RAMS TO THE SLAUGHTER

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By Amit Shilton

Watching athletic director David Dubois proudly boast about his growing athletic department, it was hard not to be optimistic about the future of the Ryerson Rams. The women’s soccer team made playoffs for the first time last fall, the men’s basketball team had a decent shot at qualifying too and the men’s volleyball team was once again cruising into the playoffs.

Less than a week later, things took a turn for the worse. The basketball team lost back-to-back games against the University of Toronto to drop out of a playoff spot, the figure skating team placed last in the OUA finals for the first time in years, and the volleyball team — the school’s only hope at a championship — lost a gut-wrenching five-set marathon to McMaster University.

Three days later, Dubois and interuniversity sports manager Terry Haggerty, showed up for work with no clue it would be their last day at the helm of Ryerson’s varsity athletics department.

“It’s a surprise,” Dubois said that afternoon. “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know. They just terminated me without cause.”

All he was told was that it wasn’t about wins or losses, but “a number of things.”

Rumours were echoing around Kerr Hall’s west wing within the hour. Athletes, coaches, and sports and recreation staff filtered into the therapy room for confirmation. Within hours, the men’s volleyball team had penned a letter in Dubois and Haggerty’s defence, and leaders from virtually every team were demanding answers from the administration.

“We were shocked. No one saw it coming,” said Jim McLarty, the athletes communications co-ordinator.

The decision seems to have been spear-headed by the director of Student Services, Marion Creery, who will now be handling the athletics program until a national search is held in the months to come. That night, she dismissed coach’s claims that the sudden move would affect recruitment chances.

“This is about creating an excellent program and you’re talking about people’s feelings right away. In time, people will get used to the idea,” she said.

Mirek Porosa, coach of the men’s volleyball team, was despondent. “I hadn’t smiled in the last 48 hours (after the team’s defeat). I smiled this morning but lost it when I heard about Dubois.”

For Porosa, Dubois — last year’s OUA president — was the figurehead, a key person in attracting elite players to the university and a friend. Without structure and direction, Ryerson, which is already plagued by poor facilities, will have trouble bringing in new talent, he said.

Porosa said he had lost two potential recruits to the University of Alberta and Dalhousie that day. Things won’t be made easier without the leadership of Dubois. “People like consistency with the programs.”

Glimpses of turmoil were sometimes seen boiling below Dubois’ sugar-coated season. At the beginning of the year, five members of the women’s basketball team quit the squad after coach Sandra Pothier allegedly made racially insensitive comments.

Ryerson’s intramural soccer league saw its season come to an abrupt end in the finals when officials cancelled the game due to excessive violence. And finally, at a basketball tournament organized to battle racism, six security guards and two paid duty police officers conducted bag searches, pat downs and searches with metal detectors — a measure organizers said is not the norm. But the athletic community say the positives far outweigh the negatives.

In an earlier interview with the Eyeopener, Dubois said that without adequate facilities, he had no grand plans on how to fix the state of athletics. He said if anyone would be able to help, it would be the team of architects in charge of Ryerson’s Master Plan. “It’s not a secret, they know we need recreation facilities,” Dubois said. “How that facility comes along, I don’t have the answer.”

For many athletes, Dubois and Haggerty were the answer.

“I want to know why. It frustrates and confuses me. I have to know their (Ryerson’s) side of the story,” said Mark Roe, captain of the men’s volleyball team. In the team’s letter, Roe wrote, “Dave and Terry supported our desires both on and off the court in such an unselfish way that we could not have reached our recent success without them.”

Chris Sutton, the assistant captain of the men’s hockey team, says that Dubois was always there to support the team even during the rough stretches. In fact, it was likely Dubois’ passion for the sport that led to the high-profile hiring of Graham Wise.

“It looked to me that everything was going in the right direction,” Sutton said. “You have to look at the progress all the sports are making and maybe that wasn’t enough.”

Women’s volleyball coach Bob Chollete had been speaking to Dubois about the possibility of making his part-time coaching position full-time. Although the position was never promised to him, it may now be in jeopardy. “My team and I may be a bit worried about me.”

Brianne Koning, a member of the women’s volleyball team, had one message to the university: “Bring back Terry and Dave.”

*****

In 2001, Dubois was brought to Ryerson to build a winning tradition.

In the late 1990s, Ryerson’s hopes relied on the basketball program, which was headed by Terry Haggerty. He took the team to 11 straight playoff appearances until he was promoted to interuniversity sports manager in 2003.

