February 15, 2024

O’Leary: Diversity In Football Program continues to open doors

Scott Grant/CFL.ca

Through its long history, the CFL has developed a reputation as a door-opening league.

It’s where players like Herb Trawick, Bernie Custis, Johnny Bright, Condredge Holloway and Warren Moon, to name a few, all found opportunities to continue their careers when they encountered racially-motivated obstacles in the United States.

The CFL had a Black head coach (Willie Wood, 1980) and its first Black general manager (Roy Shivers, 1995) before the NFL did (1989 and 2002, respectively).

Progress can’t just come to a halt, though. With numerous doors opened through the past, the league has been proactive in how it can continue to open doors and provide opportunities for people that face similar challenges as those great players today and in the future. The Diversity In Football Program presented by Securian Canada is one example of that.

As we stand in the middle of Black History Month, this is the perfect time to look at the opportunity that the program — which is taking applications for the 2024 cohort now — provides.

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» More information about the Diversity in Football Program presented by Securian Canada

Participant experiences may differ as each Club will create a personalized program based on the goals of the successful candidate and the organization. Previous program participants are ineligible to return.

Nate Taylor is heading into his second season with the Ottawa REDBLACKS as the team’s running backs coach. The former offensive coordinator and receivers coach for the University of Ottawa Gee Gees first made contact with the organization in 2022 as a participant in the Diversity In Football Program. Bob Dyce added Taylor to his full-time staff in 2023.

A La Salle, QC native and former defensive back for the Concordia Stingers, Taylor finished his U SPORTS career in 2012 and was signed as a free agent by the Montreal Alouettes leading into the 2013 season, before joining the U of O coaching staff in 2016.

With an eye toward applicants with a diverse cultural background, the program adds participants to each of the CFL’s nine teams’ football operations departments for approximately four weeks through training camp.

“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do and (it’s) kind of just finding that opportunity,” former Hamilton Tiger-Cat Matt Bucknor told CFL.ca’s Don Landry last year, when he was a part of Diversity In Football Program and helped the Ticats’ coaching staff. “And this is one. This is something that I’m definitely looking forward to continue to do.”

Building a career in the world of football, whether it’s coaching or on the front office side, is one that often comes through unconventional means. The program helps steer participants into that world, while providing access to people — like the great players that the league has provided opportunity to in its past — that have historically had difficulty getting a foot in the door.

“I have to be the youngest person to ever do this program and maybe one of the youngest people ever to have an opportunity to coach in the CFL,” Gregory Coates-Cameron told me from training camp in 2023, when he worked with the REDBLACKS’ coaching staff.

Just 23 at the time, he had only a year of U SPORTS coaching experience under Guelph Gryphons head coach Ryan Sheahan.

“The experience has been great and very informative and influential in my career going forward,” Coates-Cameron said.

“It’s illuminated some of the strengths that I know I have now and illuminated some of the aspects of myself as a coach and someone that wants to work in pro football that I need to grow in.”

Working in Ottawa, Coates-Cameron also got to gleam information from Taylor, providing as unique and as personalized and relevant an experience that he could hope for, with Taylor having been in Coates-Cameron’s shoes just a year earlier.

For anyone that’s seen the Diversity In Football Program posting and is debating putting their name in, Coates-Cameron’s words from a year ago should give you that necessary nudge.

“It’s a very important program both from the diversity aspect of getting people with more diverse backgrounds into coaching as well as just the…rarity of opportunities like this for anyone who has prior experience coaching,” he said as REDBLACKS’ camp wound down. “It’s something that’s hard to get into but also really hard to climb the ranks.

“It’s not exactly a profession that you can hop online and get a certification for and start applying for jobs on Indeed. We have to build relationships and get opportunities like this for anyone to even consider you down the road. The CFL is an insular community. Everyone knows everyone and communicates with everyone. If you can make a good impression…the doors can really be opened.”

As you look back this month and perhaps think of the players that have found opportunity and had their lives changed through their involvement in the CFL, the Diversity In Football Program is one way that the league continues to try to open doors and take those next steps toward progress and equality.

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