It’s 2002, and the Saint Mary’s Huskies of the Atlantic University Sports (AUS) conference have just won their second consecutive Vanier Cup, cementing themselves as the best college football team in Canada for the second year in a row. It was the sixth time since 1966 that an Atlantic football team had won the Vainer Cup, and the fifteenth time an Atlantic team had reached the final, on par with the other big conferences such as Canada West and the OUA. But in the twenty years since, no AUS team has won the Vanier Cup, only reached the Vainer Cup final twice, and not since 2007.
Today, it seems like the conference is an afterthought compared to the OUA (Ontario), Canada West, and the RSEQ (Quebec), but how did this happen? What has happened to the AUS to lead to such a disparity? As usual with questions like this, there’s not just one answer, and we’ll try to explain the multiple factors that have led to the AUS decline over the last twenty years.
The Saint Mary’s Huskies were one of the most dominant teams in Canadian college football during the early part of the 2000s. From 1999 to 2007, the program dominated the AUS, winning the conference seven times including six consecutive Jewett trophies from 1999-2005. This was during a period when the Huskies could genuinely compete with the teams from the bigger conferences.
From 1999-2007, the Huskies won seven games against a combination of Canada West, OUA, and RSEQ opponents, including two Vanier Cup final wins in 2001 and 2002. Meanwhile, in the years they lost out on the Jewett trophy in 2005 and 2006, the Acadia Axemen lost their national semi-final games comprehensively, 31-10 to the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, and then 57-10 to the Laval Rouge et Or.
So perhaps there is the question that the AUS during this period was being somewhat carried by the Huskies? Since the Saint Francis X-Men defeated the Ottawa Gee-Gees in 1996, no other AUS team out with Saint Mary’s having won a game against a team outside the AUS conference. After 2007, SMU won the Jewett trophy for three more consecutive years from 2008-2010, but lost all three of the subsequent National Semi-Finals. Since 2010, SMU hasn’t been AUS champions and, in fact, has had six losing seasons, including a pair of 0-8 seasons.
With the decline of the football program at Saint Mary’s after the 2007 Vanier Cup, the decline of the AUS has also been much clearer in the fifteen years since, as no team has been able to replicate their success since.
So while the fortunes of the Atlantic conference have declined, what has been happening in the other conferences? In the years since StFX reached the 1996 Vanier Cup, the Canadian college landscape has changed dramatically, especially in Quebec. In 1996, the University of Laval in Quebec City established a football program, and thanks to wealthy backing, Laval was able to professionalize its program, and the Laval Rouge et Or quickly began to dominate their competition, and since 1999, they have won 10 Vainer Cups.
Laval’s success has brought about competition from the RSEQ. In 2002, the University of Montreal revived their football program, and the Montreal Carabins have also been very dominant, often being the team to make it out of the RSEQ in the years that Laval doesn’t make it, and games between the two are very competitive. Since 1999, Laval and Montreal have won seven of their nine national semi-finals against AUS teams, and haven’t lost to an AUS team since 2007.
As well as a strong RSEQ, the AUS also has to deal with the OUA. The Western Mustangs have been a dominant force throughout Canadian College football history, winning eight Vainer Cups, including the 2021 Vainer Cup in which they dismantled StFX 61-6 in their National Semi-Final game. To beat Western, OUA teams have to be really good, so just like Laval in the RSEQ, Western’s dominance creates competition.
Teams like McMaster and Queen’s usually have to have outstanding seasons to usurp the Mustangs, and in those cases, they’ll have teams that can also outmatch AUS teams. Since 2002, the AUS hasn’t been able to beat the OUA in a National Semi-Final game.
The AUS has played Canada West less frequently due to travel constraints, but the story is similar. The Calgary Dinos have been West champions nine times since 2008, and have reached five Vainer Cups in that time, winning the final in 2019 and having won all three games against the AUS. Again, their dominance requires excellence from competitors. In the years that teams like UBC or Saskatchewan win the West, they are often very strong programs, culminating in a Canada West record vs the AUS of four consecutive wins since 2009.
