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Laval’s field of dreams

The university has built a powerhouse football program that is the envy of interuniversity sport throughout Canada. Here’s how


Football has always been a big part of Glen Constantin’s life. He first played the game on the Plains of Abraham, the home field of his team, the Fighting Irish of St. Patrick’s High School. A defensive lineman, he had the size, talent and grades to go further, but there were no postsecondary football programs in Quebec City.

So he left to play for Champlain College in Lennoxville, Quebec, then for the Gee Gees at the University of Ottawa.

That’s where Mr. Constantin made two important discoveries: he wasn’t cut out for a career as a physical education instructor and he wasn’t going to make it in pro football as a player. He decided to try coaching instead.

After four years with Bishop’s University as defensive coordinator, Mr. Constantin got a job as an assistant coach with the University of Houston Cougars in 1995. His dream was to coach in the National Football League, and “Texas was a stepping stone to get to where I wanted to go.”

That didn’t stop him, however, from accepting an invitation from Jacques Tanguay, a prominent Quebec City businessman and sports entrepreneur, to fly home one weekend and learn more about a possible coaching position with the new interuniversity football program at Université Laval, the Rouge et Or (red and gold, the team colours).

“I remember we were standing on a patch of grass and Jacques was saying, ‘We’re going to build a new stadium right here with artificial turf and everything,’” recalls Mr. Constantin, then 30. “I thought, no way. All the Quebec schools were cutting back then. There was no money for anything. But I was so impressed with the people and the program, and my mom and brother are here. I decided to take the job.”

This December, if Laval wins, as predicted, its second consecutive and record-tying sixth Vanier Cup title – the first on their home field’s new artificial turf – Mr. Constantin will add new laurels to a coaching career he never imagined possible. Since taking over as head coach in late 2000, the year after Laval won its first Vanier Cup, he has guided the Rouge et Or to 51 wins in 64 regular season games, six straight provincial championships (seven, if the team repeats in 2009) and a first-place national ranking for five consecutive years. Add to that a 20-6 combined win-loss record in the playoffs in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008, when Laval became only the second team to record a perfect 12-0 season.

Driven by the fans

“Laval is the hallmark of university football in Canada,” says Sonny Wolfe, head coach of the division rival McGill Redmen. The team has a 5-17 lifetime record against the Rouge et Or and hasn’t beaten them since 2001. Worse, McGill has been outscored 227-22 in their last four meetings dating back to 2006. “They are as good as it gets,” says Mr. Wolfe, “and will be for years.”

Fuelled by a $2-million budget and operated from a unique corporate shell, Laval’s rocket ride to the top of university football in Canada has electrified hometown fans. For years, the team has attracted capacity crowds of 12,000, including 8,000 season ticket holders, to every home game. And that doesn’t include live TV broadcasts of its home games – even pre-season – on Radio-Canada and RDS, the French-language sports network, big-league coverage from local media, or the wildly popular pre-game tailgate parties in campus parking lots.

“People here are crazy about football,” says Gilles Lépine, director of Laval’s Rouge et Or elite sports program and co-chair of the 2009 and 2010 editions of the Vanier Cup, which is being held in Quebec City this year for the first time. “Our program has been a huge success. It’s been great for the school, the players and the city.”

According to Mr. Lépine, the main benefit of the team’s excellence on the gridiron has been to raise the school’s profile across Canada and beyond. “Football has become a huge calling card for us, much like it is for Notre Dame or Michigan State, all proportions considered,” says Mr. Lépine. Like those big American schools, he adds, Laval’s football program receives roughly half of the $4.3 million the school spends annually on its entire interuniversity sports program, which involves some 350 athletes – including Mr. Constantin’s 85-man roster – playing on two dozen teams, several of which are provincial and national champions.

Mr. Lépine notes that football programs across North America, both professional and amateur, are keeping close tabs on Laval. That has helped two dozen Laval players to be drafted by Canadian Football League teams in recent years – making the team the CFL’s main supplier of home-grown talent – and facilitated the recruitment of new players into the program. “The best athletes want to play for the best teams,” says Mr. Lépine, a well-known figure in the tightly knit world of elite amateur and university sports in Canada. “Success breeds success.”

If there is one person who deserves credit for Laval’s football prowess, it is Mike Labadie. A physical education teacher and hockey and football coach at nearby St. Lawrence College, he put together a proposal to create a football program at a francophone university in Quebec in the early 1990s.

