Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Huskies in transition period

Expect more changes to come from U of S athletic program

The Huskies football team storms out to the field for a game in September.
    The winds of change are blowing through the University of Saskatchewan Huskies athletic program, and an educated guess makes one suspect the changes haven’t finished just yet.
    In stepping back to take a look at the bigger picture, it appears the wheels were in motion to make changes at the storied Huskie Athletics program long before high profile departures were announced this month. The departures include the retirement announcement by athletic director Basil Hughton on Dec. 5 that becomes effective June 30, 2017 and the announcement that after 33 years Brian Towriss was stepping down as the head coach of the football team on Dec. 19.
    News of Towriss’s departure was taken with quite a bit emotion from alums, current coaches, current players and supporters of the football program. The shock was also felt from alums and current players from the other Huskies teams as well.
    The overriding emotion was one of being upset because of a feeling that Towriss was being pushed out. I know for myself my gut tells me it was a force out too.
    Signs that the Huskies were heading in a new direction appeared five years ago, when the Sheaf – the student newspaper at the University of Saskatchewan - produced a feature in October of 2011 questioning the association local businessman, philanthropist and Huskies football alumnus David Dube had with the football program. 
    In a well-constructed piece, the Sheaf story explores the question of Dube’s influence going beyond being a sponsor and having influence on the team’s direction.
    Fast forward to April 1 of this year, the Huskies were celebrating a very successful 2015-16 campaign during the Huskie Salute annual awards night. During the 2015-16 campaign, the Huskies claimed Canada West titles in men’s track and field, men’s wrestling, men’s hockey, women’s basketball and a national championship from women’s basketball.
    The whole night felt very warm, cozy and inviting. It seemed like everything was in a state of being great.
Basil Hughton, right, announced he will retire as Huskies athletic director.
    Then in July, two of the program’s elite coaches announced they were taking a professional leave of absence for the 2016-17 campaign first in men’s volleyball head coach Brian Gavlas followed by women’s hockey head coach Steve Kook. The announcements were made within six days of each other.
    Joel Dyck is the interim head coach of the men’s volleyball program, while Robin Ulrich is the interim head coach of the women’s hockey team. Both are former players and had been assistant coaches for their respective teams.
    Normally if one head coach goes on a leave of absence for a season, no one blinks. It is a bit unusual for two coaches to depart at relatively the same time and during a period that is getting a little late in the off-season and makes you slightly feel like something is up. With that said, Kook has attended a few women’s hockey games and has been present at announcements for the Home Ice Campaign, which is raising funds for a new hockey arena on campus.
    The big news came down on Sept. 13, which Huskie Athletics entitled a “New Direction For Huskie Athletics At U of S” on a website release. It was announced that on Nov. 1 a Board of Trustees will advise and guide Huskie Athletics.
    The board consists of six community members and five representatives from the university. Dube, who is also a member of the U of S Board of Governors, was appointed as the chairperson. The board reports to U of S president Peter Stoicheff.
    When the board was announced, Dube made it clear change was overdue when he said, “Do you have the same cellphone as 20 years ago? I doubt it. I’m sure you don’t fly in a 100-year-old airplane, or a 100-year-old car. This was a 100-year-old governance model.”
    Usually, something like the creation of the Huskies board of trustees is a process that comes over a period of a number of months. When you consider when the board was announced and remember the mandate for change, you start connecting the dots regarding the moves that were made in July and the ones that came in December along with the formation of the board.
Brian Towriss’s resignation shocked the majority of Huskies backers.
    You start to wonder how much influence the Board of Trustees or a single person on that board really has.
    Will Gavlas and Kook be back? Only time will truly answer that question.
    Greg Jockims took his professional leave of absence after leading the Huskies men’s basketball team to Canada West and national titles in 2010. A year later, he resigned his post in order to spend more time to help raise his young family.
    Will other aspects in Gavlas’s and Kook’s lives move them to consider a similar choice?
    For now, you start to wonder what will be the next major move made by Huskie Athletics?
    The next move might be delayed given the fallout from when Towriss stepped down. The vocal minority that sat in the one corner of Griffiths Stadium heaping criticism on Towriss in recent years seems really small these days.
    The amount of alums that have come forward saying how important the veteran bench boss has meant to their lives has been staggering. A few fans are suggesting they won’t renew their season tickets for the football team.
    Even when I went shopping on Boxing Day just a week after Towriss resigned, I had three people come up to talk to me about him. It even distracted me on a visit I had with a family member.
    Overall, the prestige of Huskie Athletics on the national stage did take a negative hit with how Towriss’s situation played out. The athletic department overall is successful, so how much change does one want to make?
    I am sure there members of the university’s communications department who are choked that the company message track that it was Towriss’s choice to step down was widely rejected. When Towriss fumbled a bit with that question at his departure news conference, the optics showed something else was going on due to the fact Towriss had a long standing tell it like it is reputation.
    There are some, who seem like the minority, who agree with the moves that have been made on the Huskies front. On the football front, there are some that say the Towriss move was the right one looking at the team’s eight straight post-season losses.
    Some want the Huskies to make moves like a professional team or a WHL one if wins or not enough wins are coming. You make a change to go in a different direction and move on.
The Huskies have won a lot of recent trophies and championship banners.
    When the Huskies teams that are still in action resume play in the new year, all of this will be a slight distraction. Due to the pressures of managing basically two full time jobs of being a university student and a university level athlete, players are used to taking things day by day. If romantic relationships are happening, that just increases the day-to-day focus.
    When each team reaches the end of its season, then the future will be more of a distraction.
    At the end of 2016, the Huskies are looking different from the start of the year. Change might be the only consistent as the 2017 calendar year plays out. If the Huskies pile up the championship banners after the changes are made, a lot of the hurt feelings will likely go away.
    NOTES – Saskatoon Express editor Cam Hutchinson was at the press conference when Towriss announced his resignation. Hutchinson’s piece on the matter can be found right here.
    The Sheaf’s 2011 story on Dube’s influence on the football program can be found here.

Message from Stoicheff and Towriss

    It is likely a coincidence, but a message was posted from Stoicheff and Towriss on the Huskies website and communicated along Facebook and Twitter lines about an hour after this blog was originally posted.
    In the joint statement, Stoicheff publicly apologized for how the news regarding Towriss’s resignation was handled. In an eloquently written comment, Towriss said he appreciated the apology from the university president.
    Huskie Athletics has taken heat from a number of different sources about how Towriss’s departure was handled since the news came down on Dec. 19.
    My initial reaction is this will help heal things over time. Initially, there have been some immediate disappointment reactions on social media. With that said, the statement was a step in the right direction and the best course of action the U of S could take at this time.
    The statement from the Huskie Athletics site can be found right here.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.