Concordia football loses a pioneer, and many questions remain

A few years before his departure, Gerry McGrath had become quite the lightning rod on the RSEQ scene for consistently asking questions about Quebec university football into which I delve in the coming paragraphs. Before I even start with this piece, I must warn you, dear reader. This is not me giving an answer to the questions, but merely examining their pertinence, the way Coach McGrath went about asking them, and the way people reacted to him voicing his concerns. To put it another way, you’re about to read around 3,000 words of me thinking aloud for the next few minutes. 

I got the news at the same time as everybody else. After the last game of the Stingers’ 2013 season, in which the team failed to win a game, head coach Gerry McGrath was retiring. On the face of it, the move is not surprising. The Stingers had been on a descent that had been going on longer than many people realize, going back to the days when I was still playing there. I knew it, the players knew it, the league knew it, CEGEP coaches knew it, everybody knew it.

I, however, must admit I was somewhat taken aback by the announcement. The American football media have an expression, which states that a coach who accomplishes enough and stays long enough at a given program “gets to pick when he leaves.” I was beginning to think that this was going to be the case for Coach McGrath. Allow me to explain. When I finished playing for the Stingers after the 2010 season, McGrath immediately hired me as a graduate assistant on the defensive line. I coached at Concordia in 2011 and 2012. At the end of both seasons, there was talk of dissent in the ranks, from both players and coaches. Some even pushed it as far as to warn of a massive exodus of players after 2011. Many of these reports were overblown and inserted themselves in what was an absolute frenzy of speculation. Yet, after both campaigns, I worried for Coach McGrath. Something had to change, wrote Jean-Philippe Shoiry in the pages of Accrofoot in his preview of the 2012 season. JP, a former teammate of mine whom I greatly appreciate, didn’t and couldn’t know just how much and in what respect, but none of that stopped his initial premise from being absolutely right.

Yet, Coach McGrath remained, defiant and proud as always in the face of his critics. To this day, I do not know whether he truly believed his own words on the issue or not. Coach McGrath also had the apparent full support of then-athletic director Katie Sheehan. Having gotten to know Katie, as we all called her, I have no doubt whatsoever that this was the case. She was loyal, some might say to a fault, and was idealistic to the end in her vision of what the modern student-athlete should represent. In that regard, she always had her man in Coach McGrath. I speak from experience when I say he understood that a student-athlete’s journey through his CIS eligibility is not just an athletic and academic one; it’s a personal one, too. It is one of the reasons that makes me very sad to hear of his departure. A young man who agreed to play for Gerry McGrath’s Concordia Stingers could find comfort in the knowledge that he was not simply disposable fodder to be used for the advancement of the Stingers’ brand. This human element was important to Coach McGrath, and given how much Katie valued it as well, it made sense to see her stick by him even when, in the final years, questions about the state of the team got increasingly persistent and aggressive.

Asking some hard questions

Coach McGrath always struck me as uncompromising when it came to standing up for Concordia. My football career up until my arrival at Con U had taught me to appreciate that trait in people. Compromise, I thought, is the first step to doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. One offseason, he told us he had dismissed one of the team’s all-conference players for repeated violations of team rules. While I was nervous upon hearing this announcement, I also respected McGrath a great deal for it. And while this might seem an obvious decision to the outsider, it was not obvious at the time that, from a football standpoint, we could afford to lose this player. But that was Coach McGrath. He would not allow anything to threaten the good functioning of the program, not even himself, as his retirement seems to tell us.

Surely, it had to be that same will to stand up for the Stingers that drove him to become much more vocal about what he perceived to be the unfair superiority of the francophone programs in the Quebec conference. When the Rouge et Or beat the Stingers soundly in the 2011 Quebec semi-final game, he gave an interview to Randy Phillips of The Gazette in which he deplored the tremendous disparity in resources between the league’s francophone and anglophone programs. It was one of the rare clear-cut disagreements we ever had, not that the debate ever became heated.

I was convinced that both the timing and the substance of what he said were problematic. Never far from my mind was the notion that, since “perception is reality,” what matters is not so much what you have to say, but how it is going to be perceived. While the issues he was raising may have been very real, the state of the Concordia program along with the fact that we had just gotten blown out by the team from Quebec City made it far too easy for people to be dismissive about what he had to say.