“There was an urgent need for one,” says Mr. Labadie. He was inspired by the surge of local interest in the sport at the high school and college levels but concerned by the language barrier that prevented many good francophone athletes from making, or even trying to make, the star-studded lineups of the province’s three existing university football programs, all of them English.

“A lot of talented kids were being lost. But to me it was obvious that, if we could get the best francophone players coming out of the CEGEP [Quebec’s junior college] system, we’d not only be competitive, we’d win a national championship in three or four years.”

Mr. Labadie turned to Laval. The only university in this city of 700,000, it had a long and impressive track record in several sports – not to mention a pool of 241,000 alumni, with more than half of them living in the area.

At the time, Laval athletics was emerging from a painful, decade-long house cleaning in which the Rouge et Or program was revamped with an eye to cutting costs and improving athletic excellence and performance. Gone were expensive sports like hockey and speed skating that had no community support and generated little visibility for the school. Existing and reintroduced sports like men’s basketball or women’s soccer were reorganized under a new corporate structure in which clubs were co-managed by non-profit groups run by boards comprised of community members, university officials and student athletes and armed with increased powers and freedom to raise money, oversee spending and hire and fire team personnel.

More than a game

“We became much more business-oriented,” says Mr. Lépine, the director of the Rouge et Or program. “The goal was to open our doors to the community in order to maximize financial support and expert input. But of course the university continues to have the final say on all decisions.”

Despite the changes, Laval rejected Mr. Labadie’s proposal to create a new football program – not once, but twice. “They were afraid that, even if we got sponsors, they’d all be gone after a couple of losing seasons and the university would be left with the mess,” recalls Mr. Labadie.

He happened to discuss his proposal with Maurice Filion, the former general manager and coach of the city’s National Hockey League franchise, the Quebec Nordiques. The team was on the verge of being sold and moved to Colorado, creating both a need and an opportunity in a sports-hungry market.

A football fan whose sons were playing on local teams, Mr. Filion in turn sold the idea to his friend Jacques Tanguay, a high-profile businessman and Laval graduate who was part- owner of several minor-league sports franchises, including the local Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Almost overnight, Mr. Tanguay got long-term commitments from several corporate sponsors for a football program at Laval, providing a funding fait accompli that his alma mater found impossible to resist.

“Everything changed once Jacques got involved,” remembers Mr. Labadie. “He brought in the money and the marketing experience that made it all possible.” The first step was to create a non-profit group and board – with Mr. Tanguay as president, a position he still holds – that was responsible for developing and managing the new football program. 
The university then successfully lobbied for admission into the six-team Ontario-Quebec Interuniversity Football Conference, which included McGill, Bishop’s and Concordia universities, and secured funding from the provincial government, and later the federal government, to build the quality infrastructure and training facilities needed to attract top talent and to field a winning team.

While it was Mr. Tanguay who put the gold in the Rouge et Or football program, it was Mr. Labadie who put the fire on the field. Hired as the team’s first coach, he succeeded from the get-go, as he knew he would, in recruiting dozens of young Quebecers from the province’s French-language CEGEPs. Without a coaching staff, weight room or stadium to use as an incentive, he appealed to the players’ sense of pride as Quebec francophones who would be competing in an Anglo-Saxon sport dominated by English-speaking teams. “Every organization needs a mission,” says Mr. Labadie. “The language or cultural angle gave us all the motivation and purpose we needed in those early days.”

After an inaugural season of exhibition games in 1995 – the highlight was a home win over McGill in front of 7,000 fans sitting on makeshift bleachers – Mr. Labadie, with Mr. Constantin as his defensive coach, led the Rouge et Or to a winning record in 1996, beginning a string of above .500 seasons (i.e., more wins than losses) that remains unbroken.

“Everything fell into place,” says Mr. Labadie. He returned to teaching and was replaced by Jacques Chapdelaine, who led Laval to its first Vanier Cup win in 1999 before leaving to pursue a career in the Canadian Football League, handing the reins to Mr. Constantin. “We laid the building blocks for the dynasty of today.”

The team’s greatest strengths

For Mathieu Bertrand, who was the starting quarterback of the Rouge et Or’s first two Vanier Cup-winning teams, the program’s greatest strengths are continuity and the commitment of coaches. “I got a lot stronger physically and learned to be a better athlete at Laval,” says Mr. Bertrand, now a fullback with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL. “And the coaching staff is so dedicated. At team parties after wins, Glen was already thinking about the next game. We were always ready and it showed on the field.”

