Better get a move on... Presenting: the Bishop's Gaiters.
In '06: 1-7, missed playoffs
Players to watch: QB Jesse Andrews, RB Jamall Lee, DL Dan McCullough
Head coach: Leroy Blugh (3rd year)
Co-ordinators: Tony Addona (offensive), Ray Gagnon (defensive), Blugh (special teams)
Last league title: 1994
Big ones: Sept. 29 vs. Mount Allison, Oct. 6 vs. McGill, Oct. 13 at Acadia
On the web: ubishops.ca/gaiters
Strengths: Lee, whose dad Orville Lee was the last Canadian to win a CFL rushing title with the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1988, might be the country's best unknown player.
Mountains to climb, rivers to cross... see below.
The difficulty in finding any pre-season information on the Gaiters sends a message: Writing a conventional preview about Bishop's just misses the point entirely.
The Gaiters' lot is arguably more abject than the universally acknowledged figure of CIS football futility, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues. It's just that the U of T is 60,000 students in Toronto, readily accessible. Bishop's is some 2,000 students nestled in the woods of Quebec's Eastern Townships -- literally voices in the wildnerness, to a Toronto perspective -- plus Blugh's team has never gone 0-8. No, it's only gone 1-7 three straight seasons.
With U of T, it's more a case of just choosing not devote resources to football. It's all about wondering how much longer Bishop's even has a choice. The smallest school in Canada that fields a football team has seen enrolment drop 14%, according to a recent Montreal Gazette report, and it faces a severe cash crunch that played a part in a staff work stoppage this summer. All of that could further affect the quality of life amid those neo-Gothic buildings and the ability to attract standout athletes.
Speaking of which, College Colours puts it best, "Bishop's is getting squeezed out of the Quebec recruiting wars and has been for several years." The reality is that Bishop's has more in common academically and socially with an Atlantic conference school or a liberal arts college in New England, but it has to play against much bigger universities such as Laval, Montreal, Concordia and McGill. (Really, the Gaiters present a good example for CIS football realignment.)
It's hard to see how Blugh and his staff can compete under such circumstances. It's a damn shame since Bishop's has had more than their share of moments in football and men's and women's basketball. The Gaiters never made a Vanier Cup despite winning four conference titles from 1986 to '94 and producing long-time CFLers such as Blugh and Tom Europe, but the small schools who have (Acadia, Mount Allison, St. FX) never won back-to-back national titles in women's hoops like Bishop's did in the mid-'80s.
Another BU, Brandon, has always had observers marvelling about how a small school can do so well in hoops, but the Bobcats can't claim national titles for both its programs and don't compete in football. (Eddie Pomykala's men's team won it all in 1998.)
The Gaiters were a big part of helping yours truly become a CIS nut. Like a lot of people, it was a heartbreaking loss that made me a made member of the sports fan mafia. The first Queen's football game I ever listened was a Gaels-Gaiters contest in September 1988 where Bishop's, despite Jock Climie setting a receiving record, pulled out a tense three-point win after Doug Hargreaves elected to go on third down rather than try a tying field goal in the final minutes. To an 11-year-old kid, there was something about it -- the closeness of the game, the anguish in the CFRC announcers' voice when the final third-down pass fell incomplete, that demanded further attention. Bishop's having such a tough team and having a star player from my neck of the woods -- Leroy Blugh, then an all-Canadian linebacker, is from Napanee -- played a big role.
Bishop's-Queen's, the Apostrophe Bowl, was always tense in that era. The Gaiters beat the bejesus out of the Gaels, 49-14 in Kingston (and no, they didn't run up the score -- it was 40-7 at the half) in the second game of the 1992 Vanier Cup season. It was the Rocky III storyline: Take a beating in the first act, learn from it, and get ready to drop the hammer in the rematch. The Gaels drilled the Gaiters in the conference final and went on to win the national title.
Last, but far from least why it's a shame why Bishop's football situation is so regrettable is that a game in Lennoxville, Que., is a matchless experience in this country (although I haven't been to Sherbrooke yet and it's close by, so it could be virtiually identical). If you went into a game there a few weeks into the season, once the leaves had started to turn, it made you wish you could get a job writing copy for the J. Peterman catalogue. The late-afternoon sun would be hitting those silver helmets at just the right angle and the action on the field would be outlined by the brilliant colours of an Eastern Townships autumn. Very idyllic. No wonder Mordecai Richler hung out around there.
Bishop's was an everybody knows your name kind of place, and the games there spun off into stories about rabid fans, which sometimes included the local biker gangs. (The joke was that you could judge the importance of the game by the size of the batteries flying out of the stands.)
That was in a radically different landscape for university football, though -- Laval hadn't got going yet. The Gaiters, who are 11-45 so far this decade, haven't cracked .500 since '98 (when they got into the playoffs by beating, you guessed it, the Gaels in the last regular-season game).
They do have Jamall Lee, who apparently needs that extra letter in his name since he is 'ell on wheels (sorry). Last season, he gained more yards rushing than his team's starting QB gained passing. Blugh, with his Eastern Ontario ties, has given plenty of Kingston-area footballers a chance, which is good to see.
It's not a no-win situation. It seems like a near no-win situation, and that's just as tough to watch even if it doesn't draw the gawkers.