Early struggles not dissuading SFU from its NCAA experiment

SFU remains confident its NCAA experiment will get back on track.

Football, men's basketball teams draw more U.S. recruits than UBC, UVic counterparts

Simon Fraser University's football team had its best NCAA season in 2012, recording a 5-6 record to finish fourth in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings. (The Canadian Press/Ron Hole)

When Simon Fraser University's football team takes to the field Saturday, it'll be looking for its first win in more than two seasons.

The players will be hundreds of miles from home, on the field of Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, Ariz., taking on the Arizona Christian University Firestorm.

Ever since the Burnaby, B.C. university became the NCAA's only Canadian member — albeit at the lower Division 2 level in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference — hopes for the program have been high.

"It means a high level of competition and challenge for our athletes," then SFU president Michael Stevenson was quoted as saying in in July of 2009.

But the switch hasn't been easy, with some high-profile teams still finding themselves overmatched.

The men's football team hasn't won a game since defeating the South Dakota School of Mines in October of 2014.

The men's basketball team has the worst record in its conference since the 2010 switchover.

SFU said the change would allow "a great Canadian education with the ability to compete athletically in the NCAA" and would permit Canadian athletes to get full-ride scholarships while staying in Canada.

But a review from a decade's worth of rosters shows the university now has significantly more American athletes compared to provincial counterparts at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria.

Seven years in, has the switch been worth it?

American athletic roots

While wins in some sports haven't been easy, athletic director Theresa Hanson says it's important to remember that SFU's move to NCAA wasn't just a bold change — but a return to tradition.

SFU played in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), a U.S.-based competition of mostly smaller schools, for its first 36 years.

"The athletic roots at Simon Fraser have always been in the U.S.," she said.

And, since joining the NCAA, the results between the lines haven't all been bleak either. 

SFU teams — seen here in action against the University of Manitoba Bisons in 2006 — competed against other Canadian schools between 2002 and 2009. (CP Photo/John Woods)

Last year, SFU finished 15th out of 306 other NCAA Division 2 schools in the Learfield Cup, an award given for overall performance of an institution's teams.

"We can offer an amazing education and play in the NCAA," she said. "From an academic perspective, it's worked really well for us."

Hanson defended the higher proportion of international athletes, arguing that drawing talent from both sides of the border is needed to bring in the best athletes.

"In the sports of football and men's basketball, we need to have some international flavour, including Americans."

The school is also making progress on its stadium project that would cover the north hillside of Terry Fox Field.

"It's a game changer,"  said Hanson of the plan. "We can bring football back to campus."

Tough transition

Longtime Canadian varsity sports watcher Jim Mullin agrees that long-term, upgrading facilities will be key to SFU's success.

The first phase of the SFU stadium project includes covered seating for 1,800. (SFU)

"Until SFU establishes that stadium and supporting facilities, it doesn't matter if they compete in the NCAA, they'd be a step behind the rest," said Mullin, the host of Canadian college football TV and radio show Krown Countdown U.

SFU's NCAA membership has also put a hold on traditional rivalry games with UBC, most notably the Shrum Bowl (football), Buchanan Cup (men's basketball) and Barbara Rae Cup (women's basketball).

Mullin also said coaching inconsistency has been behind many of SFU's early struggles. He points to the women's basketball team, which maintained a consistent record through the NCAA switch and its longtime coach, Bruce Langford, as an example of successful continuity.

"Bruce gives top recruits the confidence to come to SFU."

American upside? 

Milos Zivkovic knows firsthand how unsettling the NCAA transition initially was.

He was a receiver on the Clan football team from 2006 to 2009, but NCAA eligibility requirements forced him to transfer to the University of Calgary for his final year in 2010.

"They had to start rebuilding and relearning a whole new system," he said of his old team which who lost all nine conference games in its first NCAA season.

"It's a whole new game. Different competition. Different set of rules."

Zivkovic says while he and his teammates would have preferred to stick together. Now, he sees the merit in the NCAA move. 

"It is for guys with their eyes on dreams in the NFL. It's a good transition from high school as well," he said referencing how B.C. is the only province to play American style four-down football.

SFU alum Lemar Durant (1) of the Calgary Stampeders was a conference first team all-star during his time with the Clan. (The Canadian Press/John Woods)

He cites SFU alumnus Lemar Durant as an example. The Vancouver native played for the Clan and earned tryouts for two NFL teams before joining the CFL's Calgary Stampeders in 2015.

Zivkovic says drawing from the U.S. makes sense but not if it risks excluding local and B.C. players.

"They value Americans kids because they assume they come from bigger, better high school programs but that could possibly overlook good kids here too."

It's clear that SFU still has work in terms of making their NCAA experiment work — and as they're still the only Canadian university in it, they don't have a lot of schools to take notes from.

But as Hanson points out, "Simon Fraser has always enjoyed being unique."