Laval’s dominance, however, has led to grumblings by rival programs and football pundits that the playing field is tilted in Laval’s favour. The main complaint is Laval’s corporate approach to football and its big-league budget, which provides the money for five full-time coaches, spring training camps in Florida and numerous perks for players.

“The average football program in Canada has two or three coaches and a budget of about $400,000,” says Darwin Semotiuk, the former chair of intercollegiate athletics at the University of Western Ontario and a four-time Vanier Cup winner as an assistant and head coach of the Mustangs. “How do you expect people to compete with a team that is spending four or five times that amount?”

Others, however, applaud Laval’s success and see it as inspiration and an example for other schools to follow. “It’s amazing to see what has been done in such a short period of time,” says Marg McGregor, chief executive officer of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the 
university-sports governing body. She notes that in addition to excelling on the field, Laval has a stringent study hall and tutor component in its football program, aimed at helping players meet academic standards. That innovation – something Mr. Constantin learned in Texas and introduced at Laval – has helped the team maintain one of the highest academic averages among student athlete programs in Canada.

“They are not a rogue, win-at-all-cost program,” says Ms. McGregor. “They have built a first-class, education-centred team that has raised the bar for university athletic programs to a new level in Canada.”

That’s why Jennifer Brenning paid a visit to Quebec City earlier this year. As athletics director at Carleton University, which is planning to revive its Ravens football team, she came to see and hear about Laval’s program firsthand. “We wanted to learn from the best,” says Ms. Brenning, one of many athletic officials from Canadian universities who have visited or called Mr. Lépine and Mr. Constantin in recent months.

“Gilles and Glen were very forthcoming and willing to share their marketing methods and corporative model,” says Ms. Brenning.” I didn’t see anything that I would not be comfortable with seeing implemented [at Carleton].”

Back at Laval, Mr. Constantin keeps his players sharp by maintaining a strict policy of dressing for the game only the best 45 players in practice each week. “Practices are where the real action happens,” he says. “It keeps the guys competitive.”

His biggest challenge these days is finding and recruiting the best players, a task that has become more difficult now that Laval must compete for CEGEP talent with Université de Montréal and Université de Sherbrooke; the two were inspired by Laval to introduce football teams in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Université de Montréal’s team, Les Carabins, shocked Laval in early October by beating them 28-7, ending Laval’s two-year unbeaten streak.

“I guess we’re victims of our own success,” says Mr. Constantin, who comes into his office early most mornings throughout the year to scan football websites and track players. “But that’s great. The more teams there are like us, the better it is for everybody.

Mark Cardwell
Mark Cardwell is a veteran journalist and author based in the Quebec City area.
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  1. steve desio / April 16, 2012 at 22:39

    With its strong corporate model and its appeal to bring a sense of pride to the francophone province of quebec has spurred two other universite’s, Montreal and Sherbrooke to start football programs for the neglected francophone football player This has driven Laval and the Province of Quebec the top producer of players in the CFL. with its players enjoying successful and star studded careers at the Universite’ level they enter the CFL with the same problems of the language barrier.

    With Sponsors in place and the support of the 8 million froncophone citizens in and around Quebec wouldn’t it stand to be logical to take the corporation to the pro level. Those 20% francophone players in the CFL are spread out over all 8 teams with the same problems they once had at the Universite’ level.

    With a stadium in place already the fan support for a team full of francophone quebec football players would instantly be drawn to want to stay at home in Quebec with the pride of the Francophone community and high level of talented players a CFL franchise would garner the same success on and off the field.

    A provincial pipeline of players from Laval as well as top ranked Montreal and Sherbrooke would do to for a CFL franchise that Laval and now Sherbrooke and Montreal are doing at the Universite’ level at the pro level with RDS showing all of the pro version of the Laval rouge et Or on the CFL level. The numbers would be stagggering for the TV audience and in the stands. A game vs the Anglo dominated Montreal Alouettes would bring profits once unthinkable to a CFL franchise as once was at the Universite level. Having the corporation have a pro and amateur division and promote them together 25,000 seat sellouts would be the norm for both Laval and the Quebec City franchise

  2. steve desio / April 16, 2012 at 22:45

    Imagine the money the corporation and its sponsors could make with an amateur and pro division. The thoughts of building a domed stadium in quebec city for both teams to use in the cold harsh october and novembers would really pack in the fans. Unlike the universite program which draws strictly from quebec city would draw fans from all over Quebec at the games and on TV