By Howard Tsumura
BURNABY, B.C. − In a manner of speaking, you could say that Milton Richards is a lot like an 1800s explorer and fur trader, someone with the requisite pioneer spirit to lead his company upstream and into a brave new world.
Last November, after spending more than a quarter-century stateside within the realm of university athletics administration, Richards was named the athletics director at a school that sat on the verge of a most historical distinction.
On Sept. 1, Canada’s Simon Fraser University officially became the NCAA’s first international member school, completing a two-year Division II provisional membership process.
That’s why it seems only fitting that the school, named after an early-1800s British explorer who established trading posts and charted most of what is now Canada’s western-most province of British Columbia, is set to step forward into uncharted territory.
That means familiarizing themselves on new and more stringent recruiting and practice regulations. It calls for educating prospective Canadian recruits on the kinds of academic testing required to become an NCAA athlete. It involves discovering on their annual Alaska road trips that there actually is a town called North Pole.
It’s been about so much more than the difference between postal codes and zip codes, or the fact that while both American and Canadian alphabets end with Z, one says “Zed” and the other says “Zee.”
“This has changed the fabric and the DNA of this school from admissions to housing, and it has trickled down from the president’s office to the guy who is taping ankles,” said Simon Fraser head football coach Dave Johnson. “The equations need to be different, the structure and support needs to be different. We are now NCAA.”
And that’s why there were a lot of smiles to be seen this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday when Clan teams hosted their first full weekend of games − in women’s and men’s soccer and football − as a full-fledged NCAA Division II member.
“I have been doing this for 28 years, and I have never been on a campus so committed to a task around athletics,” said Richards, 53, a West Virginia graduate and former athletics director at Division I Kansas State, Division II Cal State Stanislaus and Division III Albany (when Albany was transitioning to DI).
His office sits just off the epicenter of campus activity at Terry Fox Field. “From the day I got here,” he said, “from the compliance committee to the school president, everyone has said, ‘What can I do to help?’ ”
When Simon Fraser University was founded in the mid-1960s, everything about its location and its mission was unique.
As the men’s soccer team from Hawaii Pacific and the women’s team from San Francisco’s Academy of Art discovered as they arrived for nonconference games this past weekend, the postcard campus sits at the very top of scenic Burnaby Mountain.
As the university grounds were being literally carved into the hillside in 1965, Simon Fraser’s original chancellor, Gordon Shrum, hoped that one day the school’s football team would play in the Rose Bowl.
As comical as that now sounds, the regionally famous declaration of generations past spoke to the school’s charter vision under its original Athletics Director Lorne Davies, one that was always different than the rest of Canada.
As far back as the 1960s, Simon Fraser wanted to give its student-athletes a U.S. sports experience along with a Canadian education. On a smaller scale, Simon Fraser did that for decades in the NAIA. Yet its identity began to fracture at the turn of the century after many of its sports, including football and basketball, struggled to find stable conference alignments. So while track and field, softball and other sports stayed as independents, many of its top programs joined their own country’s highest tier of competition, Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS).
Seeking a return to its U.S. roots, Simon Fraser found that opportunity again when the NCAA opened the door to potential international membership in 2008 following the creation of a 10-year pilot program, one largely initiated by its cross-town rivals at the University of British Columbia.
And now that Simon Fraser can compete for both Great Northwest Athletic Conference and national titles, the power of the maple leaf seems more inspirational than ever on campus.
“I think Kristina Collins said it best,” Richards said, referencing a star player on the Clan women’s basketball team. “She said, ‘Any time we play a U.S. team, we’re playing for Canada.’ That is exciting.”
On the day that Simon Fraser was officially pronounced an NCAA school, women’s soccer coach Shelley Howieson took a deep breath.
“I felt like I did the first day I took a team of mine on the field here at the school,” said Howieson, entering her 25th season at the helm. “And I felt that way because it’s a new beginning for all of us.”
Yet while NCAA membership, and all it stands for, is something the school aspired to achieve, there are more pioneering days ahead in terms of educating the Canadian high school athlete on just what it means to be an NCAA student-athlete.
As Howieson explained, recruiting players from the same base of talent as Canada’s CIS coaches, who are not bound by anywhere near the same kinds of regulations, can be daunting, especially since the parents of those student-athletes aren’t fully aware of what NCAA coaches can and can’t do.
“Down in the States, in a Division I-II-III situation, they are all running the same type of rules,” said Howieson, “so it really does set us apart from what is happening in the CIS. If I am recruiting at an event, I can’t just be walking up to every parent I see and having a chit chat. Now, you can perceive that as being an advantage (to other coaches), but the most important thing is for people to start understanding why the constraints have been put in place.”
That said, all of Simon Fraser’s coaches agree that the school is now one of the most well-positioned institutions in the world.
Quante Abbott Hill Smith, a Canadian who qualified to play for Jamaica in last year’s World Youth Cup, has this season joined the Clan’s men’s soccer team, which for much of last season was ranked No. 1 in Division II, despite its inability to compete for the national title.
“This move has helped us in other parts of Canada,” explained Clan men’s soccer coach Alan Koch. “It’s given us a great profile in so many other markets. Quante wanted to play in the NCAA, and he wanted to get a Canadian education. Well, we’re the place to do that.”
Sun-drenched fans gathered around the football field Sept. 8 to watch the Clan open its Great Northwest Athletic Conference season against Central Washington. And although they weren’t thrilled with the home team’s 56-28 loss to the Wildcats, they did delight in something else: getting a chance to see the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup trophy, which was making a tour through the area. It’s a bauble second only to the NHL’s Stanley Cup in terms of sports trophy recognition in Canada.
“I want our student-athletes to graduate at a higher rate than the student body. I want to positively promote this institution
through an athletics program that follows the rules.
And the last thing, I want to win.”
— Simon Fraser Athletics Director Milton Richards
It was a moment symbolic of the melding of two unique sport cultures.
Yet while NCAA sport remains in its infancy north of the border, the Simon Fraser athletics department understands what a huge role it can play in the international marketability of their school.
“The NCAA blue disc means an awful lot to people,” said Mike Renney, Clan softball coach and former Canadian national team and Olympic head coach. “I always describe to people that in amateur sports, perhaps only the Olympic logo would top the NCAA logo in terms of recognition. It’s world-renowned, and for us to be associated with that adds even more credence to what we’re doing on a daily basis.”
It has been an ambitious journey, with the American AD Richards paddling the Canadian Clan into uncharted territory.
“I want our student-athletes to graduate at a higher rate than the student body,” he concluded. “I want to positively promote this institution through an athletics program that follows the rules. And the last thing, I want to win.”
Fitting, especially when you consider that the school’s motto, Nous Sommes Pret, translates to “We Are Ready.”
Indeed, they are.
Howard Tsumura is a sportswriter for The Vancouver Province.