For the University of Toronto Varsity Blues football program, the road to back to respectability has been a long one. Two years after winning the Vanier Cup in 1993, the Varsity Blues made their last playoff appearance. 18 years later they are still looking for a postseason birth and currently hold the longest playoff drought in Canadian Interuniversity Sport Football.
Greg Gary, a former Grey Cup Champion with the 1986 Hamilton Tiger-Cats, is in his third year calling the shots for the Varsity Blues. He took the reigns as head coach and manager of football operations in 2011 knowing to succeed, he would not only have to get back to basics, but also think outside the box.
His top priority was to add a strength and conditioning coach on site, "That was our first step to get bigger, faster, and stronger," Gary said.
Realizing that the school is known more for its top notch academics than its football program, Gary surmised that the players they were attracting would respond well to a coaching staff that excelled at teaching.
"We almost always get really good students, the teaching side had to be big. We needed to get a player who was a six or a seven to an eight or a nine." he said. "When a mistake is made, we walk through the steps and tell them 'this is what you did wrong'. We decided that yelling and hollering isn't going to motivate this program."
The program has made strides, even though they have sported a 5-11 record over the past two seasons and combined for six wins over the three years prior to that, at its worst, the Varsity Blues went seven years without a victory, dropping a CIS record 49 games from 2001 to 2008.
Gary acknowledges the futility U of T has experienced for much of the past two decades looms large over the program. "History does paralyze us sometimes when things go wrong. When something goes wrong we tell them 'its one play, lets flush' and move on to the next play."
In May, the Varsity Blues announced the hiring of Greg Knox as the defensive coordinator, Knox had spent the previous seven years in the same capacity with the McMaster Marauders where he was part of their 2011 Vanier Cup run.
Knox, who has also won the Vanier Cup as a player with the Laurier Golden Hawks in 1991 as well as two Grey Cup Championships will be a good fit for many reasons aside from his winning pedigree according to Gary.
"Greg's philosophy is to bend but not break, he is not a scheme guy, he is a technician, he covers all his areas, gets the players in the right spots." he said. "He builds a trust, I like his style - he is a real teacher."
Knox may also help attract top level players to the program which would give a further boost to an encouraging turn that Gary has seen recently on the recruitment trail. "One of the signs we are staring to have some success in the recruiting world is getting guys other schools wanted."
In March, offensive lineman Danny Sprukulis committed to U of T. The 6'5', 280- pound lineman from Oakville, Ont., is expected to play regularly alongside the likes of Jason Harrison.
Although nothing has been confirmed, second year quarterback Chris Jugovic could be the possible starter in 2013. He dressed in two games before getting injured last season.
The veteran receiving corps which includes familiar faces Alex Pierzchalski and Paul de Pass will be bolstered by Boris Isakov who transferred from Queen's University.
On the defensive side of the ball, Everton Williams should be healthy enough to resume play on the line after suffering a major knee injury.
On Gary's "to-do list" this season is reducing the number of penalties his team is assessed, preventing second and long situations and also curbing how many sacks his quarterback takes. He will use an exhibition match Sunday versus Concordia as an opportunity to remedy these trouble spots.
"We are treating it like a (regular) game," Gary said. "Teams like McMaster, Western and Queen's they have played an extra season with all their playoff games, we have to get what we need out of it."
Heading in to the regular season - which starts on Aug. 25 against the Western University Mustangs - Gary looks for continued progress from the Varsity Blues. To him, much of that will depend on how they tackle the mental side of the game.
"The hardest part of the transition is instilling the belief you can compete and the confidence you can compete in this league," he said. "I'm excited about watching how our team responds to adversity."