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The end of an era

Just a few more times to yell at incompetent referees/Arthur Ward
Just a few more times to yell at incompetent referees/Arthur Ward

McCrystal has left behind quite the coaching legacy

Author: john loeppky – contributor

In August came the announcement that, on Dec. 31, 2014, no longer would the only head coach in program history be manning the sidelines at Mosaic Stadium. After thirty-one years on the Rams sideline, seven Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL) titles, one Vanier Cup appearance, three coach of the year honours, one transition to the CIS navigated, and many a player positively affected, Rams Head Coach Frank McCrystal would be stepping aside.

McCrystal’s football journey began, like many, with a journey to a Roughrider game.

“I remember my dad when I was just a little squirt, taking me to the Rider Games and watching guys, like Kenny Plain and obviously Ron Lancaster, George Reed. In those days you could actually sit up around the field, they had a little three-foot fence. I’d sit up in the stands with my dad and I’d sit on his knee and we would watch the Riders.”

His playing career began at Campion High School, a school, which McCrystal says, was full of football players.

“Campion High School was a Jesuit, all-boys school. If you went to Campion you played football. 350 students in the school and they had a senior team, a junior team, and four intermural teams.”

He then moved on to the Rams, playing for them from 1972 to 1976, after which he believed he wanted to coach, a career track that he wanted to combine with teaching.

“I thought teaching and coaching was a good combination. That’s what coaches are: coaches are teachers and teachers are coaches.”

In 1977 came a move to Thom Collegiate as a student intern, followed by being hired by Miller Collegiate the following year before a return to the Rams in 1979 to coach the defensive side of the ball. He moved to the top of the Rams’ coach depth chart for the 1984 season, when the team was still a member of the Canadian Junior Football League, a membership they held up until their move to the CIS in 1998. Coach McCrystal remembers the transition as quite a challenging one on the field, but one that the team needed to make; the junior game had become too easy.

“It wasn’t doing us any good to be winning that much and that handily and it wasn’t doing junior football and some of the other teams any good. And so It was a new challenge and something that we thought would be positive for our program.”

Just two years later, the Rams would be playing in the Vanier Cup.

The transition did not come without issue. Challenges related largely to how the team was perceived on-campus.

“It’s been challenging and difficult for us sometimes to fit into the university community. I think that we have and I think there has been many cases when we’ve certainly been welcomed. I know that when we came on there was a great deal of concern about bringing on at that time sixty male athletes of a pretty aggressive and physical sport. I believe that when people give us a chance that we do fit in and when people give us a chance we do also contribute”.

Additionally, junior football at the time had one advantage in that players did not have to attend class.

As Frank says. “Most players, through the late 60s into the 70s, and up to, probably almost mid-nineties would often choose junior football over university football, and I think the common thing about that is that [as a junior player] you didn’t have to go to school.”

The academic requirements have turned from somewhat of a hindrance to a strength of the program. Dick White, the University of Regina’s Director of Athletics, when we spoke to him about the move to the CIS, highlighted the program’s academic transition.

“From very early in the program, he brought on Dr. Don Clark to be an academic advisor and regular study halls for the football team, so that when they leave here, they’ve not only had a good football experience, they’ve had a great university academic experience as well.”

On the field, the Rams boast 27 All-Canadian sections (at last check)— 19 of which were of the first team variety.  This focus, equal parts academia and athletics, has served those who have been a part of the program well.

As fifth-year slotback Landon Buch told us, “Frank is our football coach, for sure, but he’s always told us that [football] is just a means to an end. He is always really focused on our school, because he knows that someday football is going to come to an end.”

Among the University of Regina’s alumni that are currently playing professionally are Jon Ryan (Seattle Seahawks) and Akiem Hicks (New Orleans Saints), the latter being only the second NFL player every drafted directly from the CIS.

In terms of a send off, Director of Athletics, Dick White says, “Frank will never be forgotten and he needs to know that, what he’s done to establish a football program here and I wish him nothing but the best and a great retirement.”

With a playoff run ahead, there are just a few more opportunities for McCrystal to add to his tremendous legacy, a legacy that will continue as the Rams look to win against the Calgary Dinos next week in their first round playoff matchup.

Make sure to keep an eye out for our complimentary video coverage, where contributor John Loeppky and sports editor Matt Wincherauk interview the likes of Dick White, Addison Richards, Landon Buch and of course, Frank McCrystal!

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