And boy, were they ever dismissive! When McGrath brought up the topic again in 2012, Rouge et Or coach Glen Constantin answered by saying “Help yourself, and the heavens will help you,” a counterpunch more predictable than sunrise, to which I thought Coach McGrath sadly had exposed himself. Meanwhile, in the pages of Accrofoot, JP Shoiry described McGrath’s take on the issue as him “playing the ostrich and sticking his head in the sand” to avoid confronting the decline of his own program. It’s a shame, because overlooked in the midst of these obvious knee-jerk reactions was the matter of whether Coach McGrath actually had a point. It seems to me that however bad the timing and however tainted by emotion the substance of his lament were, we cannot automatically tag the questions he raised as impertinent or invalid.

Around the week of the Stingers’ 2011 playoff game against the Rouge et Or, a report was published. It indicated that the Rouge et Or’s operating budget was, at the time, greater than that of Concordia, McGill and Bishop’s combined. Though I still respectfully submit that he went about it the wrong way, I respected the fact that McGrath wasn’t afraid to ask a few hard questions. Is the current state of affairs in Quebec university ball a good thing or not? Is this good for the sport in Quebec? On this topic, Constantin is not exactly disinterested, or should I say, would not be disinterested were this discussion ever to seriously happen. Therefore, his opinion in this case is really not surprising.

Yet our short collective memory in all this never ceases to amaze me. While McGrath took much heat for his comments, it’s not as if he was the only one to raise the issue. Did McGill not threaten to leave the RSEQ for the OUA not so long ago, like, you know, in the 2011-2012 range? One coach for whom I have great respect once privately described recruiting in Quebec as “the Wild West.” Call it an exaggeration if you like. Point out that McGill seem much less vocal about their dissatisfaction since a sizable donation from an alum turned the Redmen football program into the conference’s “nouveau riche.” Again, though, the questions do not become invalid just because people stop asking them, not that McGrath ever stopped.

But before coming back to asking whether this state of affairs in Quebec football is a good thing or not, it is pertinent to wonder whether we even want the question asked. In other words, would people care if the current lack of parity in the Q was a bad thing? (It seemed to me then (still thinking 2011), as it does now, that they obviously do not. The general CIS football-viewing public of Quebec, not to mention much of its amateur football community, is far too enthusiastic at the sight of the Rouge et Or pounding the rest of Canada’s best into submission (See 2012 Vanier Cup final vs McMaster) to listen to the coach of a losing team trying to rain on the province’s patriotic parade. Coach McGrath was guaranteed, in this regard, to be viewed as little more than a “party pooper,” not that he seemed to very much care.)

Far from coming across as the brave crusader willing to stand up to the French programs so immensely favoured by the francophone public and media, McGrath instead was portrayed as someone making excuses for his team’s shortcomings. A valid point though McGrath might have made, it becomes useless at best, counterproductive at worst, if said francophone teams and media can spin it as nothing more than excuses. To the average fan, it’s like blaming the referees after a loss: it might be true, but it’s taking the easy way out and absolving yourself of what you contributed to your current predicament. I do not know whether this came up as part of assessments of the state of the program but, if it did, I cannot, for the life of me, picture a scenario in which this helped McGrath’s case with Con U’s new athletic director.

Something had gone wrong

I love these players, many of whom I coached and even played with, but I can hardly fault Boivin for coming to the conclusion that the team’s on-field performance cannot be defended. After the Stingers took a shellacking in Week 1 at the hands of the Montreal Carabins, I wrote the following:

They play McGill and Bishop’s twice and get St-Francis-Xavier at home, all completely winnable games, despite the Stingers’ obvious pass protection issues and striking youth in the secondary. They could lose all games against francophone teams and still finish the season with five wins. And you know what five wins gets you, at the bare minimum, in this conference? Third place.

As far as catastrophically misguided statements go, this one ranks down there with the very worst I’ve made, in good company with the likes of “Who the hell is Marc Trestman?” and “The Jacksonville Jaguars can win with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback.” However much of an absurdity this prediction looks like in retrospect, I maintain that, at the time, it wasn’t nonsensical. Con U got Atlantic opponent St-FX, whom they roasted in both 2011 and 2012, at home. I saw McGill as still very much a work-in-progress, which they proved themselves to be by missing the playoffs again, and Bishop’s… well, I really can’t say much about Bishop’s except that they caught me completely by surprise. Based on what I saw from them in 2012, I never would have expected a 6-2 record from them this year. Kudos to their staff and players for a remarkable season, regardless of the playoff drubbing they took. But I digress.

