By Adam Button
Last year, Ryerson women’s volleyball head coach Arif Nathoo did what a lot of people said was impossible.
At Christmas his team didn’t look like it was going to make the playoffs, but his Rams went on a run, winning six of their final eight games to make the playoffs. He had two young daughters at home ad was coaching more than 30 hours a week, but only at part-time pay.
Nathoo’s team eventually qualified for the CIS national championships. It was only the second time Ryerson had ever competed in the nationals in any team sport.
In the quarter-finals the Rams upset York University, a monumental feat. Eight years earlier Nathoo was coaching at York. He remembers Ryerson’s laughable volleyball program.
“Before I came to this program, there was no program. Ryerson women’s volleyball was a joke. I know because I was on the other side at York. They were just concerned with putting a team on the court, forget about the caliber. I wanted to change that, and I worked hard to change that.”
Working incredibly long hours Nathoo succeeded. He reached the pinnacle of his career last year but, looking back, at the way volleyball was treated at Ryerson frustrated him to the point where he thought about leaving.
Nathoo and men’s volleyball coach Mirek Porosa have worked full-time hours for part-time pay for nearly a decade. Today, both are proving they can win and saying it’s time for Ryerson to pay up and give them full time jobs. Nathoo is the only part-time university women’s coach in the province and Porosa is one of only four on the men’s side.
The people in charge of athletic administration told them they don’t have the money. Nathoo said that if Ryerson doesn’t have the money winning is obviously not a priority. He said he was going to quit.
At the University of Western Ontario winning is a priority, but seeing their facilities is a surprise. They aren’t much better than Ryerson’s and in many ways, Ryerson is better off. Ryerson’s Kerr Hall Gym is one of Ontario’s finest. The main gym at Western is a 4,000 seat lecture hall fronted by a basketball court. The RAC is a superior facility to anything at Western, Ryerson also has better gym space and more work-out equipment for far fewer students.
The difference is that everything at Western is a tribute to winning. Fifty foot long halls are lined with trophies; every time an athlete comes to practice they pass a 200-member hall of fame, every inductee complete with a framed picture and write-up of their achievements. Walls are covered with newspaper articles and long lists of financial donors. A picture of every male and female athlete of the year hangs on the wall.
Across from one trophy case is the office of Western’s football coach, Larry Haylor. It’s a Saturday in the middle of January and he is already preparing for next season’s opening kickoff – eight months away. His office is no more than a closet with a view. Painted above his door are the seven years. Western won the national football championship. Beside the dates there is an empty space, a nagging reminder to Haylor that his job is to fill that space.
“The expectations here are high,” he says. “People here are very disappointed when we don’t win and we work very hard at winning. You can never underestimate the value of expectations. They are an enormous factor.”
The team’s offensive line coach, Joe Leckie, is also around the office. “Our whole goal is always to win,” he says. “We ask the guys to put in the effort to win, not to compete, to win.”
Western has all the advantages that Ryerson doesn’t. London, Ont. is a university city, and Western athletics is the big ticket. Haylor says the logistics of the school are perfect – he has an enormous number of students to select a team from and recruits can select from many academic programs. Western has a first-class physical education program which is a favourite among athletes. Most of all, he has a winning tradition and he says that is what’s most important.
With all the big-city disadvantages Ryerson’s volleyball coaches still believe they can succeed. “Breaking tradition is the toughest part,” says Porosa, who is also the team manager, chief recruiter, advisor and bus driver. “You have to have a crazy guy. People with vision, people who are not afraid of making enemies, people who believe in themselves. On the way you are going to have so many obstacles, you have to jump so many hurdles, and if you believe it, you can do it.”
It’s a lesson he learned while playing for the Polish national volleyball team in the mid ‘70s. The Federation International de Volleyball nominated Porosa’s Polish squad as one of the best volleyball teams of the century. He says his legendary coach, Huebert Wagner, is the man he emulates. When Wagner took the helm, Poland wasn’t an international contender.
“It was like here at Ryerson, they didn’t have a system,” Porosa says. “They didn’t have the money, they just got a number of players and a little more money and they just went for it.”
