Football backers huddle to revive Ravens

Ten years ago, Carleton’s football program ended with a whimper and Ravens alum have been in a flap about it ever since. In recent weeks, there has been growing support for football’s return, but will it be enough to get the team up and running? David McDonald tackles the issue

Venerable sporting bauble Pedro the Panda could be poised for a comeback-and possibly as soon as 2012. Pedro, emblematic of football bragging rights between Carleton and crosstown rival University of Ottawa, has been mothballed since the spring of 1999 when the woeful Ravens’ football program was sacked as a cost-saving—some would say face-saving—measure. In their final decade, the Ravens generally played for fewer than 1,000 fans per game, won only 13 and tied one, while losing 58, including nine of 10 Panda affairs.

Now, with new funding ideas being kicked around and a confluence of pro-pigskin personalities with the will and the means to implement them, the prospects for Pedro’s return have brightened considerably.

Carleton’s president, Roseann O’Reilly Runte, knows first-hand the excitement football can bring to a campus. During her previous posting as president of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, she was instrumental in reviving that school’s long-dormant varsity program. “Football alone does not make a university great, but there are very few great universities without football,” she told a Virginia newspaper on the recent occasion of ODU’s first match in 53 years.

Runte is quick to place the enthusiastic reaction to football at ODU in an American context, but she is certainly receptive to the idea of bringing the game back to Carleton. “In the end, if it’s something people really want, and they are enthusiastic enough to support it financially, then I believe we can make it happen,” she says, “but I don’t know yet that those two conditions exist.”

Chief among those who have assumed the task of gauging the feasibility of a Ravens return is athletic director Jennifer Brenning. “I think football does a lot of things for a university, particularly a successful program, in terms of engaging the community and boosting school pride,” she says. “It’s a high-profile sport, so there’s media exposure and that sort of benefit, too.”

A football revival seems to have strong support among students as well. A student satisfaction survey conducted by the university administration last November found that 86 per cent were in favour of resurrecting the Ravens. “We don’t have a culture here of football, so I was very surprised with that result,” says Brenning. “The students were very, very positive.”

So are a number of alumni who have indicated a willingness to provide the necessary financial backing. Prominent among them—indeed the catalyst behind the current revival—is John Ruddy, BArch/75, a former Ravens cornerback, now president of Trinity Development Group. Ruddy is one of the partners in the controversial proposal to give Lansdowne Park and crumbling Frank Clair Stadium a much-needed makeover and bring the Canadian Football League back to the city. Work on the stadium, if approved, is slated for completion in 2013, but Brenning says Ruddy’s commitment to Carleton football is not tied to the success of the Lansdowne proposal now being hotly debated. “He’s been committed since before the Lansdowne project was even on the table,” she says.

After a decade of quiet disappointment, the voluble sidelines chatter is welcome noise for Kevin McKerrow, BA/87, a former all-star offensive lineman at Carleton, and president since 1998 of the alumni organization for ex-footballers, the 600-member Old Crow Society. McKerrow’s group made a serious pitch to bring football back in 2000, but was met with what he terms “ambivalence” on the part of the university. “We didn’t feel the will was there at that time,” he says.


The new financial model that could conceivably re-launch the Ravens is based on one employed with great success at Université Laval and several other Canadian schools. In the old days, Carleton supported football out of its own athletic budget. Under the Laval model, the team would be a separate corporate entity, operating independently of the university. “It’s a model that’s basically 100 per cent self-financed,” says Brenning. “It’s the only way we could accommodate a program of this magnitude.” For president Runte, the watchword is sustainability. “If we were to have football,” she says, “we would have to ensure it would be sustainable, that the cost would not impinge on academics or on other sports.”

The first step toward resuscitation involves obtaining commitments for base funding in the neighbourhood of $500,000. That’s where investors like John Ruddy come in. The amount Ruddy is willing to pledge is not, for the time being, public knowledge, although McKerrow lets slip this much: “It’s phenomenal.”

“What we’re doing is approaching some key alumni to see if they’re willing to partner with John Ruddy to provide that base funding,” says Brenning. And, says McKerrow, despite “a great deal of questioning and doubt” among the football alumni, “there are other Old Crows who are prepared to contribute in a big way.”

