The players stand at attention along the sideline, their football helmets clutched just so and pressed against their shoulder pads while the national anthem is played before each game.
And when the captains walk out for the pregame coin toss, the entire team escorts them both on and off the field in a rigid, straight line.
They do things a little bit differently at the University of Guelph, beginning with head coach Stu Lang, a former CFL star who donates all but a dollar of his salary back into the school’s football program.
The unorthodox measures are certainly having the desired effect, as the Gryphons, hardly considered one of the heavy hitters when it comes to Canadian Interuniversity Sport, have emerged as one of the top teams in the country this season.
“Perfection is what we aim for,” said Jazz Lindsey, a second-year quarterback who leads the nation’s fifth-ranked team. “It makes everything seem more professional and it provides everybody with that team mentality, that you do everything together.
“You strive to be precise, both on and off the field.”
The Gryphons (7-1) will put their seven-game win streak on the line at home Saturday, when they play host to the sixth-ranked Queen’s Gaels (6-2) in an Ontario University Athletic semi-final contest.
Since the advent of the Vanier Cup in 1965, the U of G has only played in the national title game once: in 1984, when the Gryphons defeated Mount Allison 22-13.
With only two OUA titles to their credit since, Lang says it was his mission when he became the Gryphons head coach for the start of the 2010 season to turn around the on-field fortunes. After going 4-4 in 2010, and 2-6 in 2011, it looks like the plan has worked.
Although he had never held a head coaching position before, Lang’s football pedigree is impressive: A former student at Queen’s who was a member of the OUA championship team in 1970, Lang, now 61, went on to enjoy a successful career in the CFL as a slotback during the dynasty days of the Edmonton Eskimos, winning five Grey Cups in eight seasons from 1974 to 1981.
Lang also forged a successful business career, and was the president of his family-operated company in Toronto, CCL Label International, before retiring six years ago.
After spending a season as Guelph’s receivers coach under Kyle Walters, Lang lobbied to become the head coach, but with one condition.
“I just didn’t think the university was going in the right direction,” Lang said. “I’ve often quoted this line, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.’
“So I had a talk with Tom Kendall, the athletic director, and I told him I had an idea to move the football program into the elite level of the Westerns, the McMasters and the Queen’s.”
The crux of Lang’s plan was to drastically increase the size of the Gryphons coaching staff.
Under Walters, who left to become a CFL special-teams coach with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Gryphons had one other paid assistant and a total coaching staff of about 10.
Lang now has two paid assistant coaches and a staff that numbers about 20, including some pretty high-profile names, including former CFLers Neil Lumsden (running backs coach), Hank Ilesic (kickers) and Greg Butler (defensive backs).
“They have some credibility,” Lang said. “They’ve been to the upper echelon and they’ve been successful. A lot of playing football is not just the Xs and Os. It’s the confidence, it’s the mental aspect. And these guys can talk a lot about what it takes to be a winner.”
Lumsden’s tutoring has paid off for Rob Farquharson, a third-year running back who was the nation’s third-leading rusher this season, with 936 yards on 150 carries.
With the expanded program came expanded expenses, and in order to convince Kendall to go along with his plan, Lang agreed to essentially work for free.
His pay, believed to be in the neighbourhood of $75,000 per season, goes back into the program.
“I’m coaching for a dollar, that was part of the plan, to do something without hindering the athletic department or the university,” Lang said. “That’s what has allowed me to grow my staff.”
It has been reported Lang has also dug into his own deep pockets to help refurbish the training facility and weight room. And it is suspected he has also been a heavy financial contributor to the $4.7-million upgrade to Alumni Stadium, which includes new artificial turf, an eight-lane running track, new videoboard and lights.
“That is under a confidentiality agreement, so I’m not a liberty to talk about it,” Lang said.