Greg Gary, right, is trying to turn around a program that broke the all-time record for consecutive losses. (Courtesy of Jonathan Brazeau)
When Greg Gary told friends he was going to take over the University of Toronto football program, a few of them were taken a tad aback.
The Varsity Blues? Canada's laughingstock? The guys who last decade broke the all-time record for consecutive losses (49) and have gone 13-106-2 since last making the playoffs in 1995?
"Yes, there were people who said 'Greg, that's going to be a tough haul, that's going to be tough sledding down there,'" says Gary now, sitting in his nice office at the south end of Varsity Stadium.
That part about the office is important, because it's next to a dressing room that would make the Hamilton Tiger-Cats jealous, up the stairs from a gorgeous field where, if you listen hard enough, you can just faintly hear the echoes waking up from a long, long slumber.
This is the program that has won four Grey Cups (in the olden, olden days), two Vaniers and 25 Yates Cups.
Gary, building on the three years of renovation work by Greg DeLaval, who put in a strong foundation (6-18 - refer back to that overall mark) before returning to his family in Calgary, is sitting 2-2 with a chance to make the playoffs.That's if the Blues can find a way to upset one of the big-time programs over the coming weeks.
Imagine that. The Varsity Blues in the football playoffs - quite a change from 2008, when Gary came to help DeLaval with his linebackers for a year.
There were a lot of distractions then.
"The losing record was a distraction (they hadn't won in over six years), they had just changed coaches and that was a distraction," said Gary, who played four seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and has a 1986 Grey Cup ring.
"There was a group of players who had gone through all of that [and] they were a damaged group [who] had no idea how to win. Every time they saw something go bad, they would say 'Here we go again.'"
Back to business
Gary went back to the transport business he helped run in Hamilton after that season, but when DeLaval decided to head home this past spring, came back to run the program as both head coach and business manager, meaning finding the money for scholarships and costs.
What he found the second time was quite different.
"Greg had done a really good job of reestablishing the traditions, and that's the thing that I think the program needed," Gary says. 'But because Greg spent [a lot of time] on that, the football part needed some work, and the strength and conditioning, the Xs and Os around fundamentals."
And the recruiting.
DeLaval left just as this year's incoming class was making decisions about where to go, and that threw things up in the air for the Blues again. Next spring, Gary will be signing his own first class and what he wants is to one day dominate GTA area recruiting.
That's going to be key, says Rocky DiPietro, who played with Gary in Hamilton and now runs the national quality football program at Lakeshore Catholic High School in Port Colbourne, Ont.
"You've got a big backyard there, and [Gary]'s also a drawing point. Lots of kids love Toronto and would love to live there," says the CFL hall of famer, who can't recall one of his own top-level athletes choosing the U of T.
"I think a lot of players shied away because of the record, and nobody wants [to play at] a program like that, especially the better ball players," he says, "Once he has a good season, like he's having, things will get a lot easier.
"I know Greg, and he won't just stop at [one good season]."
No stadium meant no hope
Money problems and a lack of interest had already wounded the Varsity Blues program by 2002 (it had to be saved in the 1990s by an alumni group called Friend of Football that is still seriously involved), but tearing down the iconic 90-year-old Varsity Stadium seemed to put a dagger in its heart.
The Blues had to play at a municipal stadium many miles away, they had no regular dressing room, no weight facilities, no real offices. What little they had was housed in a couple of trailers.
By 2008, it looked as though no one could bring this body back to life, even with the nice new stadium, until DeLaval came in and gave the program a Heimlich. His near miraculous six wins over three years (including a shocker over No. 2 ranked Ottawa last year) showed there was life left in the corpse.
Gary came into this fall not sure what he had, and for about three minutes there must have wondered if he'd lost his mind taking over this bunch.
Down in Windsor to open the schedule, Varsity trailed 14-0 on a pair of big kick returns in the opening three minutes on the way to taking a 38-5 pounding.
Since then, the Blues have beaten York (another perennially bad team) on a last minute field goal that bounced off the right upright and in (an omen?), thoroughly dominated Guelph (a good squad) in a 21-12 victory and were whomped back in Ottawa.
That game with the Gee-Gee showed how much Xs and Os work needs to be done as the Blues gave up five turnovers in the first half and wasted a strong defensive outing.
So how do you convince these young guys they can win on a regular basis?
"That's the question," Gary says. "That's why they brought me in; to be able to do it, to create a competitive team ... put a competitive product on the field."
Two wins in their next four games might do it for the Varsity Blues.
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