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THE MOJ: All that history and SFU’s storied football program ended with a press release

Lack of money and commitment doomed what was once one of Canada’s finest programs
Simon Fraser University football team kicker Kristie Elliott, who had recently become the first Canadian woman to play and score in a college football game, lines up a kick as coach Jerome Erdman watches during team practice in Burnaby, B.C., Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

“One day, the Clansmen will play in the Rose Bowl.” -Simon Fraser University Chancellor Gordon Shrum, 1965.

It was a nice dream in 1965. Unfortunately, the Simon Fraser University Football program never fulfilled Gordon Shrum’s dream.

And it never will.

On Tuesday, SFU President and Vice-Chancellor Joy Johnson announced that the institution would be terminating the football program after 57 years.

It was a shocking announcement yet totally understandable.

Shrum had a vision that the SFU football program would compete with the big boys of the NCAA. Sadly, the program was no closer to that goal in 2023 from when it first started in 1965.

There was a time when SFU’s football program was regarded as the best in Canada.

In the 1970’s, the Clansmen - as they were known then – competed against some good American programs such as Idaho, Montana, Montana State, Chico State and Eastern Washington among others. They produced future CFL stars such as Lui Passaglia, Glen Jackson, Terry Bailey and Nick Hebeler to name a few.

But instead of taking the next step to a higher level of competition, the program stagnated. Instead of joining the Big Sky Conference or Far Western Conference for example, SFU continued to play in the NAIA.

There are plenty of theories on why the program never got to the next level and why it eventually folded but the answer is a simple one – money.

There wasn’t enough institutional, corporate or alumni support to make this a good NCAA Division 2 football program.

As much as people want to claim that SFU is a NCAA program, in the eyes of the general public and perhaps even with some alumni, it’s not.

The Washington Huskies and the Oregon Ducks are NCAA – the Angelo State Rams and the Texas Permian Basin Falcons are not.

I’ve played and coached at the collegiate level and I couldn’t even identify with some of the schools that the-now-Red Leafs were playing against. How was the general public supposed to? Or corporate sponsors?

Sorry but trying to play in the NCAA was a death sentence.

With only two other Division Two schools playing football in the Western United States, SFU tried to gain entry to the Lone Star Conference which featured primarily Texas-based universities.

Even though it was given affiliate member status in 2021, in early February the Lone Star Conference decided not to renew SFU’s affiliate membership for 2024.

From a business point of view, the move never would have worked out long-term as travel costs for SFU and its opponents wouldn’t be feasible – never mind the fact that the Red Leafs simply couldn’t compete at that level as their 18-99 record in NCAA competition would attest to.

Throw in a weak Canadian dollar and you have a recipe for disaster.

So when the plug was pulled this week, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

What did come as a surprise was the relative passivity that the university administration showed in trying to keep the program alive.

From what I’ve been told, the administration at SFU didn’t even bother calling USports to see if the football team could compete under that umbrella.

Governing bodies such as the NCAA, NAIA and USports frown upon its member universities belonging to multiple associations, but exceptions are made. UBC, for example, has golf and baseball programs that compete within the NAIA even though the rest of its teams compete in USports.

The Division 3 alternative apparently wasn’t appealing either as SFU would have to move all of its sports to that level. The Northwest Conference features many of SFU’s former NAIA opponents such as Pacific Lutheran, Puget Sound, Whitworth and Linfield and joining that conference would have greatly reduced travel costs.

Again, one wonders how much effort was made into getting an exemption.

Another option would have been just to finish up the year in the Lone Star Conference – allowing student-athletes the opportunity to transfer to other schools at the end of the year. As it stands now, most schools have given out their allotment of scholarships – leaving student-athletes from the SFU program on the outside looking in for the 2023 football season.

Playing in 2023 would have at least bought some time and allow the alumni to mobilise forces and to map out a strategy to save the program.

But playing in 2023 would have cost the university money, so the university took the easy way out.

The fact that the Lone Star Conference dropped SFU from its affiliate membership was extremely convenient for the administration.

It gave them an excuse to get rid of a program they didn’t want despite what we are hearing from the decision makers at Burnaby Mountain.

The bottom line is that they were never invested in football.

If they were invested, they would have fought a lot harder to keep the program alive.

The fact that the administration didn’t even bother to hold a press conference to make the announcement tells you all you need to know.

Instead, 57 years of tradition and history ended with a press release.

Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media. And check out his weekly podcast every Monday at Today in B.C. or your local Black Press Media website.

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