So in a time when SMU, the old powerhouse of the AUS has declined, it has also eroded the need for other programs to raise their levels to compete like in the other three conferences. The higher level of competition means that the AUS is always at a competitive disadvantage when they come up against Canadian university football’s powerhouse teams.
So what else do these conferences have that the AUS doesn’t? Like most questions in life, the answer is money and resources. The Atlantic University Sports football conference is made up of teams from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and thanks to Bishop’s inclusion in 2016, the city of Sherbrooke Quebec. These three provinces/cities combine for a population of just under two million, by far the smallest population make-up of any college football conference, and (as it currently stands) is the only conference that has no Canadian Football League teams playing in its primary geographic location.
The stadiums in the AUS reflect this, with the largest stadium in the conference, StFX’s 4,000-seater stadium being nowhere near the size of the bigger (University owned) stadiums in other conferences. With McGill having a 24,000 capacity, Western 8,000, and Calgary 35,000. While some of these stadiums are also used by CFL teams, it still highlights the disparity between the conferences.
The bigger facilities and larger population basis of the other conferences can also make it difficult for the AUS to attract and hold onto talent. The AUS can’t offer the top recruits anything different from the OUA, meaning they will often lose out on potential student-athletes who have been offered places in Ontario universities. To make matters even more challenging, coaches in the AUS will often be snapped up by the other conferences, with the carrot of coaching a team in a ‘better’ conference too much to turn down.
Steve Snyder was the offensive coordinator for the StFX X-Men before leaving to take on the same role as Western for two years before being appointed Queen’s Gaels head coach in 2019, he would go on to be Canadian College football coach of the year in 2021. If the X-Men could’ve held onto him, perhaps Snyder would’ve won that honour in the AUS.
Blake Nill, the legendary two-time Vanier Cup-winning head coach of the SMU Huskies left Saint Mary’s in 2006 after seven seasons in charge, leaving for Calgary who he guided to three Vanier Cup finals before winning the trophy once again in 2015 with UBC. Nill was replaced by his offensive coordinator Steve Sumarah. In 2011, Steve Sumarah, the last coach to take an AUS team to the Vainer Cup, left the Saint Mary’s Huskies and would then take up the head coach role with the Carleton Ravens, and then UBC Thunderbirds.
Since Sumarah’s departure, the Huskies haven’t come anywhere close to replicating their success from the 2000s, and haven’t had the same stability at the coaching position since. Meanwhile, the best coaches in the RSEQ, OUA, and Canada West don’t come over to the AUS, creating a coaching brain drain effect in the conference.
Lastly, the lack of other football opportunities in the AUS and Atlantic Canada has also hindered the conference. Under current U Sports (the governing body of Canadian collegiate sport) rules, U Sports players are eligible to play two seasons in the Canadian Junior Football League. The Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL) is a national junior league that consists of teams from Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, and British Columbia. Meanwhile, Quebec has a separate league of its own known as the Quebec Junior football, effectively meaning that players from the RSEQ, OUA, and Canada West have more opportunities to play football and improve their skills, stamina and football IQ, an opportunity that isn’t present in Atlantic Canada.
There is the Atlantic football league that consists of four teams, and only one of them, the Dalhousie Tigers being based in the same city as an ASU team, the Halifax-based Saint Mary’s Huskies. Even worse is the fact that in the Atlantic Football league, U Sports players aren’t eligible to participate, as the league is set up for Atlantic universities that don’t have U Sports teams. While their peers across the country have the chance to get better with more playing time in the CJFL, AUS sides have to just sit back and rely on solely what they get out of U Sports.
There’s no one simple as to why the AUS can’t seem to compete for Vanier Cups anymore, and as such there won’t be just one answer. It will be a long-term effort from the Atlantic teams to turn the fortunes around, but fortunately, as we’ve seen before, it only takes one team to transform the fortunes of a conference. Whether the factor that changes things comes through recruitment, retaining talented coaches, or playing against a somewhat weaker team from another conference, just like the status of the potential CFL team the Atlantic Schooners, we will have to wait and see.
Subscribe to 13th Man Sports to get email notifications when we post!