UBC Thunderbirds head coach Blake Nill says a big part of the COVID 19 era in collegiate sports is helping players navigate all the realities of being a student-athlete during these challenging times. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2020. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Football

While smoke-filled air delays UBC football’s first official workout, ‘Birds coach Nill talks a different strategy with players and their families

VANCOUVER — Sitting in his office overlooking Thunderbird Stadium on Tuesday morning, Blake Nill afforded himself a solitary moment to take a deep breath.

These days, you can’t take anything for granted.

In the midst of the global pandemic, and with its Canada West season already long cancelled, UBC’s veteran head football coach had worked towards Tuesday as the program’s first day of on-field workouts.

After all, if blue-and-gold football Saturdays were being shelved for the first time in 76 years, at least there was a way to keep team culture invested by hitting the practice field.

Instead, the ongoing U.S. wildfire situation, which has created some of the worst air-quality conditions on the planet, continued to envelope the west coast, thus forcing Nill, his coaches and a hearty contingent of players to cool their cleats for yet another day.

“Since March, I thought that the likelihood was that we were not going to play, and so I have been focusing our players on school and individual training,” began Nill, who like coaches across the continent has learned that hope can be so easily crushed.

“The reality is that in the best-case scenarios we are probably not going to play against other schools for a year, so it would be incredible if we could get some semblance of spring football,” he continued of being potentially able to gather for something approaching an actual camp environment after the winter frost subsides. “I just want to be able to make sure that whenever we are able to get our group back on the field that we are ready physically, mentally and cognitively in terms of our systems.”

It is with that wide-angle view of UBC football that Nill made a key team decision in advance of this unprecedented 2020 campaign, one which will see classes at his school conducted on-line through the fall and winter semesters.

“The world has changed a lot in the last three decades that I have been a head coach,” began Nill, who has coached teams to eight Vanier Cup finals, and has won three national titles, including the most recent in 2015 at UBC. “A head coach is now not only responsible for a young man hitting his academic potential and his football potential, but for also being a part of the financial strategy for he and his family.

“I told all of my players that we’re not playing (games), so you can save some money and stay home,” continued Nill who stressed that each and every player on the UBC roster will continue to have his scholarship honoured by the school. “Why would you tell a kid from Montreal or Ottawa to come out here to take on-line courses? Right now, let’s apply a little more thought into the financial implications.”

With all of that, the head coach said that approximately 45 of the team’s 90 players are in town and able to attend workouts when conditions are right.

“In the second term, if we are able to train full-time in a gym, at that point I might potentially encourage (the other players) to campus,” added Nill.

Of course, among the 45 players ready to take part in workout sessions, most are local. There are, however, some from the U.S. and eastern Canada.

Veteran UBC receiver Lliam Wishart (right) admits it’s tough to replace the intangibles of team building which are accomplished through a fall camp. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2020. All Rights Reserved)

One of UBC’s in-province veterans, third-year receiver Lliam Wishart, says that while he and his teammates are doing all they can to keep team culture thriving, it’s challenging to replicate the impact of something as traditionally unifying as a fall camp.

“It’s two-to-three weeks of hard, gruelling work, but you all go through it together,” said Wishart, the Kamloops-Valleyview grad who is back in Vancouver.

“It’s hot, the days are long, you have a lot of meetings, you eat every meal together… it’s so important because we all go through the same grind every day. You create the bond, the brotherhood. At the end of it, you’re all exhausted but when you get to the other side, you are ready for the season.”

Wishart has been able to play some catch with his roommate, UBC quarterback Tommy Yanchuk, but for the most part, the team has done what most others have done, and that is gathering at a central location via their laptop screens for virtual Zoom meetings.

Huge ‘Homecoming Game’ crowds in mid-September were starting to become the norm on the Point Grey campus, and the football team had truly begun to connect with the student body.

Now, the hope is that a spring football camp, complete with competitive drills and scrimmages, is the next step on the road back to genuine Canada West football games a year from now.

For his part, Wishart doesn’t hesitate when asked what that would mean.

“Every fall when the football season comes around, there is such nostalgia to it,” he begins. “The season is so short, and then you have to wait another nine-or-10 months. After everything we’ve been through, if we get to play football in the spring at camp, that would be amazing.”

Indeed, a real breath of fresh air.

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