Canadian Sports Rivalries – UBC Thunderbirds vs Simon Fraser Red Leafs

Canadian Sports Rivalries – UBC Thunderbirds vs Simon Fraser Red Leafs

On December 2nd 2022, British Columbia’s college football rivalry returns after a twelve years hiatus, as the University of British Columbia will face Simon Fraser University at Terry Fox Field in Burnaby. As well as being a contest for British Columbia supremacy, this rivalry is also a rivalry that transcends governing sports bodies and even football rule books! This rivalry has a history of being UBC vs SMU, U-Sports vs NCAA and three down football vs four down football. So ahead of the latest edition of what is known as the Shrum Bowl, this is the history of the University of British Columbia versus Simon Fraser University – a Canadian sports rivalry that transcends borders.


University of British Columbia, otherwise known as UBC is the older establishment based in Vancouver, and has been playing college football in Canada since 1923 in the Canadian Intercollegiate Atheltic Union (CIAU) and by the early 1960’s, they were most successful team in western Canada. UBC had won the Hardy Cup Western Canada’s premier college football prize eight times, the joint most times with the Alberta Golden Bears. UBC had really been the only university in British Columbia with a football team, but that all changed in 1965, although not in the way you’d expect.

Simon Fraser, a Burnaby based establishment formed their own football team in 1965, but decided to take a different path. It is believe that largely because of school chancellor Gordon Shrum’s love of the American game, that he wanted the team to play games down south and thus the (then named) SFU Clan joined the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).


Gordon Shrum is a key figure for both UBC and SFU. Shrum was hired by UBC in 1925, and played an active role in developing collegiate sports at UBC, including football. He played a key role in the football programme, particularly through being involved in the coaching hiring process and spearheading the construction of UBC’s Varsity Stadium which was completed in 1937. Shrum would serve as a Dean at the university from 1957-1961, the age at which he was forced to retire under UBC rules.


Shortly afterwards, BC premier at the time William Bennett asked Shrum to oversee the formation and construction of a new university and in 1966 – Simon Fraser University was officially opened. Shrum was chancellor of the young school, and as such was able to shape university sports differently than how they were traditionally set up in Canada. Shrum decided that SFU should follow the American model. SFU gave out athletic scholarships similar to what was common practice in the states at the time, the idea was to incentivise local student athletes to stay in British Columbia and despite the controversy in Canada at the time, SFU would become effectively an American (in a sports context) university on Canadian soil.


Despite SFU and UBC playing different variations of football in different countries, there was still an appetite for a battle of BC between the two teams. In 1967, the two teams agreed to play a game in Vancouver’s Empire Stadium, and the Shrum Bowl – named after Gordon Shrum was officially born! Owing to the schools greater emphasis on collegiate sport and the use of American rules, SFU dominated the rivalry early on. From 1967-1971, SFU went 4-0-1 against UBC and even when the game was played using Canadian rules in 1971, the Clan dismantled the Thunderbirds 42-0.

Promotion for the first ever Shrum Bowl (SFU Athletics)

As well as dominating UBC, SFU were enjoying life in the NAIA. The team was an independent member of the NAIA division Two and did as good as 8-0 in 1970, and 6-2 in 1973. From 1966-1977, the team never had a losing record but by the time the next Shrum bowl was played in 1978, the tides were beginning to change. Under head coach Frank Smith, UBC had a 10-2 season, their best season since the nineteen-thirties on their way to winning the Hardy Cup for the second time in three seasons. Although they lost the Vainer Cup that year, they were a program on the rise, and after the conclusion of both the CIAU and NAIA seasons, a record 14,600 fans gathered at Empire Stadium to watch the first Shrum Bowl since 1978.

Gordon Shrum, President Douglas T. Kenny, and UBC QB Danny Smith celebrate UBC’s 1978 Shrum Bowl Victory. (Peter Menyasz)

Played with three-down rules (much to SFU’s annoyance at the time), UBC won their first-ever Shrum Bowl 22-14. With that first win under their belt, UBC began to turn the rivalry on its head, winning four of five bouts from 1978-1982 and even managing to win two Vanier Cup titles in 1982 and 1986, cementing themselves as Canada’s best collegiate team in those years.

