By Nicholas Elbers
The April 4 announcement by Simon Fraser University to discontinue its football program effective immediately has Catholic school students, parents, and coaches upset that the decision will limit playing opportunities that past students have had.
Since 2019 dozens of athletes from Notre Dame, Vancouver College, and St. Thomas More high schools have played at SFU and more than a dozen are playing now. Another five were committed for the coming season.
Holy Cross Secondary teacher Conrad Deugau told The B.C. Catholic that as a former SFU player he was deeply hurt by the cancellation and highlighted the impact the change would have on Catholic high school students.
“When you close a program like this, it reduces options for guys who want to play at a higher level,” said Deugau, who is also vice president of the B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association. “Especially if they want to stay local, now they are only left with UBC. The students are disappointed; for sure, SFU was looked at as a great option.”
Vancouver College Athletic Director Scott Vass told The B.C. Catholic he was mourned the loss of the program for his students.
“At Vancouver College, we understand the immense value of a strong football program and the impact it can have on the lives of our players. We have had the privilege of working with many talented athletes who have gone on to play at the collegiate level, including at Simon Fraser University,” he said.
“Football has been an integral part of the SFU community since the inception of the school,” he said, “and has provided countless athletes with the opportunity to develop important life skills such as teamwork, leadership, courage, loyalty, and integrity.”
SFU ended its football program after the U.S. Lone Star Conference that it played in decided not to renew its agreement with SFU in January. SFU has been the only Canadian member of the conference, mostly teams from the American South, since 2021.
Critics quickly pointed out that the school’s removal from the Lone Star Conference would have deprived SFU of a conference to play in for 2024 but not 2023. Most troubling to coaches and players is SFU’s lack of interest in finding the team another conference to play in.
In a recent interview with Canadian football news organization 3DownNation, SFU athletics director Theresa Hanson said SFU did not reach out to any other conferences or to U-Sports (a Canadian sports organization that manages university sports for many Canadian universities).
Citing the “incredible complexity” of the process, Hanson said “It’s never a good time to make a really tough decision, but the university believes they’re making the right decision for the athletes by announcing it now and allowing them the opportunity to move on..”
Numerous individuals and organizations, including the SFU Football Alumni Society, say no key stakeholders, including coaches, alumni, or players were consulted about the decision to cancel the program.
In an interview with Global News, former SFU Coach Dino Geremia agreed the decision was poorly timed and that waiting until students had completed spring training camp to make the decision restricted their ability to apply for other football programs.
“It is completely stealing away any opportunities that the players might have had to transfer to another university,” he said.
SFU’s football history includes a long list of players who went on to play professional football after coming from local Catholic high schools, including Winnipeg Blue Bomber Walter Passaglia, and former BC Lions Lui Passaglia, Angus Reid, and Glen Jackson, who taught at Holy Cross. Deugau hopes the SFU administration can find a way forward to allow football to continue at the university.
Most Lower Mainland Catholic schools have at least one SFU sports program alumnus working in their sports departments or coaching, and Deugau says it would be unfortunate if SFU’s football program were no longer there to help form the coaches and teachers who make up and contribute to Catholic school communities.
He hopes the feedback from players and alumni will encourage SFU to find a way to continue the “opportunity for kids to get a fantastic education playing football.”
The SFU Football Alumni Association was running a petition called “Save SFU Football” to increase awareness and visibility of the issue.
Five SFU football players have applied for an injunction in the Supreme Court of British Columbia to halt the university’s decision, while legendary B.C. Lions punter Lui Passaglia, a Notre Dame Secondary grad, is among 11 members of the SFU Sports Hall of Fame who want their names removed over the school’s decision.
“I don’t wish to be affiliated with or have my prior football career ‘bring excellence’ to a university that no longer recognizes collegiate football as a worthwhile entity or endeavour for young amateur athletes throughout British Columbia,” Passaglia said in a statement.