When current Bison football head coach Brian Dobie took the helm of the University of Manitoba football team in 1996, he inherited a team that had struggled for decades. At that time, the team’s Vanier Cup drought spanned 26 years, dating back to 1970. Dobie knew that in order to improve and turn Manitoba’s football fortunes around, he would need to start attracting players from outside the province.
“When I got hired here back in the mid-90s, there was very little national recruiting being done, and nobody was nationally recruiting in the country really,” commented Dobie. “Myself and Blake Nill (who was at St. Mary’s at the time, now with Calgary) coincidently started going national in a big way at about the same time.
“That’s what turned our program around – the national recruiting.”
Both Dobie and Nill gravitated to British Columbia, finding early success. Dobie was able to recruit a fair amount of future CFL players, including Grey Cup winners Will Loftus (safety, Montreal), Jamie Boreham (kicker, Saskatchewan), and Rob Stewart (lineman, Toronto/Saskatchewan).
“You could just keep listing these B. C. guys that were star players for us in the CIS, and helped take us to our first Vanier,” added Dobie. “Once that happened, the ball was rolling.”
The momentum Dobie seized heading to B. C. has continued to grow, as have the locations that he visits, including: Nanaimo, Campbell River, Victoria, Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and Mission.
“We’re by far the biggest recruiter of B. C. players in the nation, outside of UBC and SFU, and it’s paid off,” noted Dobie with a smile.
There are four key areas that Dobie travels to recruit. The first priority is Manitoba, followed by B. C., Southern Ontario, and Northern Alberta. Because Dobie has a rather hectic schedule, highlighting specific areas to recruit is vital.
“We try and identify the best players here in Manitoba, and the best players nationally in key areas of recruiting,” Dobie said. “For example, we don’t recruit in the East Coast. I know there’s going to be some great players out in Halifax; however, we have limited resources, time, energy, and money, so you pick your spots.”
This year, B. C. has offered up a plethora of quality players that Dobie has gone after. “We recruited two or three guys in Edmonton, maybe five or six guys in Southern Ontario, but we went heavy into B.C. and Manitoba,” said the coach.
“It seems that this year B. C. is where we’ve had our most success.”
There are several reasons behind Manitoba’s success recruiting prospects from B.C., but two stand out for Dobie. The first is his connection with football sources on the coast.
One such connection is Jay Prepchuk, who went through national level four coaching certification with Dobie. Prepchuk went on to found a quarterback academy that is considered one of the finest in Canada, and is Dobie’s best source at identifying B.C.-area quarterbacks. A second example is Dino Geremia, who coached at both Simon Fraser and UBC, and has a great connection with Dobie as well.
“Of course, you start tying in with coaches, and developing all of those relationships,” Dobie added.
“There are coaches out there that have been fantastic connections for me, for almost literally two decades.”
Another aspect that contributes to B. C. players heading to Manitoba is their former teammates, who have had success playing for the Bisons.
“Certainly one of the most powerful tools you have in recruiting is players that come from areas—or even specifically from programs—in which you’re recruiting, either locally or on a national level,” commented Dobie.
“A great example is Mount Douglas guys. We’ve got, I think, at least three (Zack Sandulescu, Andrew Johnston, and starting safety Tyler Fong), who are all out of Mount Douglas [Secondary] School.”
For context, Mount Douglas is the number-one-ranked football program in the nation, having won the B. C. provincial football championship each of the past three seasons.
“We were using everything we had to recruit there, and certainly when Tyler went home to visit his parents, he was in there recruiting,” Dobie said.
“Robert Smith, our starting right tackle – we recruited him out of Campbell River, B.C., up the island. He literally took a day, drove all the way down across the island to Victoria, and spent a day with the Mount Douglas guys recruiting, when he went home to visit his parents.”
“Those are examples where you’re using guys, in one case literally from that school and another case from that area, to help influence and recruit,” said Dobie. “They’re going back home, and selling all that to their teammates, and younger guys that we’re recruiting. That really, really helps.”