The future of the Thunderbird: a look at UBC Athletics

UBC Athletics is in for some big changes, but can these changes save the struggling program?

Recently, the university announced the formation of two new committees to oversee the athletics and recreation department. With these new committees UBC Athletics and Recreation is looking to rebrand, remodel and grow the Thunderbirds.

UBC's vision is to create more partnerships, draw bigger crowds, reorganize departments, hire new directors and grow UBC Athletics and Recreation into a bigger business.

But it will be no simple task as pressure has been mounting internally and externally for athletics to right old mistakes and pass on power to a new generation of administrators. Between the sports review, the exodus of coaches and staff from the athletics department, scathing editorials in local media and little interest in the Thunderbirds from the campus community and Vancouver, UBC Athletics has taken their fair share of flack. But what can change to solve these problems?

A New Thunderbird

David Sidoo, a former Thunderbird defensive back, CFL player, successful businessman and member of both UBC's Board of Governors and the 13th Man Foundation, a fundraising organization for UBC football, has been involved in the remodelling of UBC Athletics, especially with the football program and the hiring of Blake Nill. Nill, the recently hired head football coach who won six-consecutive Canada West Championships and is one of the most successful coaches that Canadian football has ever seen, is central to the changes in the athletics department.

For Sidoo, the first step for the department is building successful teams.

“Winning’s winning and you engage with that,” said Sidoo.

But Thunderbird teams like swimming and soccer have been winning, big time, in the past few years. These teams still see struggling attendance and a lack of involvement from students on campus and the community at large. Beyond those teams UBC has, arguably, one of the most successful athletic programs in Canada with 184 Canada West Titles and 93 CIS titles, the most of any Canadian university. UBC wins all the time, and consistently sends students to the Olympics.

Regardless, Sidoo and 13th Man, who are backing the new $1.1 million dollar football tutoring facility, among other things, see winning teams as central to building the Thunderbirds. It’s plain and simple: if you win, people will come and when people come you generate more money and can build stronger programs.

Louise Cowin, VP Students at UBC and the person ultimately in charge of everything sports and recreation at UBC, sees the formations of these committees and a regrouping of the Athletic Department after Ashley Howard, the former athletic director, left. The committees aim to ensure that the Thunderbirds get all the support they need, according to Cowin.

Cowin will be working with other UBC VP's to build alumni support, presumably to drum up donations, and to better market the Thunderbirds which Cowin said will allow her to focus on student-athletes and better integrating athletics in to life on campus.

Aaron Bailey, the current AMS president, mirrored much of the sentiment of the university, the athletic department and Sidoo. He said that he hopes to see UBC sports and the Thunderbirds become a rallying point for students on campus.

“Everyone, whether they’re within varsity or outside of varsity, shares a similar vision for what they’d like sports to look like on this campus,” said Bailey. “My ideal vision would be sports, or varsity, being sort of a focal point for drawing people together."

Bailey continued, citing the often quoted feeling that UBC struggles to draw together all the diverse groups of students on campus. He sees sports as a solution to that problem, a bridge that can bring everyone together. It’s not a new idea for those involved on campus but now UBC is adopting it.

The AMS, Bailey said, is hoping to work more closely with varsity and UBC to promote games and teams. The Winter Classic, which was a collaboration between the Thunderbirds, UBC, the AMS and the Calendar, was one of the most attended hockey games in decades. Bailey sees this, and other collaborations, as the model for the future. Get more students out, make more noise on campus about games and build a community off of a shared dedication to UBC sports for the first time in recent memory.

“By investing, and developing this into more of a business model that encourages people to come out and engage in a meaningful way, it’ll lead to that cohesiveness on campus that, I think, we’ve all been looking for, for so many years,” said Bailey. “I just want it to expand.”

With expansion also comes the concern that the varsity program will no longer be about student-athletes. Sidoo shot down this concern, saying UBC Athletics is, and will always be, about the athletes and students.

Some disagree with this claim. Athletes and coaches have been voicing their concerns in recent years. 35 people have left UBC Athletics in the last two years, said Tyler Kuntz in a recent resignation letter. Kuntz is a longtime Thunderbird and men’s hockey coach. In his letter of resignation, he sighted the exodus of staff as being a sign of a failing athletic department.

Kuntz, while proud of his Thunderbird history, said he has had enough and called for changes to be made. "Nobody should be treated with such ignorance and disrespect as my hockey program, players and staff were in the past two years.... What I did not know is that we would be considered irrelevant to the university and it's absent leadership," wrote Kuntz, who indicated the failing is due to a few key people.

"It’s time to start listening to your coaches," the letter continued. "It’s not all bad though as there is hope. There are some very important people with the power to change. I plead for you to do the right thing. It's always the correct choice.”

Other coaches have been cited in The Province as unwilling to talk about UBC Athletics in fear for retribution, though many did voice concern and outrage over the sports review.

It is clear that UBC needs to do something about the Thunderbirds but what that something is remains unclear. Can the new committees turn athletics around? Will Nill and an exciting new football lineup reinvigorate the varsity scene? Will collaborations with student groups draw bigger crowds consistently? Will anything bring students, professors or Vancouverites to campus, bleeding blue and gold and cheering “go Thunderbirds?”

