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Redmen football
Success has remained beyond the grasp of the Redmen for a number of years. (L-A Benoit / McGill Tribune)

A decade lost: Rebuilding Redmen football

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Since the 2005 hazing scandal, Redmen football has experienced a decade of on-field futility. Over the past eight years, the team has had five winless seasons. It’s gone through three coaches in that time span, and frankly, the only thing consistent about the team seems to be their awful record. The team is an anomaly among McGill’s litany of other successful men’s varsity programs. Redmen basketball has been to three consecutive RSEQ finals, the rugby team had won eight consecutive RSEQ Championships up until this year, and both Redmen hockey and lacrosse are perennial conference powerhouses—so what’s wrong with Redmen football?

“When I left the team [in 2013…] I really thought we left the program on the up-and-up,” former Redmen linebacker and Winnipeg Blue Bomber Jesse Briggs said. “We won three games that year, [and] lost another game by a point, which would have gotten us into the playoffs.”

Briggs was one of three players from the 2009 recruiting class drafted to the CFL last year, and teammate Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was also drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, only two players from that recruiting class stayed for their fifth years, which has been a recurring issue for the Redmen. Last season, the team only had five seniors on its everyday roster, compared to 33 players in their first year of eligibility.

“It’s kind of been the result of our lack of success in the past years,” newly-appointed Head Coach Ron Hilaire said. “Some players decided not to stay the course [because] they did not believe in the process.”

Zachary Lord and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
Zachary Lord and Laurent Duvernay Tardif cap off the best Redmen season in a decade (Luke Orlando / McGill Tribune)

For players from outside of Quebec, the transition to RSEQ football can be a dramatic one. The CÉGEP program leaves many out-of-province recruits at a disadvantage in their early years because local players are typically a year older and more physically mature. Recently, these players have given up on the team—deciding to focus on their studies rather than football. For the players from Quebec, many recruits come primarily for football and struggle with the tough academic standards at McGill. The team has been unable to retain these players, as many drop out after their first few years in school.

“I think you have to make sure you get the players who come here for the right reasons,” fifth-year defensive back Zachary Lord said. “If you get a guy who comes here for school, he’s going to stay here to finish his bachelor’s degree [and therefore], he’ll be more inclined to stay here for football.”

That’s easier said than done for the Redmen coaching staff. McGill has rigorous admission standards, and finding players who can play while keeping their GPA up at McGill is no easy task. It’s hard enough for most people to balance four or five courses a week, but imagine trying to manage a normal academic schedule along with anywhere from 32 to 35 hours of football activities a week. It’s no wonder these student-athletes struggle to maintain high grades.

It’s been 12 years since Redmen football’s last winning season, and while it’s probably going to take a few more years before McGill becomes relevant on the CIS football stage, the future does look bright.

“I pulled myself out of sports for a year to see what type of student I would be, and I was a 90s student,” three-time Grey Cup Champion and former Redmen defensive lineman Randy Chevrier said. “The year after, when I went back to [Vanier College] to play football in my last year, […] my academics fell a little bit [.…] When you add the time that it takes to become a good athlete [to] the high [standards] that McGill requires of you to get into certain programs, they will be turning away a lot of people.”

It’ll be no easy task for Hilaire to find those suitable student-athletes for Redmen football. To begin with, the program has been plagued by multiple non-football related scandals over the past decade that have certainly made it much harder to recruit now than it was 20 years ago.

“McGill has to repair some [public relations] with the parents that are considering McGill,” Chevrier said. “Obviously there have been some incidents in the last 10 years […] that have cast a negative light on McGill as an option for the parents of student-athletes.”

McGill has recently intensified its recruiting efforts, following the trend of other Canadian universities by scouting out prospective athletes in their sophomore and junior years of high school.

“[We] recruit the whole year,” Lord said. “Not only [student athletes] in their last year of high school, but you’ve got to recruit them two or three years in advance.”

Even though the football team might not be the most attractive program in Canada, Hilaire has tried to stress the importance and magnitude of getting a McGill education as a selling point.

“At the end of the day, I want all our players to understand that football is an opportunity­—it’s not a career,” Hilaire explained. “So few of [them] will be able to play at the CFL or the NFL level, so the opportunity to get a top-notch education at McGill […] is priceless.”

Redmen Football's iconic helmet (cisfootball.org)
Redmen Football's iconic helmet (cisfootball.org)

In the past, the Redmen focused on recruiting French-Canadian athletes because the CÉGEP program produces athletes a year older than the rest of Canada. Unfortunately, the recent success of other local programs—the Montreal Carabins won this year’s Vanier Cup and the Laval Rouge et Or are undoubtedly the top program in the country—has increased the competition for high-level prospects from the province, and McGill has had to look elsewhere for talent.

“I think if we have a good balance of recruiting the top student athletes from Quebec, across the nation, and in the U.S., [then] we can be very competitive,” Hilaire said. “We just have to put the work in the right areas.”

Part of this process is going to have to fall into the hands of Redmen alumni. Over the years, a significant number of Redmen football players have gone on to become teachers. Last year’s team included 22 players enroled in an education program. When these players graduate, they often become physical education teachers and football coaches in their local communities.

“A lot of football players, especially at McGill, [are] in the physical education program,” Chevrier said. “[The] guys [who] graduated with me 15 years ago have gone on to become teachers in their hometowns, [and] a lot of them are involved in coaching. These are the guys that need to reconnect with the team in order to identify blue-chip McGill candidates—kids [who] can get into a school with good grades [and] can play football at a high level.”

It’s been 12 years since Redmen football’s last winning season; and while it’s probably going to take a few more years before McGill becomes relevant on the CIS football stage, the future does look bright. With a year of experience under their belts, the rookies who were thrown into the fire last year will return looking to improve after a disappointing season. The team has already started indoor workouts, and according to Hilaire, the team looks better than ever.

“I’ve never seen the team like this since I’ve been here,” Hilaire said."[Linebacker Karl Forgues won defensive Rookie-of-the-Year in the RSEQ, so he’ll be back. We’ve [also] made some changes on the offensive side of the ball—I recently hired a new offensive coordinator [Benoit Groulx]; he has a great vision of the game, and was a great football player himself."

It’s not going to be easy for Hilaire to turn around the downtrodden Redmen, but it’s certainly not unprecedented. In 2002, the Carabins went 0-8. Just two years later, they went undefeated, winning the Quebec University Football League.

“Success for me is going out there and being competitive every single game, never giving up, never quitting,” Hilaire said. “It’s all going to be a process. We’re not going to try and find shortcuts. We’re going to work at being better every single week and every single day. If we do that as a team, I think we can only grow and learn from our wins as well as our losses.”

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