After being perennial CIS bridesmaids, the Guelph Gryphons and Montreal Carabins have reached elite status in CIS football.
After losing two of the last three Yates Cups, the once again 7-1 Gryphons finally reached the summit this year, winning their first Yates Cup since 1996. After losing all five of their Dunsmore Cup appearances and being in the shadow of rival Laval, who had won 11 straight RSEQ titles; the Carabins have won the last two Dunsmore Cups and are the defending Vanier Cup champions. Now both teams meet in the Mitchell bowl as the highest remaining seeds left.
Their on field formulas are similar: game changing special teams, strong running games and devastating defences. Yet the similarities run much deeper. Their leaders are two men using their experience in previous management roles to bring a successful standard of operation to their current CIS programs in a short amount of time.
Guelph's Stu Lang and Montreal's Danny Maciocia couldn't have taken more different paths to become CIS head coaches.
However it was a meeting between the two architects and their shared Eskimos history that has forged a mutual respect and helped them independently. Their commonality was they both spent time with the Edmonton Eskimos and were Grey Cup champions. Maciocia was with the organization from 2002-2010, moving up the ranks from Offensive Coordinator to General Manager. As the first Quebec born head coach in the league's history he lead the Esks to a Grey Cup title in 2005. Lang played for the Esks from 1974-1981 and won 5 straight Grey Cups before being successful in the business world.
The single degree of separation was Neil Lumsden who not only played for the Eskimos alongside Lang but whose son Jesse played in Edmonton under Maciocia in 2009. In Lang's first year at the helm in Guelph and Maciocia's last in Edmonton the bond was formed.
"Neil Lumsden was the connector. Each year the coaching staff look to improve. This year defensive guys went to Alabama, the offense went to West Virginia. Before the 2010 season with Neil's suggestion I called him up and asked if we could come to training camp. I stayed with them for the entire training camp. It was interesting to travel with them. I met with him in his office. Danny was very helpful," Lang told me while taking a break in preparation for the Mitchell Bowl.
"I'm not just talking about X and O's. He wanted to know everything we did organizationally. He even spent time with the equipment manager," Maciocia clarified.
Not only did Lang get insight about the organization; he was taking notes on their leader. "He is very well organized. Very detailed. He has that unique mix of being a great coach and a great manager. The other thing I noticed is he is very positive. I don't think I heard one negative comment during my time there."
The consummate builder, Lang was just as intrigued by the construction of facilities as he was the construction of a team. "At the time he was in the midst of building new facilities so I took interest in that. I'm a believer facilities are the key to recruiting and training great players and you can see with Montreal's new locker room he's continued that theme."
Although Lang was there to learn, Maciocia also came away impressed by what he learned about Lang. "He's an astute individual. He's very intelligent. He was very successful before he got into football management. You find with successful people the traits from their success are transferable across fields and situations."
From Lang the admiration is mutual. "Both the alumni and the school should be given credit. They did a phenomenal thing to hire a Grey Cup coach. He's provided a professional atmosphere. Competing against Laval, they wanted the get the very best and it's been proven they did that".
Former businessman Lang believes that thanks to the former CFL GM, Montreal is a modern day CIS business success story. "They do a great job promoting the game and sponsorships. They've managed to make their games matter to the greater population which is something we can learn from across the CIS."
The relationship has been mutually beneficial since their initial meeting where they collaborated on a 2014 preseason game between the two schools. That game will be a reference point for both coaching staffs in preparation for the first official meeting between the two schools on Saturday. At the time not many people would believe a year later the two teams would be one game away from the Vanier Cup. Their place in the Mitchell Bowl highlights the fact that all four lower seeds won conference championships last weekend. From Maciocia's perspective the fact new names are being etched on the trophy is a good thing. "It means that the CIS is healthy. We are going to have ourselves a good league. Every conference has their share of parity. We can definitely use a few more Stu Langs to raise the overall level of professionalism, but with his leadership we are heading in the right direction."
Naturally Lang agrees. "Rightly or wrongly CIS football is becoming more professional. The results are dictating it has to be well run; it has to be well organized not just well coached. There are certainly new competitors. Look at Carleton who is one win away from the Yates cup in year three."
Although the Gryphons method to ascension isn't appreciated in all CIS circles, they have a devout supporter in their opponent this week. "A lot of people are set in their ways. They don't want to think outside the box. I struggle with the fact that a kid from, let's use Montreal as an example. A kid from Montreal is going to Guelph just because they have 8 or 9 uniforms. First they are going to look at football, academics, family considerations, and resources plus a whole bunch of other factors. If you are concentrating on the uniforms you are missing the point and people who are unwilling to embrace change or variety in thinking and approach are probably missing out on getting that kid anyways," Maciocia reveals.
Although Montreal has come by it's success in a different fashion than Guelph, Maciocia has a mutual respect in what it takes to build a winning program. "There are so many different ways to do it. We've done it a little bit different than them. Our three schools have been unified in their support. Our business school has been a big seller. For us, creating themes like family and competition have been paramount. We push those values. If there are similarities they would start there."
Both Eskimos' disciples have transferred their winning ways to the amateur ranks. From Lang's perspective there is no coincidence that he's had success in football after going through Eskimos franchise. "I do reflect a lot on my Eskimos days. They did something phenomenal. Winning five Grey Cups. Coach Campbell and his staff were great, which is why a good number of his coaches went on to later become head coaches. I reflect back to things that I learned from coach Campbell. Along with Neil we try incorporate that and create the "Guelph way" in our program."
When they cross paths next on Saturday one will be heading to the Vanier Cup and the other will be heading to the offseason. Yet both administrators have used their mutual respect for research and development to ensure that their respective programs are raising the level in the CIS for years to come.