Fifteen years after the university terminated its football program as a cost-cutting measure, the Carleton Ravens will resume play in Ontario University Athletics.
Only, this time, the Ottawa-based institution is not on the hook for any of the operating costs.
The team will be 100-per-cent financed by Old Crows Football Inc., a not-for-profit corporation composed of former Ravens football players and alumni, and operated in partnership with the university.
It is a model based largely on the football program at Laval University, whose large stable of corporate sponsors is in charge of running the club.
It has forged the Rouge et Or into the gold standard of football programs in Canadian Interuniversity Sport. Laval, which only began play in 1996, has already won a CIS-record seven Vanier Cup national championships.
Thanks to the robust fundraising efforts by the Old Crows, more than $5-million has already been pledged in support of the Ravens, which will cover operating expenses for the first five years.
The Old Crows also helped finance, along with the university, a $3.1-million renovation that has brought Keith Harris Stadium up to modern standards.
The Ravens will take flight again Sunday, against the Western Ontario Mustangs in London, Ont. Their first home game will come Sept. 7 against the Waterloo Warriors.
The institution is now hoping the football program will become an important component of its athletic curriculum – like the school’s men’s basketball program, Canada’s best with nine national titles over the last 11 years.
“Our president [Roseann Runte] has said all great universities have great sports programs, including football,” Carleton athletic director Jennifer Brenning said. “It’s the profile of the sport and how that sport can engage an entire community. We’ve seen it from the students, from the faculty and staff. We’ve seen it from the exterior community. There’s a huge buzz around this sport.
“We have a very, very successful basketball program that has done wonderful things for the university. This just adds another high-profile sport that brings out an entire community.”
Gene Rheaume, a Ravens football player in the 1970s who is the treasurer of the Old Crows, said the group is convinced the program will prove to be a success, both on and off the field.
“The difference is that the program has been funded from the start to become a national contender,” Rheaume said in an e-mail, noting the hiring of an extensive full-time coaching staff headed up by proven winner Steve Sumarah (who led the Saint Mary’s Huskies from 2006-11) and a new branding initiative to drive merchandise sales.
“In addition, the dominant success of the basketball Ravens has helped athletes from other sports associate Carleton with athletic excellence.”
Rheaume said a combination of corporate sponsorship, ticket and merchandise sales, along with continued support from the alumni-driven Old Crow initiatives should make the program self-sustaining for years to come.
The Ravens have a rich history, dating to just after the Second World War when they first began play. But the program fell on hard times in the 1990s, winning just 13 of 60 regular-season games over an eight-year period.
The revenue-strapped institution announced its plans to cut the program after the Ravens stumbled to a 1-7 finish in 1998.
The university had said it would be willing to reinstate football, but not on its own dime, and the Old Crows were formed to start raising money for the venture. The revival plans got a huge boost in 2009, when Ottawa developer and former Ravens player John Ruddy said he would ante up $2.5-million.
Ruddy is one of the partners of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, the outfit behind the return of the CFL to the city for the start of the 2014 season.
In July of 2011, the university said the Ravens would fly again, becoming the 11 team in OUA.
One of the first moves was to find a head coach, and when Sumarah was unceremoniously dumped by Saint Mary’s, he was quickly targeted by Carleton. Sumarah is widely regarded as a bright football mind, working as an assistant for Blake Nill when he took over at Saint Mary’s in 1998.
Nill left Saint Mary’s after the 2005 season, accepting the head coaching job with the Calgary Dinos, clearing the way for Sumarah.
During his six seasons as head coach, Sumarah compiled an overall regular-season record of 35-12 and directed the team to four consecutive Atlantic conference titles.
“You get to put your own stamp on a program, it just doesn’t happen very often,” Sumarah said of his interest in coming to Carleton. “The last team in English Canada to start a football program was Cape Breton, which did it for one year back in 1990. This is not something that happens. It’s unique, and why wouldn’t you want to be a part of it?”
To help generate additional interest, Carleton enlisted the services of Downstream, the U.S.-based design firm behind the successful football-team rebranding of the NCAA’s Oregon Ducks.
Downstream was hired by OSEG as its design group for Ottawa’s new CFL football team, and it came up with the RedBlacks nickname. Ruddy, who is president of the Old Crows, suggested Carleton should also enlist its services.
The company designed the football team’s new locker room to go with the football team’s new logo, which features a stern-looking black-and-white, one-eyed Ravens head.
Components of the locker room include floor-to-ceiling wall graphics with embedded inspirational messaging, updateable magnetic graphics over an integrated wood veneer, and an LED countdown clock.
“Everyday is Christmas around here, honest to God,” Sumarah gushed when asked about the experience so far.
Rheaume was asked why go to such great lengths to reestablish a football program?
“Probably the fact it has high visibility, has potential to engage a large number of fans on a Saturday afternoon and the fact that the program brings close to 80 student athletes to the school who otherwise would be here,” he said.