Skip to main content

UBC Thunderbirds quarterback Michael O’Connor throws a play in a game against the Montreal Carabins during first half the Vanier Cup on Nov. 28 in Quebec City.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

In the final moments of the Vanier Cup, the Canadian university football championship last Saturday, the University of British Columbia was led to a last-second victory by a 19-year-old quarterback, Michael O'Connor, the game's most valuable player.

It was a glorious moment for UBC, a perennial loser in football until this year. But Mr. O'Connor's arrival from the United States has not been without controversy, and has put a spotlight on recruitment policies for university sports that are considered vague and inadequate. At issue is the wooing by UBC, its coach, and a key alumni backer of Mr. O'Connor last winter, which included a trip to an NFL playoff game in Seattle and dinner with Warren Moon, the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback.

No official complaints have been filed and few are willing to comment publicly about the recruitment of Mr. O'Connor, although the issue has been discussed extensively in the small world of Canadian university football. Many are worried about the effects of the rise of alumni money in football and the need to strengthen Canadian Interuniversity Sport's recruitment rules.

Although critics have said the recruiting effort went beyond the usual wooing of top prospects, none of the rules of the governing body of university sports were broken, those involved say. "We paid our own way, very expensive," said John O'Connor, Michael's father and a retired Ottawa police officer. "Mike isn't getting any more than he's entitled to under the rules."

Since alumni money has begun to bolster about a half-dozen football programs, and these universities have come to dominate on the field.

The CIS has slowly responded to this change over the past couple years. It is a small organization and employs a dozen people at its Ottawa headquarters. No one is specifically devoted to rule compliance. So among 55 universities, with 700 coaches and 11,000 student-athletes, the participants police themselves.

Current recruiting regulations – including a prohibition on offering "product and/or services" worth more than $50 – are considered inadequate, unclear, and out of date. Change is in motion. The CIS board of directors is expected to vote in the next two weeks on new rules, aiming to have them in place by Jan. 1.

"Our recruiting policies were very outdated," said Jennifer Brenning, athletics director at Carleton University and a CIS director who previously helped oversee compliance. "Everything has changed. There's a lot more donor money involved, particularly in football."

It started in Quebec City at the University of Laval, where Tanguay family and money from its furniture businesses underpins a football program that has won seven of the past 13 Vanier Cup football championships. It is a record of dominance rare in sport at any level.

Laval inspired imitators. UBC is the latest. Backed by several million dollars of outside funds, led by alumnus and Vancouver businessman David Sidoo, UBC football last winter scored a top new coach, Blake Nill. The new coach then brought in Mr. O'Connor, and others. The Vanier Cup win was unexpected.

Michael O'Connor grew up in Ottawa and moved to the United States during high school to pursue football. The 6-foot-5 quarterback landed at Penn State University in 2014, one of the big U.S. football schools, but was unhappy and did not play. He left last December.

At the same time, Mr. Nill, the veteran University of Calgary coach, joined UBC. The hire was "new territory" for UBC, said Ashley Howard, former athletics director. They offered a big salary with performance incentives. Following the model used by others, UBC was able to pay Mr. Nill more than previous coaches with the support of Mr. Sidoo's alumni group, the 13th Man Foundation.

The coach's recruiting of Mr. O'Connor is one of the great coups in CIS history. A move from Penn State to a Canadian school is unprecedented.

As part of Mr. O'Connor's visit to UBC in Vancouver in mid-January, the quarterback and his parents and Mr. Nill drove to Seattle for the NFL playoff game. On the Saturday night, the group, along with Mr. Sidoo, ate dinner at the Metropolitan Grill, a steakhouse, and were joined by Mr. Moon.

Mr. Sidoo and Mr. Moon met in 2012 and became friends, with Mr. Sidoo making financial contributions to Mr. Moon's foundation, and Mr. Moon helping UBC football. Mr. Moon became a mentor to Mr. O'Connor.

On Sunday, Jan. 18, the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Green Bay Packers to reach the Super Bowl. Mr. Nill, Mr. O'Connor, and his parents, say they sat together in the stands to watch the game, and drove back to Vancouver that night.

"We did everything properly," Mr. Sidoo said. "We're not stupid."

There is no rule against including a prominent person such as Mr. Moon in recruiting.

Mr. O'Connor said he had been disillusioned at Penn State and became interested in UBC's premier business school as well as football. "It was a cool experience," he said of the NFL playoff game. "It didn't have much [to do] in my decision."

Mr. O'Connor had a job this past summer with the real estate business run by Francesco Aquilini, billionaire owner of the Vancouver Canucks. David Negrin, a UBC alumnus and 13th Man supporter, is president. CIS has no rule to govern such situations.

Bringing prospects to events is typical, said Mr. Nill, who added fundraising has become essential to compete in CIS football. "This is a witchhunt," he said.

Mr. Nill is among a small group of coaches who helped draft the ideas for the new recruiting regulations. He said they will be much more precise, and UBC will thrive.

The new rules will likely bar trips such as Seattle or other events – even if the recruit and his family pay.

"Could we have recruited Michael the same way if it was [next] year?" Mr. Nill said. "No."

Brian Towriss, head coach at the University of Saskatchewan since the mid-1980s and three-time Vanier Cup champ, said there has been lots of talk. "Everyone questioned or speculated as to what was happening but no colleague would directly accuse another coach. Our enforcement is self-policed. We are busy with our own teams trying to develop our student athletes and win games."