September 12, 2011

Zwelling: The first step in rebuilding Waterloo

Arden Zwelling

On the first day of September, in a long 2010 they will never forget, the University of Waterloo Warriors football team was in London, Ontario for the first game of the OUA season.

They were spectators. Just like anyone else who paid admission and sat on the cold, metal stands at TD Waterhouse Stadium, they watched. Their season had been scrapped before it even began. A steroid scandal, the worst in Canadian university history, had tarnished the program. Four players admitted to using performance enhancing drugs. Three others tested positive. One simply declined testing and left the team. Another was arrested for possession and trafficking of banned steroids and was placed under house arrest. The university came down forcefully, shuttering the program for the entire season. Scores of players young and old left the school to play elsewhere, leaving about 50 of their teammates behind.

It was those 50-odd players, many of them in their first years at Waterloo and not even knowing the guilty players who came before them, who sat and watched that day in September as Western pummeled Laurier 46-1 in their season opener.

Two weeks ago, it was Waterloo’s turn. Back in London, this time for the start of the 2011 OUA season, the Warriors played their first football game in 712 days at the same stadium where they sat as spectators a year prior. Dennis McPhee, the Warriors’ head coach, had taken his team to London that day because he “had an idea this might happen.” This, is opening the season on the road in one of the most hostile venues in the province against the defending conference champions. And the Warriors would not have had it any other way.

Waterloo lost that day 86-22, scoring three more touchdowns than Laurier had mustered a year earlier but also surrendering more than a point per minute. But this year for the Waterloo Warriors the scores don’t matter. Playing football does.

“Just getting back on the field and playing in the CIS is a victory in itself. Regardless of what the record shows this year,” said Bob Copeland, the director of athletics at Waterloo and a former member of the Warriors football team himself. “My goals are to get back on the field with integrity, to see the players improve and thrive and to support them — it sounds Pollyanna but it’s true.”

There isn’t a better word for what’s happening around the Waterloo Warriors right now than that — Pollyanna. Positive thinking. Idealism. There aren’t many other choices for a team that — if the first two games of the season are any indication — is not going to be particularly good this season. A week after the drubbing against the Mustangs the Warriors opened their home schedule with a 65-13 loss to the Gryphons — a team that had scored just eight points the week prior against Ottawa.

The Vanier Cup is the goal. It has to be when you’re playing university football in Canada. But this year is different. There is another focal point for this team and you just have to read the language on the Warriors website like “moving the program forward” and “starting a new chapter” to figure it out.

Of course, turning the page on 2010’s lost season extends past the rhetoric and into the physical shape of the program as well. There is the brand new field turf at Warrior Field; a $2 million investment funded in thirds by the school and both the provincial and federal governments. There are a bevy of new athletic scholarships, created by the school to help fuel recruitment. And there is a pair of PED task forces, one of which is done in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport which originally busted the Warriors program for doping last spring.

“We’ve taken a leadership role in addressing PEDs on major task forces. Our athletes are involved and engaged. We’re trying to move forward as best we can,” Copeland said. “Once the review was done and the coaches were exonerated, it was ‘get right back in the saddle and let’s get this program going again.’”

It’s true — after the scandal the field did not sit barren and the locker room did not fall quiet. In fact, at this time last year the Waterloo Warriors football team was hard at work.

Three days a week the 50 players who remained, most with zero university football experience, assembled on campus at 7:00 in the morning to lift weights, run through drills and keep their minds on football. Every day McPhee and his coaching staff focused on a different phase of the game — pass rush, route running, coverage — with every member of the team taking part in drills regardless of position. There was no game to play, no opponent on the horizon and no bulletin board material for inspiration. But none of that matted to the Warriors — just 50 young football players without a season.

“They basically had an hour and a half three mornings a week breaking the game down into its different phases and training that way,” McPhee said. “We are going to prepare these kids the best we can for everything. The kids are eager to learn.”

It was all building up to this season’s training camp which was unlike any other McPhee has run with just nine out of the 99 players in camp having any football experience at the university level. On defence alone, the team had a total of just 34 man games of experience and every game this season, the Warriors dress 36 freshmen on their 47-man roster.

“You try to tell them what they’re in for,” McPhee said of the three quarters of his roster that had never set foot on a CIS football field before this season. “They’re learning how to practice. And they’re learning to walk before they run. But we believe that our kids are highly intelligent here.”

McPhee said he was impressed with the ability of his rookies to pick up new concepts and complex schemes in a short amount of time. The coaching staff hasn’t taken it any easier on the team, changing systems and strategies every week in anticipation of that weekend’s opponent.

It’s what his players came to Waterloo expecting after a vigorous off-season of recruiting that saw McPhee and his staff bring in more players than any other year in the program’s history. They were given more athletic scholarships to use to entice players to come to the school. Also, Copeland and Waterloo president Feridun Hamdullahpur both personally took part in recruitment. The team even had Eric Polini, a 22-year-old former linebacker who was one of the players using steroids in 2010, join the process and speak to recruits about his experience and the mistakes he made.

“[Recruits] really respected the transparency,” Copeland said. “It was quite impactful.”

But one of the biggest moves Waterloo made during it’s extended offseason was retaining McPhee and his entire coaching staff from before the suspension, something many players said was imperative to whether they would return to the program or not. That includes Joe Paopao, the team’s offensive coordinator and an ex-CFL head coach; Marshall Bingeman, a former Warrior himself who coaches the offensive line; and Kani Kauahi, an 11-year NFL veteran who coached with Paopao in the CFL.

“Some people would have just run for the exits when this thing happened,” Copeland said. “This was very difficult on the coaches because they are so close with the athletes. Losing a season, getting put on administrative leave, having major reviews conducted. It was pretty stressful and I’m really proud of how the coaches managed it.

“These are guys that have lots of different opportunities. They
can coach anywhere they please.”

You could see it — the adoration and respect for this Warriors coaching staff — in the eyes of Greg Marshall, the head coach of the Western Mustangs when he spoke to reporters after his team nearly tied an OUA scoring record against Waterloo two weeks ago.

“It’s hard. There’s no joy in that,” Marshall said after the game, shaking his head. “Those coaches over there are good friends.”

Waterloo’s games will not be pretty this year. The Warriors will certainly miss the playoffs; they may not even win a game. But taking some lumps is just part of the process of pressing restart on a football program. What’s important is that it’s near impossible to find a single individual in the OUA who does not think Waterloo is headed in the right direction.

This is just the first step.