If it’s a go, the team is looking at an annual operating budget of about $750,000. That would rank it among the richest university football teams in the country. “Yes, it’s a costly program, but, in order to compete, we’d have to support it at the right level,” says Brenning. “Winning isn’t everything perhaps, but it’s very important at least to be in the game. When you get thumped, it’s not fun for anyone.”

One who has had his share of experience with that no-fun feeling is former Carleton athletic director Drew Love, BA/78, MA/84, now running sports at McGill. It was Love whose 1999 “white paper” on sport at Carleton heralded the demise of the Ravens, then budgeted at $147,891 a year. “There’s no question it was a very emotional time we went through to cut the football team in the first place,” he says, “but the reality is no program will survive if it’s only drawing 500 to 1,000 people.

“If you get back into the sport it’s necessary to make a 100 per cent commitment to provide the resources necessary to be successful. My concern is always what happens to a program if you rely on outside funding and then for some reason that funding starts to dry up.”

Proponents of football’s return share that concern, and word has it they are seeking an initial 10-year commitment from prospective benefactors, but even with a well-funded, long-term program in place, Carleton football fans shouldn’t expect a Vanier Cup in the immediate future. “I think we all realize the team isn’t likely to compete for a championship overnight, that there will be a building period,” McKerrow says.

“It’s going to take four or five years just to have a competitive program,” says Love. “That’s as quickly as you can do it, given the nature of football.”

Another unknown is where a reanimated varsity squad would hang their helmets. Ruddy would like to see the Ravens join the Gee-Gees and a new CFL team as tenants of the revamped Frank Clair Stadium he and his partners are proposing for Lansdowne Park.

“The Ravens [could] utilize our professional training facilities, they’d play in a new, fan-friendly stadium, and they’d leverage our marketing and operations staff,” Ruddy told Sun Media. “I think those elements would benefit recruiting and player development and fast-track success on the field.”

Dick White, director of athletics at the University of Regina, knows a bit about on-field success. In only their second season, the Regina Rams won the Canada West conference championship and the Atlantic Bowl national semi-final. The Rams rely on a mixed-funding model, with 85 per cent of their budget coming from gate receipts, advertisers and fundraising activities such as wine tastings and 50/50 draws. The rest comes from the university.

The Rams currently play their home games at Taylor Field, home of the CFL Saskatchewan Roughriders, but will soon shift operations to a smaller stadium right on campus. It’s a move White strongly endorses.

“Students identify with it and it has a better opportunity for support from alumni and the community,” he says. “It’s much better to have a demand for tickets than have ones that go unsold.”

McKerrow stands somewhere in the middle. “We certainly see Lansdowne as a great venue for the program,” he says, “but in the event it doesn’t make it, we have to explore ways to upgrade the facilities at Carleton. The field itself is tremendous, but everybody recognizes the stadium has to be overhauled, not just for football, but for the other programs that use it.”

“Right now,” Brenning concedes, “we don’t have the space to accommodate a full football team—anywhere between 80 and 100 young men. We would be really scrambling for space—for dressing rooms, therapy, storage, training equipment, offices for coaching staff—that sort of thing.” Scrambling for lots of space. The Rams, for instance, currently occupy some 9,600 sq. ft at the University of Regina’s Centre for Kinesiology, Health and Sports.

Figures being tossed around for Carleton upgrades run from $3 million to $10 million. McKerrow says the Old Crows would be part of any fundraising effort. Even then, ex-AD Love remains mildly skeptical of football’s prospects at Carleton. “I think it could succeed, provided the infrastructure is in place,” he says, “but, in the end, it comes down to how many people are really interested in football.”

Proponents of reviving the Ravens remain undeterred. “Barring any big surprises, I am very optimistic it’s going to happen,” McKerrow says.

“It’s certainly in the realm of possibility,” says Runte. “Right now, I’m just listening to everyone.”

Source: Carleton University “Alumni Focus”
David McDonald, BJ/69, is an Ottawa writer and filmmaker. His most recent documentary, Cereal Thriller, was produced for History Television and the Independent Film Channel.

Advocating for football prospects one story at a time.

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