The UBC Thunderbirds celebrate lifting the 1982 Vanier Cup (University of a British Columbia)

Once again after 1982, the series was in hiatus, but in January 1987, both schools issued a statement that were committed to playing the Shrum Bowl every year for the next five years. The late eighties and early nineties wasn’t a vintage period for the Clan, from 1987-1996, the team only had one winning record, but were competitive against their provincial foes.

Every Shrum Bowl played from 1987-1993 was played with American rules which was an advantage for SFU. In the 1989 Shrum Bowl, SFU snapped a four game losing streak to UBC to win the game 41-27, their first Shrum Bowl win since 1981! They followed it up with two more consecutive wins to record their longest win streak in the fixture since the seventies. After the 1993 game which UBC won 20-17, the series was tied at 8-8-1, but just as it was gaining momentum, it would be halted again.


By 1994, scheduling conflicts were taking a toll, UBC had to play two games in a week to accommodate the Shrum Bowl in 1993 and due to injury, fatigue and general player safety, the Thunderbirds weren’t willinf to go through that again and as such, the fixture was postponed in 1994. The game would return in 1995 though, and with clearer and more consistent rules. The team who hosted would correspond with the rules played with, so for example when UBC hosted in 1996, there were Canadian rules – and when SFU hosted in 1997, there were American rules. This arrangement remained in place until 2001, when the fixture took on perhaps its most dramatic turn!

Since 1965, the Clan were playing in the NAIA, but things were going to change early into the new millennium. By 1997, many of the schools that SFU sports teams came up against we’re switching to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and when SFU’s application to join the NCAA was rejected, it left the school at a crossroads. Teams were left with either no teams to play against or significantly less, so SFU came up with a hybrid model of having some teams in the NAIA, and some teams playing in Canadian Inter-university Sports (CIS). And so for the 2002 season, for the first time ever, SFU and UBC would play competitive football against each other, in the Canada West division of CIS.


This meant that all foreseeable games would be played under three down Canadian rules, and the Clan struggled in their first season finishing just 2-6. But UBC has been trending downwards since winning the 1997 Vainer Cup and in the first ever all CIS Shrum Bowl, SFU won 22-12! Although now there was two games a season (only one would be designated as a Shrum Bowl game per season) and UBC won the rematch 10-18. SFU built from their 2002 season to have arguably the most successful season in school history! SFU finished the regular season 5-3, including sweeping UBC in both games that season. In the 2003 Hardy Cup final against Alberta, in front of their home fans at Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium, SFU won their first ever conference title by a score of 28-18! They lost the national semifinal to Saint Mary’s Huskies, but it was still a great season for the Clan. A stark contrast to their provincial rivals, who finished the 2003 season with a 0-8 record.

SFU celebrate lifting the 2003 Hardy Cup and being crowned Canada West champions (Simon Fraser University)

SFU weren’t able to build on their 2003 season, the team went 3-5 in 2004 and would lose the Shrum bowl that year, the first of four consecutive Shrum Bowl loses as UBC rebounded to reach the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. The Clan went winless for three consecutive seasons from 2005-2007, and in week 1 of the 2008, they had the chance to win their first game since October 2004 when they played UBC. The Clan stunned their rivals, as they defeated the Thunderbirds 24-10, and then followed it up with a win in the Shrum Bowl and rebound to a 5-3 season. It would be their last winning season in CIS though, as SFU won just one game in 2009 – the Shrum Bowl.

Serge Kaminsky (50) tires to tackle SFU Clan’s Bernd Dittrich (University of British Columbia)

As was expected, SFU weren’t thrilled about playing in the CIS, they went from playing teams in Washington and Oregon to teams in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, significantly increasing the teams travel expenses. But they weren’t the only one, UBC began making noise as well around this time about the possibility of joining the NCAA.


In 2008, UBC recommended a change to the universities athletic structure. It was around this time that the NCAA began discussing the idea of letting non American teams apply for NCAA membership and UBC were seriously considering making the switch. In 2011 however, UBC ultimately decided to stay in CIS, although an BC school would indeed make the switch. In 2009, SFU were given finally given approval to play in the NCAA, and The Clan were once again a Canadian team playing by American rules.

