Athlete’s Angle

With winter upon us in Manitoba, a new battle begins within Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) football. Recruiting is full throttle now, as teams try to retool and replace their graduating players. Coaches are scouring Canada coast to coast to find their next star.

The landscape of recruiting in CIS football is changing rapidly due to new eligibility rules. We recently had Bison Football coach Brian Dobie on the show to discuss the impact the new rules changes will have both on CIS football and the Manitoba Bisons football program.

The new eligibility rules state that once a student-athlete graduates high school, they have seven years to complete five years of play. This gets complicated for the athletes who play junior football prior to university. Those not ready or able to play university straight out of high school can play junior football for up to five years, leaving them only two years of university eligibility, effectively reducing their value to a university team considerably.

What coach wouldn’t want a 21-year-old rookie over a 17 or 18-year-old? It doesn’t take a football guru to figure out that in a physical game there would be an advantage to having older players. These new rules encourage teams in the CIS to recruit high school players over junior players for a few reasons. CIS football teams like to “mold” players to have success within their system. This process should allow high school players to succeed in their second or third year of eligibility, giving them three or four years to have success on the field. If a junior player comes in with only two years of eligibility, and it takes them a year or two to adjust and learn the system, their window for success is reduced substantially.

The University of Manitoba has held a strong football presence in Canada since Brian Dobie took over the program in 1996. In the last decade, they finished atop their conference five times and went to two national championships, winning the Vanier Cup in 2007. They’ve been a powerhouse to say the least, a powerhouse with a junior player heavy roster.

The problem for future recruiting for the University of Manitoba isn’t the fact that junior players have lost their value to CIS teams, but rather, that Manitoba doesn’t create the calibre of local talent that Alberta or Saskatchewan do for football. Prior to the rule change, the University of Alberta, Regina and Saskatchewan would, for the most part, recruit junior players and high school players from their own province. Manitoba, however, was forced to recruit junior players nationally. To make matters worse, most of Manitoba’s top high school football players leave the province to play junior football at established winning programs in other provinces.

So the answer for the Bisons appears to be to recruit high school football players from across the country. On paper, that is indeed their best solution going forward. In reality, however, most young athletes are more easily persuaded to go attend a school near to home. This drains the talent pool for out-of-province recruiting schools like the U of M, St. Mary’s and Acadia, who don’t have strong local talent to draw from and have needed in the past to recruit nationally to stay competitive. Coaches, like Brian Dobie, in small populations, are in tough as they not only have to sell kids on their program but also on the idea of moving so far from home at such a young age.

The rule is two years old and the effects are just coming to the surface now. It will be interesting to see how the powers shift over the next couple of seasons. Regardless, the Bisons are armed with one of Canada’s finest CIS football coaches — it just means Dobie’s job just got harder.