Friday, 5 September 2014

McCrystal’s legacy extends beyond the field

Frank McCrystal circa 2003
            REGINA - It is almost hard to believe in just a few hours the University of Regina Rams will begin their final season with Frank McCrystal as head coach.
            During the team’s time in the Canadian Junior Football League and now the Canadian university ranks, McCrystal will have spent at the conclusion of the current campaign a total of 41 years with the program.
He spent five years with the team as a player, five years as an assistant coach and 31 years as head coach. The time as head coach includes 15 seasons in the CJFL and 16 seasons in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport ranks. The Rams began play at the university level in 1999.
            While change is inevitable in life, it felt like the 60-year-old McCrystal would be guiding the Rams forever. Before the start of season, the veteran bench boss announced the time was just right to move on and this would be his final season. Outside of a two-year hiatus, he has been with the Rams dating back to 1972.
            Whenever the Rams season wraps up, a lot of people will admit the post-secondary ranks of amateur football in Canada will have lost one its most colourful characters.
            Members of the media will undoubtedly miss his broadsides in press conferences. Who will ever forget McCrystal vowing to run for mayor of Saskatoon. The vow came after the Rams upset the Saskatoon Hilltops 46-27 in the 1997 Prairie Football Conference final at Gordie Howe Bowl in the Bridge City.
            My favourite broadside came on the field from the man who is also nicknamed “Slick.”
            During a practice in the 2000 CIS season, I ended up watching over a couple of children of the team’s directors, and we were throwing a football around. After I made one throw, all of a sudden I got leveled from the side.
            The next thing I heard was, “Sorry Stanks. I couldn’t help myself.”
            The tackler was indeed McCrystal, who for a moment had to show his Ray Lewis-like skills as a linebacker were in good form.
            I was alright, but he was pretty proud of the hit telling the trainers, “You better check on Stanks. I cranked him pretty good out there.”
            The fun stuff will always provide a laugh, but McCrystal’s biggest legacy will come away from the field, and not from the seven national titles he guided the Rams to in the junior ranks and the Vanier Cup appearance in 2000 in the CIS ranks.
            In my life, McCrystal was the first coach that I ever encountered that was a life coach. I remember the first time I walked into the teams old practice facility at Scotty Livingstone Field in 1997, and I had a feeling my life was going to change.
            My purpose that visit was actually do a story for the University of Regina’s student newspaper, the Carillon, about the possibility of the Rams joining the U of R. Even with that focus, the feeling that my life was going to change for the better was there, and it is one of those feelings that you do not get too often.
            I was so impressed with how honest McCrystal was and how comfortable he was in his own shoes. Shortly after that first visit, the life lessons came.
            The start came with goal setting, which the players do regularly for games. They weren’t limited to statistical, but most of the time focused on attitude like controlling your emotions. Sometimes, they were as simple but broad like making smart decisions.
            From there came lessons about how to properly carry yourself, which included small hits in manners like hold doors open for people or getting a good tie to go with that dress shirt you were wearing for a job interview. While these seem like something anyone could teach, few can make these lessons really stick, and McCrystal was one of those few.
            After writing that first story, I ended up covering the Rams for four seasons on various platforms, and I ended up carving out a bit of an extended role on the team mostly helping with game program content and media and communications items. The extended role eventually included running patterns as a receiver on the scout team in 2000 for a few weeks, when the injuries piled up at mid-season.
            During those years, I felt like I went through the biggest phase of personal growth I ever had in my life. They were also some of the best years of my life.
            That growth can be attributed to McCrystal, who has a gift to draw out the best in people. I know a lot of the former players with the Rams during my years at the U of R will agree with that.
            With that said, McCrystal succeeded in one of his big goals with the team in carrying on the traditions and legacy set by his former Rams head coach in Canadian Football Hall of Fame member Gord Currie, who might have been the best life coach that ever came out of Regina.
            As for the present, there is one more chapter to play out on the field. The Rams will open their 2014 regular season at home against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds tonight at 7 p.m. at Mosaic Stadium.
            I will be there and that night will most likely be spent visiting with former players remembering the good old days.
We will all be pulling for the current Rams players to achieve the goals that they set for that game, because if they do that, the scoreboard will look after itself. All you have to do is look at the head coach to know where that belief came from.

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