Back then the department’s bankroll was the lowest in Ontario, and management saw little support from Ryerson alumni. Less money meant little possibility for new facilities, forcing soccer, hockey and figure skating off campus. But students were not interested in traveling to watch their teams play — so game turnout remained extremely low.

Since then, Dubois tirelessly worked to convince the community that the athletics program was not a lost cause. In 2004, a proposed referendum to raise student athletic fees to $137 — a provincial norm — was shot down by just more than 500 votes. The money would have helped develop a sports facility at Ryerson, and give students a free membership to the Recreation and Athletics Centre. A “no” campaign launched by student politicians contributed to the loss and Dubois learned his lesson.

“I would love to see sports and recreation grow, but we have to keep in mind that our main purpose here is academics and I respect that, I understand that,” said Dubois.

Today, with more than 23,000 full-time students and 2,500 students participating in intramural sports, the RAC is under severe strain. Only $69 from each student’s tuition goes towards athletics, yet the university doles out $1.2 million for athletic fees. Still, the RAC faces problems of overcrowding and cancelled classes.

Ryerson’s varsity teams may bear the brunt of the funding crunch. The hockey and soccer teams both play at facilities about 40 minutes away from campus. Also, with Kerr Hall Gym often booked for other events, teams find it hard to find practice time. “We practise less than any other team that we play against,” Dubois said.

Finding practice hours is especially difficult for part-time coaches. With the limited funding, only four coaches at Ryerson are full time. Last year, Dubois hired Glenn Taylor as the men’s basketball team’s full-time head coach and this season, Dubois poached York University’s championship coach, Graham Wise, to head the hockey team. Both are making strides in improving their programs, with Wise bringing in top recruits and Taylor’s team missing the playoffs by a single win. Employing a full-time coach in hockey, basketball and volleyball — for both men’s and women’s teams — was one of the keys to Dubois’ vision for the future.

Dubois was also looking to partner with the city to build a sports facility. While the varsity teams would have priority for practising, the facility would also be available to the general community. “(The students) need it on site, their time is limited. When they have the two hours, they don’t want to spend a half hour walking,” he said.

At York University, the school has built several on- campus facilities for student use. Patricia Murray, York’s athletic director, agrees that expanding athletics on campus is tricky business, but says it has to be done. Like Dubois’ plan, Murray said that the key is to partner with different private organizations or the city. She points to York’s strategy in 1996, when the school partnered with a private company to build one of Toronto’s largest arenas, or when the city helped foot the bill for a new track centre. In 2004, the $45 million Rexall Centre was built on campus at York. The state-of-the-art tennis facility features a stadium with a seating capacity of 12,500.

“Those kinds of things have been ways we’ve tried to add facilities,” Murray said. “You have to be creative in finding ways to build sport and recreation facilities.”

Though Ryerson doesn’t have the space York does, Robin Campbell, the executive director of advancement at the University of Toronto, says that a lack of space shouldn’t hinder a school from growing. Campbell has been active in the campaign to build the newly constructed Varsity Centre, which opened in February. Instead of looking for room in the crowded downtown core, the university built the new centre on top of the old Varsity Stadium. The new facility features a 5,000 seat stadium, and artificial turf field, with a dome to allow year-round use. Campbell believes that since Ryerson is gridlocked, it needs to be creative. “(Ryerson is) in the worst scenario in that you’re trying to do it now,” Campbell said. “Ryerson has had a very small site but are buying up buildings, so it may be that you have to buy up an old building.”

Like Ryerson, Campbell said U of T administration lost a student referendum in 2001, which proposed to increase tuition by about $70. Other attempts to raise money included condo developments, putting residences on the site and even sharing the location with the Toronto Argonauts.

The university is now funding the $61.7 million Varsity Centre with privately raised money. The new facility hasn’t solved all of the school’s problems though, Campbell said. The soccer and football teams now have to compete for practice time on the new field, leaving similar problems to the ones it had before construction began.

“What changed? We built this nice new stadium, put a nice new surface in there, nothing changes. They don’t get any better practice time than they had before,” Campbell said.

Just as the clock struck midnight too early on another Cinderella season for the men’s volleyball team, so too did it for Dubois’ dream. After being told of the news, he left to collect his thoughts without clearing his locker, but is still trying to stay positive.

“I’m the one that has to take responsibility. I’m the one that’s in charge,” Dubois said. “This is life. This is the business world. It’s not a slap on me. I am who I am and I did the best job I can.”

-With files from Patrick Szpak

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