VANCOUVER — The first cancelled UBC football season in 76 years, and just the third over its 96-year history.
Digest that for even a second if you’re a Thunderbirds’ football fan, and you’ve perhaps got a new definition for the term ‘bitter pill’.
Yet if the events of Monday, part of the wide-sweeping shutdown of the Canada West fall sports season brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic (along with a cancelled Vanier Cup national championship game) qualified as one of the darkest days in provincial football history, ‘Birds head coach Blake Nill feels there might be a sliver of sunlight to emerge from the depths: The potential to unearth the crosstown Shrum Bowl rivalry against the Simon Fraser Clan after exactly a decade in mothballs, easily the longest streak of inactivity within a series which began in 1967.
“I am going into my sixth season here,” began Nill on Monday of arriving from successful stops at first St. Mary’s and then Calgary, “and when I first came, I didn’t realize the potential value of the Shrum Bowl. I think I have changed my opinion on it…quite extensively.”
Clearly, much has to happen, beginning with the reality that in these challenging times, team and athlete safety has to come first in any scenario, and that nothing would advance without there first being a clearance by all of the proper authorities on the staging of a football game.
“I think all Canada West members are going to be looking for opportunities to create a value proposition for their student-athletes,” conference president Clint Hamilton told Varsity Letters on Monday when asked about the potential of member schools finding exhibition games against B.C. competition, “and if our circumstances change, and we’re able to find some competitive opportunities that allow us to insure the health and well-being of our student athletes and meet with the health requirements that are before us, those will be the opportunities we will be pursuing… absolutely.”
And of course there will be other issues to be determined from a purely football perspective, including finding a willing dance partner in the Clan, who themselves have recently expressed interest in the resumption of the series, yet currently face their own uncertainty concerning its own 10-game 2020 NCAA Div. 2 schedule.
That schedule, in these uncertain times of cross-border travel, includes five separate U.S. road trips to Texas, Washington, Oregon and California, as well as five visits by U.S. teams.
On Monday, just as U Sports was announcing the cancellation of the Vanier Cup national title game, ESPN was providing the details of the NCAA’s Div. 1 Football Oversight Committee draft of a six-week practice plan aimed at getting its student-athletes into a camp situation by Aug. 7.
Back in Vancouver, the prevailing momentum in any thought process directed at finding a suitable Shrum Bowl date is buoyed by the fact that the ‘Birds are suddenly very flexible.
If SFU does not play a season, or has its length compromised by the virus, it may well be something they would also want to pursue, although they may well be a much more game-ready group than UBC would be.
However you slice it, Shrum Bowl 2020 (by the alternating rules of the series a Clan-hosted affair under U.S. rules) would be the most anticipated university football game in a very, very long time.
“We could be taking this opportunity to see how we can grow our game,” said Nill, who during the pandemic has been a leading force behind Coach’s Cause, uniting Canadian football coaches in the drive to raise finds for Food Banks Canada.
“This time gives us the chance to sit back and say ‘Where are our opportunities and how do we move towards reaching them? To me, the Shrum Bowl should be on that list.”
Nill’s thoughts on a potential timeline?
“Let’s say by Sept. 1, if the medical authorities say we’re OK with a locker room being filled, and the schools decide they want kids on campus, then I think absolutely we should start preparing,” he said. “That would fall in line with a Shrum Bowl in late November. I have always felt the best date for the Shrum Bowl would be the week after Vanier Cup.”
By that design, Dec. 5 would be the date, one which appears to fall on the same day as the Subway Bowl B.C. High School Football championship game, played at B.C. Place Stadium.
Of course with the fluidity brought on by the pandemic, nothing is currently certain, including a B.C. high school season, or a potential pairing of a Subway Bowl final and Shrum Bowl return under the dome.
“This is something we talk about all the time… about the need to grow football,” said Nill, “to improve our marketability, our fan base. The Shrum Bowl, I believe, needs to be addressed by both schools, or at least looked at seriously.”
UBC’s Director of Athletics Kavie Toor stresses that the big “if” will be the state of the pandemic in this province, but agrees that if all boxes can be checked, that it could be a landmark event for B.C.’s high school, junior and university football communities.
“I think it’s rare to have a built-in historical traditon that we’re not tapping into,” Toor said. “We’ve got one that has been sitting there (idle) for many years, and for a whole host of really good logistical reasons, it hasn’t occurred. I know our group is really enthusiastic about the idea. Who knows? Time will tell if this is the year to bring it back, but certainly there are a lot of positive signs that show that this might be the year to do it. We’re not contending with conference schedules.”
Regardless of what does happen, Nill’s first hope is to be able to offer a safe environment for his players so that they may tend to the mental and physical aspects so important to their make-up as university student-athletes.
“That would be a huge win for us,” Nill said when asked what it would mean for the program to be able to hold some type of camp situation in these challenging times.
“I spoke to this team about the potential of the season being cancelled back in the third week of March,” Nill continued. “I talked to Canada West and my own team about what I called a ‘redshirt season’ and that is, you go out and maybe practice three times a week for an hour-and-a-half, and then you meet twice a week for 45 minutes.
“You apply a huge part of your priority to your academics, and to your strength and conditioning,” he added, “but you’re still engaged as a football team. Given the world situation, I believe that being able to do that would be a huge win for us.”
Of course, UBC football players could still be months away from their first formal gathering, and like student-athletes across the continent, that will be a test of wills.
Says Nill: “I am a big believer in the sport of football preparing young men to overcome these situations in life, and I have called on them to use those skills to just keep getting better.”
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