Simon Fraser University’s Bo Palmer rushes against Central Washington during Great Northwest Athletic Conference football action Nov. 5, 2011. (RON HOLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

SFU joined the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in NCAA division II, a conference that featured teams from states such as Washington, Oregon and California, much closer distance wise than Canada West Manitoba and Regina. But despite being back where they wanted to be, SFU struggled to compete in their new environment. From 2010-2019, SFU won just sixteen games, and lost a stunning ninety-one games! Only once has the team even been competitive, when they went 5-6 in 2012, accounting for 29% of all their wins in the decade.

While SFU we’re struggling with poor form in the NCAA, UBC were having to recover from controversy of their own early on in the 2010’s. UBC reached the Hardy Cup final in 20011, but would later be stripped of all their wins that season, as the Thunderbirds were founded guilty of fielding an ineligible player and as such, were fined retroactively given an 0-8 record and a fine. It took some time, but by 2015, UBC had recovered. Led by quarterback Michael O’Connor, UBC defeated Calgary 34-26 to win their first Hardy Cup since 1997, and then went onto also reach their first Vanier Cup since 1997. Against the Montreal Carabins, the game was tied at 23-23 with time winding down when UBC kicker Quinn van Gylswyk lined up for a potential game winning twenty yard field goal attempt. Van Gylswyk put the ball between the posts, and won the game for UBC, delivering the school it’s first Vanier Cup since 1997!

UBC Thunderbirds players celebrate after defeating the Montreal Carabins at the Vanier Cup Saturday, November 28, 2015 in Quebec City. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger)

The two teams continued to have contracting form as the 2010’s were coming to a close. UBC made the playoffs six times between 2010 and 2019, whilst SFU had just sixteen wins in the decade. But both teams would both be affected by the 2020 pandemic and in the case of SFU, some things would never be the same again.


With the COVID-19 pandemic turning the world upside down, the decision was taken to cancel the 2020 U Sports season, and the 2020 Great Northwest Athletic Conference was also cancelled. Furthermore, the political climate of 2020 put the spotlight on SFU’s team name, The Clan. Despite being a reference to Scottish highland clans, SFU playing in America meant that the name ‘Clan’ was often mistaken for ‘Klan’ and all the racial overtones that come with that. SFU took the decision in August 2020 to drop the name Clan, and when the team reentered the field in 2021 they were known as Simon Fraser Athletics. Today the team are known as the Simon Fraser Red Leafs, and as of this season are currently playing in the Lone Star Conference, an NCAA Division II made us mostly Texas teams.

SFU Red Leafs’ receiver Ethan Beselt (top, 4) celebrates with teammates Somto Anyadike (23) and Brandon Johnson Sept. 17 at Terry Fox Field. (Photo by Paul Yates property of Simon Fraser athletics 2022. All Rights Reserved)

So that brings us to 2022, where after a twelve year draught, the Shrum Bowl is coming back! Local CFL team the BC Lions are sponsoring the event, and we can expect a return Shrum Bowl fixture in December 2023. The highly anticipated fixture will be played with American rules at Terry Fox Field this December, the first time SFU and UBC will play fourth down football since 2001.


Although UBC have been more successful in their footballing domain than SFU, this is a very competitive fixture. SFU lead the all time Shrum bowl series with a 17-15-1 record – even winning the last three consecutive games!


Although the fixture has been sporadic, the Shrum Bowl is a beloved sporting institution in Lower Mainland British Columbia. It’s fantastic for the sport in Canada to have the rivalry back, and whether it’s four downs or three downs, the Shrum Bowl between the Simon Fraser Red Leafs and the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds remains one of Canadian Football’s best rivalries!

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One thought on “Canadian Sports Rivalries – UBC Thunderbirds vs Simon Fraser Red Leafs

  1. Not a fan of four down football. Three down faster pace more exciting and electrifying to watch. Four down is dragging and boring in my opinion.

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