When the University of Calgary football team boarded a plane to make the 3,800-kilometre trek east to Quebec City for an exhibition game in August, Blake Nill had an unusual goal in mind.
He wanted his team to get crushed.
“I knew I had a young, young team,” the 51-year-old head coach said. “I wanted to give them a shock factor.”
The Laval Rouge et Or were only too happy to accommodate, steamrolling the Dinos 32-3.
The shock therapy was obviously successful as the Dinos got on a plane from Calgary earlier this week for another trip into Laval’s backyard – only this time, there is no talk of capitulation.
The upstart Dinos are hoping to continue what has been a miraculous season Saturday, when they will contest the heavily favoured and defending national champion Rouge et Or in the Vanier Cup.
“If you’d told me this would happen at the start of the season, I’d have never believed you,” said quarterback Andrew Buckley, who became the Calgary starter in the first game of the season, after incumbent Eric Dzwilewski broke his foot.
“It’s sort of been turned on its head, my life’s been flipped upside down a little bit. It’s just crazy how it’s all turned out.”
It has been an incredible, emotional journey for the undefeated Dinos (11-0), who have enjoyed success despite losing 19 starters from last year’s squad.
The Rouge et Or, playing in the CIS championship game for a record fourth consecutive year, are also undefeated (11-0).
Along the way, Calgary had to come to grips with the tragic death of defensive lineman Dan Lamola, 19, just as spring training camp had started. Two days later, Nill called a team meeting to discuss the loss, calling Lamola’s death one of the toughest things he has gone through.
“There was, literally, young men lying in fetal positions on the floor,” Nill said. “It was so difficult, it rocked the team. We had to get grief counsellors in.”
Then, there was the upheaval in his personal life.
A football lifer who played five years as an offensive lineman in the CFL before embarking on a CIS coaching career now in its 22nd season, Nill’s 27-year marriage to Maura McGowan broke up in March.
“It was very cordial, just a decision that was made,” Nill said. “My wife has been with a football coach for all those years, and that’s not easy.”
The two have joint custody of a 14-year-old son, Bryce, and it was this new arrangement that promoted a drastic change in Nill’s diet and resulted in a 75-pound weight loss from his hulking 6-foot-6, formerly 330-pound frame. “I’ve had to re-wardrobe twice.”
A self-described meat-and-potatoes-type big eater, Nill said he knew he had to make a change, especially when he was often cooking for a young boy.
“I told my son, ‘Look buddy, if you think I’m cooking vegetables every night, you’re nuts,’” Nill said, but he did compromise and became a smoothie addict.
When it comes to the surprising success his football team has enjoyed this season, Nill looks back to that preseason visit to Quebec. Laval has established the standard in Canada for university football supremacy, having won the CIS title for a record seventh time last season, in just 17 years of the program’s existence.
“We not only played Laval in a game, but we also practised against them,” Nill said. “I just wanted my team to see that, basically, the Laval players put their pants on the same way we do. I also wanted them to see what a championship program looked like.
“I thought I got good value for it. I really believe that helped us.”
Nill said there was also an unexpected benefit to the trip on the final night, after the preseason game had been played, when he decided to allow his players to experience some of the Quebec City nightlife.
“I said they could go out, but only until 12:30,” Nill said. “We had to get on a bus at 4 a.m. to get to the airport to fly back to Calgary and I warned them that I’d be outside sitting on the step waiting to check them back in.”
While in Laval, the U of C team was staying on the campus in a student residence.
“So around 12, they phone me, they get one of the young guys to phone me … said, ‘Coach, can we just stay out to another hour, until 1:30? We’re having a great time and the whole team’s together.’”
Being a stern taskmaster, Nill said no – and then sat back to watch all the excitement.
“So about five minutes until the curfew, all these cabs come flying into the campus and these kids get out and come running up to the front of the building where I’m sitting,” Nill said. “Pretty soon, the entire team was there with me and it was a great team-building event.”
After Lamola’s death, the Dinos decided to keep his locker at McMahon Stadium intact. His helmet is on the shelf above his red Calgary jersey, bearing No. 95. There is a picture of Lamola, beaming a 100-watt smile, alongside a can of beer bearing player signatures, from a case that some of his teammates shared after learning of his death.
There is also a medal from the Hardy Cup, a memento the players received from winning the championship of the Canada West conference, hanging in the locker.
As an added touch, the university has decided to fly Lamola’s parents in for the game from Calgary to watch the title game.
Buckley, the third-year quarterback, said the Dinos hope the Vanier Cup will soon be added to that locker treasure trove.
“Dan was such a loved guy on the team, he really was like a brother to all of us,” Buckley said. ‘When we lost him, the first couple of days, it was just such a shock for our team. It was very tough to get over but, in the end, it brought us close together.
“We used his memory to help motivate us in practices and in games.”