Around campus it's becoming a well-known fact that 100 Grey Cups ago, the University of Toronto's rugby-football team proudly held the trophy aloft as the championship's inaugural winner. En route to a threepeat, at that.
Since then, football and rugby – once the same game – have hit a fork in the road, and the Varsity Blues have fallen on hard times. The rugby team amassed an 0-8 record this fall, getting cumulatively outscored 554 to 15 in intercollegiate play.
The sad-sack season was just a prelude to the really bad news. Next year's team is effectively homeless, having just lost its practice pitch to a field-hockey turf that's being installed for the 2015 Pan Am Games. Worse still, there may not be a team next year at all.
For reasons best known to themselves, U of T sports officials chose this month to float a controversial plan to phase out the men's and women's rugby teams from intercollegiate competition, and reconstitute them into some kind of on-campus intramural league. The campus-sports bombshell collided with history, coming as it did just ahead of this weekend's 100th Grey Cup game, a landmark event to be played just a few kilometres away at the Rogers Centre.
While no decisions will be made until March, players past and present are pushing back forcefully, calling the proposal an affront to tradition.
"We were demoted down to the very bottom," says Karla Telidetzki, a 22-year-old on the women's team, which won one game this year. Calling rugby's budget "minuscule," she said that "we just feel it's hypocritical. If they want excellence, they have to make significant changes."
Canada's largest university has 66,000 students, and yet consistently punches below its weight in team sports. Sports officials say one reason is that U and T has long overvalued inclusivity and undervalued competitiveness. In other words, a very crowded roster of sports teams has literally resulted in crowded fields – creating logjams for practice and playing time, which comes at a premium in downtown Toronto.
Administrators suggest that spreading resources too thinly over too many programs is untenable in an age when champions bring cachet – and cash – to campus.
"We need to decide: Do we want to be a competitive school?" said Beth Ali, a former elite field hockey player, now U of T's director of intercollegiate sports. "If you have a championship team, you will have more access to marketing dollars. You'll be able to build a business model around that."
Alumni acknowledge that rugby has had some very lean years – but insist it is not beyond saving. "I think it would be a huge loss," said David Miller, the former Toronto mayor. A member of the U of T's last championship team – in 1982 – he said "the solution is to turn the program around, not cancel it."
The perspectives of past players can be persuasive. At powerhouse Queen's University, Royal Bank Canada chief executive Gord Nixon – a renowned tackler in his heyday – dug a million bucks out of his deep pockets to fund the construction of a new field for his alma mater.
It's unlikely that the U of T rugby program will find a donation of such magnitude, but it can tap into much goodwill. For example, Michael Garratt, a business executive who played centre for the 1988 team, has pledged $500 a year for the past three years just to help keep the program going.
But "what the U of T needs is like Queen's," he said. "U of T needs a good rugby field."
Today's rugby captain, 21-year-old Nader Mohamed, said he was thrilled to play Saturday night home games under the bright lights of Varsity Stadium. But, he says, the team has already been told that "playing at Varsity won't be an option" in the future. Meantime, the grass of the practice field is about to be ripped up to make way for a Pan Am field hockey turf – a development that's made the hockey team, one of the university's sports success stories, quite happy.
Being part of a losing side is never easy, Mr. Mohamed says. "Obviously it's difficult and not fun, but you still have 30 guys around you that are like brothers," he said.
Now he and his brethren are preparing to meet with university officials next week to see what can be done to keep the teams alive. Satellite campuses in Scarborough and Mississauga could be a new home for rugby, he says. And for practices, "we're looking into some of the high schools around campus."
The team is even reaching out to the city's brisk rugby club scene for potential partnerships and practice facilities.
Should that happen, the Varsity Blues will have come full circle. The team first made a name for itself as a club that trounced the Parkdale Canoe Club, 26-6, in 1909 – thus winning the first in a series of Grey Cups before play halted during the First World War.
While the past is clear, the future is uncertain. The blowback appears to be causing the university to step away somewhat from its Plan A. "The first round is, 'We don't want to be intramural' – got it,'" Ms. Ali said. "Second round is, 'what is it going to look like?'"
Varsity Blues Rugby "has had a long-standing tradition," she acknowledged. "Everyone's talking about the fact that U of T won the first Grey Cup."