The Committees

One committee, named the executive leadership team, was established “to enhance university-wide support for the UBC Thunderbirds,” according to UBC and consists of Cowin, VP of Development and Alumni Engagement Barbara Miles and Adriaan de Jager, the Executive Director of Government and Corporate Relations. Jager is filling in for the VP of external relations and communications who has yet to be hired.

The second committee, which is being called an interim operational oversight group for athletics, is being billed as a support group for the Thunderbirds through the upcoming 2015-2016 season and, according to UBC, will “discuss and prioritize opportunities and challenges for the executive leadership’s consideration.” The committee is lead by Gord Hopper, Director of Performance and Team Support, and consists of administrators and coaches from across UBC Athletics.

The formation of these committees comes after Ashley Howard stepped down in April. Howard oversaw the controversial sports targeting review that saw five teams stripped of their varsity status and several given a hybrid status. Softball has since regained its varsity status but the criticism from coaches, players, alumni and donors, along with the atmosphere the review left at UBC Athletics, remains.

It is still somewhat unclear what exactly each committee is tasked with doing and what power they wield, but Cowin did say that the university would be releasing terms of reference for the interim committee that will outline their scope.

The Future

It is hard to tell exactly what all this means for UBC sports and each of the varsity teams; the only certainty is that there will change.

Will there be another sports review where teams lose funding, school support and even their varsity status? It's unlikely in the next few years, as the last one was a bigger headache than UBC bargained for. Plus, with the addition of Nill and Mike Pearce, the men’s rowing coach, to the interim operational oversight group for athletics, expect there to be a stronger voice from the teams themselves in decisions moving forward.

What is more likely to happen and, to some extent, has begun happening already, is teams losing funding from the university and gaining it from alumni and sponsorships. While the football team emerged from the sports review unscathed, and even benefiting from it, their dismal record in recent years (they haven’t gone over .500 in a season since 2011) has pushed alumni like Sidoo and the 13th Man Foundation to take a more involved role with the team.

It was the university that hired Nill but with such close ties with 13th Man, they certainly did not make the decision alone. Nill’s first request as head coach, according to Sidoo, was that the team have a space for athletes to study. Just last month, ground was broken on a new, $1.1 million tutoring facility, paid for by 13th Man. 13th Man’s website also says they have funded brand new uniforms and helmets.

While strong alumni support is uplifting to see and essential to a strong varsity program, UBC is still a public university and is responsible for its own teams.

Sidoo said, “You’ve got to get the alumni, the athletic department and the university all thinking the same thing. And I’ll tell you what it is; it’s what’s best for the student athlete. Not what’s best for David Sidoo, not what’s best for the president, not what’s best for the board of governors, not what’s best for a coach. What’s best for the student athlete and the student at UBC.”

There are dangers to relying heavily on alumni donors, too. How much power do donors have? What happens if donors, coaches and the university disagree on a hiring decision or the recruiting class? What happens if an alumni donor makes a bad business choice and can no longer support a team? UBC is still a public institute and needs to be responsible, including financially responsible, for its teams.

Along with a lack of boundaries for alumni support and participation, varsity sports face the hard truth that is for most UBC sports, a David Sidoo simply does not exist.

“We are hoping to be leaders there,” said Sidoo. “I’m hoping other sports put that kind of a model together."

Nordic skiing does not have a Sidoo. Nor does track and field. Or women’s softball. It would be great to see alumni work together to build a successful, winning and respected football program. In fact, this year they probably already have. While having a stellar football program could be a major boost in income, and (hopefully) attendance, it will never fund 29 varsity teams.

A varsity model that's overly reliant on alumni support, using UBC’s own vocabulary, is unsustainable. Realistically, the Thunderbirds will never as big as teams like Ohio State, but when 3,049 people attending a hockey game is a big story, the university has some work to do.

Based on UBC's recent inclusion of more alumni and marketing oriented administrators in sports committees, UBC is looking to build the business side of the Birds. Money, in the future, will come from alumni and marketing (check out the Canadian Tire ad, featuring the Thunderbirds). This may make taxpayers and fee paying students happy, but remains to be seen if it will help student-athletes and the sports programs.

UBC also seems to have heard the complaints piling up from athletes, coaches and the community. They've included coaches and sports administrators on the new committees. They are working with student groups like the AMS and the Calendar to grow student involvement. Will this work? Well, it just might. Last year's Homecoming and Winter Classic were the most attended games in recent memory. But two events a year wont give the Thunderbirds the rejuvenation they need. Students need to go to Friday night games, buy a few beers and cheer for their teams for UBC to rebuild and grow athletics. Without student participation and enthusiasm, UBC (or rather donors) can pump as much cash as they want into teams but they shouldn't expect to draw crowds.

UBC has amazing sports teams and, historically, one of the best varsity programs in the country. But to keep a strong tradition going, changes need to be made. UBC can build a stronger community, campus spirit and the friendly-college campus vibes it has been craving through varsity athletics and recreation but administrators, students and alumni need to step up to the plate for that dream to be realized.