Just hours after his University of British Columbia Thunderbirds were knocked out of the playoffs in a painful overtime loss earlier this month, Stef Ptaszek got into his car and pointed it east.
For the next two-plus days, he and a buddy who’d flown out to be his travel companion, drove and talked and talked and drove. There was a lot to consider, after all. The 47-year-old had loved B.C. and had been told he was welcome to come back for another season as offensive co-ordinator. On the other hand, three Ontario universities — including McMaster — were looking for a head football coach. They’d already been in touch. A fourth job would soon open.
“Weighing those (options) out was definitely something I needed to do,” he says.
No decision had been made as he pulled up into his Dundas driveway. He still hadn’t come to a resolution at last weekend’s Vanier Cup where he chatted with UBC coach Blake Nill and explained his situation.
It wasn’t until Tuesday that he really came to the full-bodied realization that he had to be back at the school where he’d had his greatest moments. Which is how he ended up signing on as McMaster’s new head football coach Wednesday morning. And being formally reintroduced on Thursday.
The clinching issue?
People in sports often talk about family. In some cases it becomes a tired cliché. Yet, in this case, it’s legit. His family is literally here in town — they never went out to Vancouver — and didn’t want to move. And walking onto the campus again was like sauntering into his den.
“It does feel like home,” he says. “It does.”
So a program that’s had a trying couple months with the protracted investigation and subsequent firing of Greg Knox suddenly finds itself with a familiar face to get things back on the rails. A face that comes with no baggage and plenty of warm memories.
The positive part of that is obvious. Coaching, recruiting, fundraising and all the other key elements of his job should be made easier by his sterling reputation throughout the Hamilton market and Canadian football community.
His arrival isn’t just good for Mac, either. According to the men he’ll be competing against, having a guy with his credentials back in the OUA makes everyone better by raising the level of the entire league.
“Absolutely it helps,” says Western coach Greg Marshall. “McMaster is very, very important to me (he coached the Marauders from 1997-2003). Even though we’re trying to beat them, he brings credibility and stability to that program.”
“That’s going to raise the bar at Mac which, in turn, forces us to raise the bar,” says Waterloo head coach Chris Bertoia.
“Any time you have CFL-calibre minds that are wanting to coach in U Sports, that’s a great thing,” adds Wilfrid Laurier coach Michael Faulds.
The tricky part? Boy, does he have a tough act to follow. Meaning, his own. Three Vanier Cup appearances and one championship is quite a legacy. One that’s surely going to have people expecting big things.
So how will he do it?
The first thing you can probably expect is a change in the way the Marauders will try to win.
Knox was a former defensive back and a defensive specialist who built a team in his image. In three seasons, his side gave up the fewest points in Ontario once and the second-fewest, twice. It was always a bruising defensive force.
However, his offences often sputtered, never finishing higher than fifth. This past season Mac averaged just 18.9 points per game, 10th out of 11 teams.
By contrast, in the five seasons before Ptaszek left for the Ticats the Marauders never finished below third in offence. That despite often having big leads and pulling his starting quarterback before the fourth quarter. In his final year, Mac scored 44.4 points a game.
Since leaving the school, he’s worked under Kent Austin and June Jones who are really good offensive minds. Blending what he’s done before and what he’s learned, you can expect the maroon to once again become a pass-first, explosive team. This style should appeal to the masses while helping recruit quarterbacks and receivers who’ll want to play in that kind of system.
The challenge will be continuing to attract the elite defensive players who thrived under Knox. All while remaining one of the stingiest sides in the OUA.
It’s not going to be easy. Great a coach and solid a human being as he is, Ptaszek isn’t magic. There are still very good teams out there who couldn’t care a whit about his glorious homecoming and Hollywood-style endings. Marshall, Bertoia, Faulds and the rest may like him but they would like beating him even more.
Those are all concerns for another day, though. On Thursday, having the face of the school’s gridiron glory days back in maroon was enough. It felt like 2011 all over again. And 2012. And 2014.
Who could complain about that?