.C. Lions’ quarterback Michael O’Connor. (Photo by Bob Frid property of UBC athletics 2017. All Rights Reserved)

Over at SFU, Red Leafs head coach Mike Rigell looks stateside for his comparison, likening it to the added preparation time afforded teams in the run-up to an NCAA Div. 1 December bowl game.

“It is very important,” Rigell said of the extra practice time, “and that is why it’s kind of like an (FBS) bowl game. Another seven-to-eight extra practices speaks worlds for where these young players are going. It’s taking us into the spring and our coaching staff couldn’t be more excited about that opportunity.”

The 11-game drought (including the Covid-cancelled 2020 season) which is set to be snapped Saturday is easily the longest in series history, and it came on the heels of the longest continuous run of 16 straight games from 1995-2010.

Over the course of that drought have come several major happenings, including a national championship for UBC in 2015 which heralded the arrival of Nill, and Simon Fraser’s decision to leave CIS (now U SPORTS) and become an NCAA school. UBC has future plans on the table, however still distant, for a new 5,000-seat football stadium at West 16th Ave. and East Mall, and of course SFU has turned turned Terry Fox Field into a campus centrepiece stadium.

Coming out of the pandemic, all of that evolution has added up to something of a university football renaissance in the Lower Mainland, and symbolically, Friday’s Shrum Bowl is its official kick-off point.

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