Life After McGrath
Stingers Eager for Return to Relevancy Following the Retirement of Longtime Coach Gerry McGrath
Gerry McGrath can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
After 14 years, he no longer faces the constant stress that comes with being a Collegiate Interuniversity Sport football head coach, nor the pressure to succeed in a conference that’s lately been dominated by teams with more money and more resources.
A week has passed since the longtime coach officially announced his retirement from the Stingers, but for a man who has dedicated 22 years to coaching Concordia’s football team, the change will take some getting used to.
“[In the past week] I’ve been as busy as if I still were [the head coach],” said McGrath, who will stay on as a consultant through the 2014 season. “I was out recruiting last night. I still have a lot of duties and functions to fulfill.
“[Over] the next few weeks, I’ve got a bunch of stuff to take care of, [like] helping in recruiting, and I think after that it will start to sink in.”
The Montreal native spent eight years as the Stingers’ offensive coordinator before taking over the head-coaching job in 2000.
McGrath, a former CFL kicker, compiled a 64-66 overall record as the team’s head coach in a career that saw him lead the Maroon and Gold to the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec Conference finals five times between 2002 and 2008.
But those glory days are long gone.
The Stingers haven’t made it past the first round of the conference playoffs since that 2008 provincial championship game—a 28-17 loss to the Laval Rouge et Or—and are coming off a winless season and a combined 2-15 record over the past two years.
“Concordia is a little bit behind some of the other schools with their facilities and financing,” said McGrath.
As he explains, it’s a situation that has played a major role in the team’s recent struggles.
“Those schools [Laval, the Université de Sherbrooke and the Université de Montréal] have dropped a lot of money—I mean, we’re talking about millions of dollars—on their football teams,” McGrath said.
Laval, Sherbrooke and UdeM have made up the top three teams in the RSEQ standings in three of the past four seasons.
“Those schools have done that with corporate money, it hasn’t been school money,” McGrath continued.
“And I realize Concordia is not in a position right now to do that.”
During McGrath’s tenure as head coach, Concordia focused mostly on facility development under former athletics director Katie Sheahan.
“[CIS] football budgets have probably doubled or tripled depending on the team,” said new director Patrick Boivin, who took over for the retired Sheahan in August. “We didn’t change [our budget], we didn’t evolve; we just did the status quo.
“The difference in performance, directly related to the resources fed into the different programs, is clear,” he continued. “We have some catching up to do.”
Under Boivin, McGrath hopes the university can finally shift that focus towards ensuring the Stingers’ competitiveness.
“I think the corporate money is going to come to Concordia,” said McGrath. “I think Patrick [Boivin] and our new president [Alan Shepard] will take care of that and we will get caught up in the very near future, I’m sure.”
Even if the money does come, however, it won’t keep the tail end of McGrath’s coaching career from being considered anything short of a disappointment.
“For me the last couple of years have been frustrating knowing that we didn’t have what we needed to beat or compete with Laval,” said McGrath.
The Rouge et Or defeated Concordia in each of its five RSEQ championship game appearances during McGrath’s head coaching tenure.
Perhaps the most painful of those losses came in 2008, when the Stingers came back from a 13-3 deficit to get to within three points late in the game.
But an interception thrown by then-Stingers quarterback Liam Mahoney in the endzone crushed Concordia’s momentum, and ultimately any hope of the Stingers making it to the CIS playoffs as Laval ended up winning 28-17 before going on to capture the Vanier Cup just a few weeks later.
It’s a game that’s still fresh in Mahoney’s mind.
“You can tell that it hurt [McGrath] when we lost the game,” said Mahoney, who was named Stingers MVP that year and was eventually drafted into the CFL in 2011. “He addressed the team and he was tearing up because he really cares about Concordia and the program.”
The following year, Laval would beat the Stingers 63-1 in the semi-finals. In 2010, Concordia failed to make the playoffs altogether. In 2011, they suffered yet another blowout loss to the Rouge et Or in the playoffs.
Then came the reports of dissent among the team.
Following that 2011 playoff loss, TSN 690’s Moe Khan tweeted that he received a call from a Stingers player who told him, “If McGrath is back, I quit.”
Some players wound up doing exactly that: since 2011, notable departures include those of defensive backs Danny Tam and Kadeem Vaillancourt, and linebacker Chris O’Kill, along with that of assistant coach Spiro Feradouros.
Last year, journalist Rémi Aboussouan said in a special to La Presse that ex-Stingers with whom he spoke told him McGrath “took [their] love of football away” and that “if you didn’t think like him, you were necessarily wrong.”
Aboussouan’s article came on the heels of a 2012 season in which the Stingers’ playoff hopes were crushed by an administrative error that allowed an ineligible player to dress for the first four games of the season. It resulted in the team being stripped of two wins—wins that would’ve been enough for the team to make the playoffs.
Concordia finished 2012 with a 2-7 record, but the team hadn’t hit rock bottom yet.
That happened this past season, when the Maroon and Gold finished 0-8 in a season that saw them blow multiple halftime leads.
“The guys played hard this year; we could’ve easily won four or five games, but we just fell short at the end,” said McGrath.
“This past season was a transitional period for our program as we had a number of coaches and players leave,” adds team captain and linebacker Max Caron. “When we started our season, we had more first year players than we had veteran players; we had a number of coaches who were entering new positions.
“Veteran players like myself understood just how challenging this year was going to be because of the lack of continuity from our past seasons,” he continued.
The Stingers hope to put that transitional period to an end soon as Concordia looks to hire a new head coach within the next few weeks.
“We’re in an evaluation mode right now; we’ll start the hiring processes at the end of the Vanier Cup,” said Boivin. “We’re looking for someone who’s structured, someone who understands the importance of recruiting and who [will] try to bring players into the program for the long term.”
As for McGrath, his retirement from the Stingers doesn’t mean he’s retired from football altogether.
“I had some offers years ago to go coach in the CFL […] the beauty with those guys is they coach hard for six months and then they have six months off” he said. “I may look into doing something like that, [or] I may just go coach my kid’s team in the park to get my football fix every year.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated that Rémi Aboussouan is a La Presse columnist. In fact, he wrote the article mentioned above in a special to La Presse. The original version of this article also stated that the Stingers went 1-7 in 2012 and a combined 1-15 over the past two years, and that McGrath complied a 63-67 overall record as head coach of the team. In fact, the Stingers went 2-7 in 2012 and a combined 2-15 over the past two years, and McGrath compiled a 64-66 overall record as head coach of the team. The Link regrets the errors.
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