Now that McMaster’s football season has ended in heartbreaking fashion comes the most intriguing off-season in recent memory. Filled with questions about whether the simmering temperatures around the team will be reduced or brought to a full boil.
The weekend certainly suggests there’s some serious work to do.
After falling behind Carleton by 25 points on Saturday in their playoff opener, the Marauders — wearing helmets from which they’d removed the school logo — mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback that saw them close the gap to 30-25. Then, just as the miracle was about to become complete and the weeks-long dark cloud over this team was going to lift, the winning touchdown pass flew maybe a foot past the outstretched arms of a receiver in the end zone.
Game over, season over.
“It was very close,” ruefully offers interim head coach Tom Flaxman.
True enough. While it wasn’t the ending he would’ve wanted, it at least brought an end to one of the more tumultuous chapters in McMaster football history. Because the vibe around this team — more accurately, between this team and the school administration — was turning noxious.
A month after head coach Greg Knox allegedly said something inappropriate to an official (for which Ontario University Athletics suspended him one game after a rapid hearing and appeal), McMaster wrapped up its own protracted investigation by firing him on Monday, while offering scant details about what actually happened, citing privacy rules.
Players, coaches, parents and supporters who had been upset about him being placed on administrative leave for four weeks were sour about the move. Doubly so by the timing, which came just days before a playoff game. And triply so by the way the message was delivered by administrators, which many players described as heartless and disrespectful.
“I think this team has been through a lot,” Flaxman says.
On Saturday, the rage that had been gurgling inside the dressing room was ratcheted up a notch.
Prior to the contest, players — who say they’d been ordered to remove T-shirts with messages supporting their coach prior to at least two recent games — peeled the school logo from their helmets. Third-year defensive back Noah Hallett says the decision to do this was made on Monday, right after the firing.
It was as muscular a statement as they could have made and as unambiguous a shot at the university’s administration as they could have drawn up.
“It got the point across,” fifth-year defensive lineman Josh Lolli says.
If that didn’t do the trick, running onto the field carrying two giant cut-outs of Knox’s face certainly did.
How did the school respond?
“It’s understandable the students are frustrated, change like this is challenging,” communications director Gord Arbeau said in a statement. “While the university appreciates and understands the frustration, it remains steadfast in support of core principles and values. There is a need for a leadership change on the team and there is a plan in place to enact that change.
“McMaster is committed to a respectful and inclusive community where students, employees and community members are free of harassment and threatening behaviours. The commitment to this kind of community is the university priority. We are confident new leaders will embrace this approach and share this commitment. Now that the season is over, the next chapter for the team can begin.”
The ongoing differences between the two sides makes it clear that a club that’s been the envy of many schools and a picture of stability for years is now a program in serious flux. Players are unhappy. Some coaches are entirely disgruntled. Parents — who wrote a lengthy letter to school administration, including president Patrick Deane, in which they say “We have no faith or trust that the investigation uncovered the full truth of the matter” and referring to the entire episode as “an embarrassment to the institution” — are obviously upset. Fans and supporters are confused. A lack of trust in school administration has been expressed.
In this mess, the school has talked about launching the search for a coach right away. Even before hiring an athletics director. While that’s generally backwards, there’s one exception to the template that could work. One move that would likely mollify the players, appease the remaining coaches, satisfy the parents and send a strong message of stability to the supporters and community.
Stef Ptaszek is presently working as offensive co-ordinator of the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. They won on Saturday and remain in the playoff hunt. But if the man most closely associated with the Marauders’ glory days could be lured back here — his family still lives in town — this rift might begin to heal quickly and the fear of a protracted spat could possibly be significantly diminished.
He might be the one person with enough cache, respect and lingering warm feelings to get everyone involved to stand down.