Not only did the Stingers lose to McGill (for the first time since I was in seventh grade) and Bishop’s twice, but they allowed 19 unanswered points to lose 35-18 to X. I myself expected them to struggle, but not quite this much. One can understand why Boivin would be less than impressed. Further contributing to the impression that the program had gone astray was the fact that the last years of McGrath’s stint as Concordia head coach were marred by significant turnover within the coaching staff, with some departures less ceremonious than others. This is even more shocking to me considering that, during most of my own playing career with the Stingers, the coaching staff was a model of stability.

Then, there is the decision to keep McGrath as a consultant to prepare for the 2014 season. I do think that Coach McGrath is too important a figure at Concordia for the program to cut ties with him completely. I’d be very happy to learn that he’s pleased with this consultant role, but if he’s not, I expect none of us will ever hear him say it.

On a slightly different but necessary note, I cannot refrain from expressing concern and support for his family, given that I have gotten to know his wife and children a little bit and that I have come to care for them greatly. Concordia football seemed to be as important to the McGrath family as it was to Coach McGrath himself, and I was relieved when McGrath told me that they got to take the time to reflect on the impact this decision is bound to have on their lives. Take it from someone who knows, this is a good man who has given up his head coaching duties at Concordia. Notwithstanding any footballing criticisms anyone may have of him, I cannot name an opposing coach or player who has ever had anything to say to the contrary.

Boivin’s opportunity

Nevertheless, this is an important opportunity for new athletic director Patrick Boivin to make a clear statement that Concordia football is a results business once more. Up until this point, I had somewhat lost the belief that it was. As sorry as I am to see Coach McGrath give up the reins to the program, it was clearly in need of rejuvenation. Obviously, it was decided that this meant making a switch at the top, though I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

With that said, there can be no doubt as to the magnitude of the changes required to make Concordia football as competitive as Boivin seems to wish it to be. Any success on the field starts with recruiting top quality players, and much is to be done in this regard. Systematically nabbing all top players from Vanier College, as the Stingers once did, might be impossible due to the language barrier not being what it was. Vanier now boasts many players who played football at their respective private or public francophone high schools, a reality that was less prevalent when I was facing the Cheetahs as a CEGEP player. This notwithstanding, I firmly believe it is primordial for Concordia to re-establish itself as a recruiting force in CEGEP football’s first division, which it has failed to do in the past few seasons. While I personally did my humble best to contribute to this effort during my time as a coach at Concordia, I cannot say I envy those whose task it will be to convince Division 1 recruits and their coaches that a new era has begun at Concordia. This is because I am of the opinion that a mere coaching change will not be enough to solve the Stingers’ current image problem with the top CEGEP kids.

If I’m wrong, then whoever takes over from McGrath is sitting on a gold mine, and Concordia football will return to being competitive, as it had been for such a long time until recently. If I’m right, however, here is the danger with the apparent easy fix that is a coaching change: if the perception remains that Concordia is not willing or able to give itself the means of its ambitions, the balance of power doesn’t figure to change very much. Restoring Concordia as a viable option for CEGEP players will require tremendous creativity, since a new stadium (much needed) would take time and money, as would redone turf fields, and as would other improvements to the athletic facilities, which become critical with the evident “americanization” of recruiting in Canada (though this is an issue for another day).

While the statement released on the team website says the coaching search will begin shortly and names like Denis Piché and Justin Éthier are being mentioned, rumour also has it that a promotion from within last year’ staff is in the cards. If that is the case, then I hope Boivin and whoever assisted him in this search have taken the time to thoroughly examine this person’s plans for the team, and not just in terms of football. How does the team overcome the dual-campus reality to get what is usually an apathetic student body to the games? What must be done with the important issue of fundraising? As for the latter, I am aware of interesting initiatives being taken by dynamic people, but there certainly is room for more good ideas and support from other alumni and friends of the program. Attendance and fundraising are two of many important questions to which the team must find answers, and good ones at that, lest the prospect of playing for Concordia remain as unexciting as it is today. It was the work of more than one person to put the Stingers in this situation, and it’ll take more than one to get them out of it. Should the Stingers rush this process, in a few years, they will be exactly where they are now, new coach or not.

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