Two years before the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics Wagner predicted his team would win the gold medal. The team hadn’t even qualified yet. “He just selected the people and said ‘I’m going to win it.’ Right away he had 60 per cent of the coaches against him, but he didn’t listen,” Porosa says.
“He came up with a totally new program of preparation which I was a part of. Conditioning from Russia, and a combination of the finesse of the Japanese style… he introduced the backrow attack. He mixed youthfulness with experience. And he did a tremendous amount of work, countless hours. And it paid off.”
With a few lucky breaks Wagner had backed up his promise, beating the U.S.S.R. in the final. Porosa never got a gold medal. He was one of the final cuts.
Now Porosa dreams of winning a national championship for Ryerson, perhaps a loftier goal considering the Rams barely had a team when he was hired eight years ago. When he got to the first practice, only five players showed up. He made the playoffs that year and the next year he was named OUA East coach of the year.
Now, his team is on the verge of becoming a powerhouse. He says he just needs one or two more impact players. But he doesn’t have the time to properly recruit. If he was a full-time coach he says he would get involved in developmental programs like full-time women’s basketball coach Sandy Pothier.
He says that as his team gets better he gets closer to becoming a full-time coach.
This year, he worked out a deal that allows him to run his Shiatsu massage therapy business at Ryerson two days a week, a step towards his full-time goal and an arrangement that allows him to be at the school more often.
“I think it’s a process and it will happen at some point,” he says.
In the meantime, Porosa is more concerned with the attitude of the university. On Mondays and Thursdays only half his team can come to practice because they have classes. He thinks that if Ryerson took athletics more seriously they would find a way for athletes to be available for all their practices.
He also wants his athletes to feel valued. “This is the time where we have a group of people that can make Ryerson proud and feel good about ourselves. They might graduate and feel associated with the program, because in the past they have left the program with a lot of negative memories and constant struggles and a lack of support. They didn’t feel appreciated, they didn’t feel like they were doing it for the school, they felt like they were doing it for themselves.”
Dave Dubois, Ryerson’s athletic director, admits that it would be more beneficial for the volleyball program to have full-time coaches and says that Porosa and Nathoo “probably deserve” the positions. But he has never made the request to higher administration.
“They probably do as much work as full-time coach. You look at both of them, they are here all the time… That’s a lot of commitment for our coaches and I commend them. They do a great job. My feeling is that in our budget, we just don’t have the funding.”
Dubois says he understands Porosa’s concerns about the attitude of the school. Dubois’ arrival at the school in August 2001 coincided with Ryerson’s recent athletic success, but instead of talking about full-time coaches he talks about, “putting a good product on the floor,” about “competitive teams,” and about “a good experience for our student athletes.”
On the sidelines at the national championships, Nathoo believed that if athletics were a priority, he would get a full-time position.
“I think a full-time coach first of all displays to everyone that athletes are taken seriously. If the administration is looking for full-time coaches… that says to people and to student athletes that they are taking athletics very seriously or taking that sport very seriously and they expect winning.”
Dubois flew to the national championships in Quebec City last year. He saw that Nathoo had to take a week off from his full-time job as a Grade 7 and 8 teacher to coach the Rams.
Nathoo told Dubois he wanted a full-time job – he had hardly seen his wife and two young daughters all season.
Nathoo wanted to work out a compromise with Ryerson. Besides coaching, he could teach a few classes at Ryerson, something he is qualified to do because he has a Master’s degree in exercise and health education. He knew administration could make it happen.
Dubois told him it wasn’t possible, but preached patience.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Dubois says. “The program has to be built on a solid foundation.”
Dubois convinced him to stay, but Nathoo still insists that if Ryerson wants a volleyball empire, it has to be built on full-time coaching.
“I could have just left knowing that I brought a program that was in last and brought it up to respectable standards. I still wanted the banner though and that’s one of the reasons I came back.”
“They are trying to get a full-time job, I know they are trying,” says Nathoo, but he can’t wait forever. If anyone deserves a shot at full-time coaching it’s him.
“I think I can do something,” he says, “but it’s the direction they want to go.”