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HomeBusinessInside SFU’s game plan to sack football

Inside SFU’s game plan to sack football

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Bob Mackin

While Simon Fraser University said publicly on Feb. 1 that the Red Leafs would play football in 2023, it was quietly drawing up the game plan to sack the 58-year-old program. 

The Jan. 30 “confidential: for issues management” document, obtained via freedom of information, was triggered by losing affiliate membership for 2024 in the NCAA Division II Lone Star Conference. SFU won one game and lost eight during the 2022 season in the Texas-based conference, which cited travel distance and costs, accessibility and competitive history for dropping SFU.

(SFU Football)

“An update will be provided later this year. This season will unfold as scheduled and we will do all we can to support athletes,” said the key messages portion of the document. The team was scheduled to kick-off Sept. 2 against Linfield University and end Dec. 1 versus the University of B.C. Thunderbirds in the 35th edition of the Shrum Bowl. 

However, the confidential document also suggested that SFU did not have any future in football beyond 2023. 

“It is likely that this decision, combined with the financial review, will lead to eliminating football from SFU’s athletics experience. All communication must be delivered with that potential outcome in mind,” it said. “We must work to ensure we are bringing stakeholders along throughout the process, while at the same time keeping a future decision to a tight group of people.”

President Joy Johnson’s chief of staff, James Beresford, forwarded the document to SFU board chair Angie Lamarsh on Feb. 1. That was also the day of athletic director Theresa Hanson and head coach Mike Rigell’s joint statement that said the 2023 season was on, but the department would review the situation, explore options and provide an update “later this year.”

Just over two months later, on April 4, SFU announced the immediate cancellation of the 1965-founded program. It offered to help players transfer to another football-playing school or allow them to keep their scholarships and study at SFU next year.

Five players applied to the B.C. Supreme Court for an injunction aimed at reversing SFU’s decision, but a judge denied their application on May 11. On the same day, Johnson apologized to players, staff and alumni for “the impact and stress” and announced the hiring of a consultant from McLaren Global Sport Solutions. Special advisor Bob Copeland is expected to report in September on whether SFU could resurrect the program, which has produced the most Canadian Football League draft picks.

SFU athletics director Theresa Hanson (SFU)

Hanson’s affidavit against the players’ court application said that SFU made the decision to cancel football “in late March.” While her calendar show does show a March 31 meeting titled “final decision,” she had co-prepared a decision briefing note with vice-provost Rummana Khan Hemani in early March, two days before the team began almost a month of off-season workouts. 

On the final two days of February, Hanson’s calendar shows calls with NCAA, USports and NAIA executives. The following week, on March 6, the briefing note that provided two options: announce immediate discontinuation of football or play through the 2023 season and announce the end of football following the last game. 

Immediate discontinuation was recommended, because the “longer the uncertainty goes on, the more the situation will fester.” 

Hanson and Hemani’s briefing note claimed there were no other avenues in the NCAA, while NAIA and USports rules prevented the Red Leafs from switching. 

“If we are not in a position to say that ‘we will have football’ no matter what, then we must announce the decision sooner than later.”

Next steps included provost Wade Parkhouse meeting with Johnson and development of a full communication plan. 

“A strategic and thoughtful communications approach is required, as there will be numerous implications for football student-athletes, football coaching staff and institutional reputation,” it said. “There will be opposition from football alumni and sports media, and this will be very difficult for many including varsity staff, and other student-athletes with a connection to the football team.”

Hanson also prepared talking points for Johnson to be used at a confidential March 24 board of governors session about football. The document set April 4 as the cancellation announcement day. 

It said the university would uphold financial aid commitments to student-athletes projected at $363,500, with a ceiling of $425,000. SFU would also be on the hook for up to $200,000 in contractual obligations, specifically full-time coaching staff severance ($75,000) and to terminate affiliate membership in Lone Star (US$50,000) and contracts for non-conference games (US$35,000). 

A March 10 version pegged the next fiscal year’s budget to operate the program at $890,000, including $420,000 for coaching staff salary and benefits and $400,000 for travel. The March 24 comprehensive briefing note to chair Lamarsh said SFU teams compete across 19 NCAA varsity sports with approximately 400 student athletes. Of the 99 football players, 66 were projected to return in fall 2023 plus 13 incoming recruits. The coaching staff included four full-timers and 10 to 12 part-time coaches and staff.

Terry Fox Field (SFU Football)

The communications plan included a script of anticipated questions and prepared answers, emphasizing the depleted Red Leafs roster, risk of injury and poor 18-103 record since moving to the NCAA in 2010. SFU’s best season in its NCAA era was 5-6 in 2012.  

The plan included a full “run of show” schedule for April 3 and 4, mapping out who to contact for courtesy calls and anticipating how the announcement would roll out. While it expected the “directly impacted” players and alumni to be “upset/angry/disappointed,” it did not predict legal action nor did it anticipate the Save SFU Football campaign that quickly gained support across the football spectrum and national media attention in April.  

The communications package included a form letter to send athletes and alumni announcing the short-notice postponement to the fall of the April 5 SFU Athletics Awards and Hall of Fame banquet.

“When we gather together to celebrate the best of sports, we will also have time to incorporate a special reflection on SFU’s more than 50 years of history in football,” the form letter said. “We will work with the SFU football community to appropriately commemorate the individuals and teams that made their mark.” 

Videos profiling nominees for the SFU annual athletics awards were published on the SFU Sports YouTube channel beginning June 26. 

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