By Jon Roe
This is only the fourth season for the Dinos football program under head coach Blake Nill, but the team has already surfaced as the cream of the Canada West crop.
The Dinos are ranked third overall in the nation and are tops in their conference at 3-1 midway through the season.
It’s no wonder then that he managed to pull some key players from Saint Mary’s University when he left and that he continues to be one of the top recruiters in the country.
“You want to play for him,” says defensive lineman Deji Oduwole. “No matter what it is, no matter how down you are, you want to play for him. Even when we lost to Laval last season [59-10 in the national semi-final], during that half time speech, he just really made us want to play for him and keep going. He’s a motivational coach and I’m really happy to play for him.”
Oduwole, along with fellow fourth-years linebacker Andrea Bonaventura and defensive lineman Brandon Rockhill, jumped ship from Saint Mary’s after Nill left to join the Dinos for the 2006 season. Defensive back Steve Truzak made the move a year later and just this year quarterback Erik Glavic, who only played one game for Nill in 2005 at Saint Mary’s, trekked west.
“He’s a great coach and he knew how to win,” says Oduwole. “When I spoke to him after he left, and he told me that within two or three years we were going to win a Vanier Cup, I really believed what he was saying. You see now we have a Vanier Cup-type team. The man’s a man of his word.”
Nill was the head coach of the SMU Huskies from 1998 to 2005. During that time, he compiled a 49-15 record in the regular season and a 12Â-5 playoff record. The Huskies were Atlantic University Sport champions six straight times (1999Â-2004) and Vanier Cup champions twice (2001, 2002).
“I knew his track record, what he does as a coach is a great thing,” says Bonaventura. “I knew if I came here, there’d be a good chance I’d get to go to the Vanier Cup.”
For potential recruits, it’s not just about Nill’s success. He addresses them personally and honestly and makes sure they know exactly how they’ll fit in with the team. “I think the reason I can recruit well is that I don’t pull punches with recruiting,” Nill says. “I try to be up front and honest with the individual, the parents, the coaches — everybody. Sometimes you lose a kid because maybe you say the wrong thing, but at least in my mind I don’t have to worry about what I said because I know that right from the first time I talk to a kid, I’ll approach him and I’ll indicate to him how I feel he is as a player, how he is as a person, how I think he’ll fit in and I think everyone respects that and responds to that.”
The players agree.
“He tells you how it is; he tells you straight,” says Truzak, who played for Nill for two years at SMU while he finished his undergraduate degree. “You do your job and you work hard — he says you’re going to get on the field, you’ll get on the field. The best player plays.”
Nill admits that he has lost a few great athletes because he wouldn’t guarantee a starting spot or a certain amount of playing time, but he is confident that his method of developing players and building programs works.
And why shouldn’t he be. Before Nill joined the Dinos, the team hadn’t won a playoff game since winning the Vanier Cup in 1995. Nill just evened his record as Dinos head coach at 14-14 and won two playoff games last year en route to a Hardy Cup as Canada West champions.
He promised big results and so far he’s delivered. Given his track record, that shouldn’t be shocking.
“The biggest shock for me was when I got off the plane going to Saint Mary’s for the first time, ’cause he’s a giant,” says Rockhill.
“My brother told me how big he was, but I didn’t really know,” agrees Oduwole. “I stepped out of the car and greeted him and the man’s massive. He has really big hands, also. It was kind of a shock.”
He might give people a bit of a jolt the first time they meet in person, but he’s proven time and time again that he isn’t just a flash in the pan. Under Nill, the Dinos have become a top destination for football players across the country and are staring down more success. The players who have followed Nill across Canada are more than satisfied with the Nill experience so far.
“It’s been great,” says Bonaventura. “He’s a great coach, good person, good friend and if I had a chance to do it all over again, I would’ve done the exact same thing.”