Q & A with Brian Cluff

From my perspective last month’s Recruiting Q & A with Bill Brown was a successful and informative piece. It was also relatively easy for me and certainly a format I wanted to repeat. The choice of Coach Brian Cluff for a second installment made a lot of sense.  Cluff has been a part of the Gryphon football program since 1982 when he arrived on campus as a freshman recruit. Thinking about it, 2012 will be Brian Cluff’s 30th year with the program. Who better to give us his perspective on Gryphon football.

1.   Congratulations! It was quite an honour for you to be selected as 2011 winner of both the OUA Volunteer Coach of the Year and Football Canada’s Gino Fracas Award as the Most Outstanding Assistant Coach in the CIS. How did you feel about that? What was it like to be in Vancouver to receive the award and be part of the Vanier Cup festivities?

Thank you very much. It was a tremendous honour and I am very appreciative of the awards. To be recognized  for the OUA Coaching Award  by your fellow Coaches is indeed something special and then  receiving the National Award was overwhelming.

Being in Vancouver for the Vanier Cup /Grey Cup festivities was a lot of fun, being able to share the experience with my wife Sue and daughter Alex was great.

I am very grateful to the Head Coach  Stu Lang as well as Athletic Director Tom Kendall of the University of Guelph for their support.

1984 Vanier Cup
Brian Cluff (r) and Blaine Schmidt hoisting the cup

2.   Through the 1980’s and 1990’s Guelph had some sustained success. The Gryphons were the only OUA program to make ten consecutive playoff appearances in the 80s, plus 3 Yates Cups & a Vanier victory. Can this program get back to competing at that level on a sustainable basis?

We had a very competitive Football Program throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s as you mentioned. There is no question that Head Coach Tom Dimitroff  built this Gryphon Football Program and  his coaching  successors continued  it (John Musselman, and Dan McNally).

During those years we had great athletic talent for sure but also that intangible “desire to win”. We were very competitive, even in practice. As a defensive player and then a defensive coach we did not want the Offense to move the ball or have any success during scrimmage, I am sure that this attitude carried over to the games . 

 I think the teams of the 1980’s and 1990’s had tremendous character, a strong work ethic and excellent leadership (players like Jed Tommy, Dan Wicklum, Mike Shoemaker, Mike O’Shea, Steve McKee, Kyle Walters etc) .

The OUA is a very competitive football conference and I believe strongly that this Football Program is heading in the right direction and there is no doubt in my mind that the Guelph Gryphon Football Program will be competitive and have sustained success.

3.   During those years Guelph had a reputation as being one of the toughest teams to play against, the last team that opponents wanted to face in the playoffs. I’ve heard it said that a lot of that toughness came from consistently strong play along the line of scrimmage. I’ve heard former players credit OL Coach Reg Valentinuzzi for instilling some of that toughness. Is their some truth to this? You were a DL guy, who were the coaches who influenced you as a player, then as a young assistant coach?

We did have good athletic talent , as well as some depth at the OL and DL. Coaching certainly played  a big part in our success. Reg Valentinuzzi did a great job coaching his OL players; he was an excellent teacher and was able to get his players to perform. He also provided consistency in that critical position, since he was with the program for many years.

I was very fortunate to have played for Tom Dimitroff  for 2 years, he was all about  hard work, he was tough, and he always “believed  he was going to win” every game, that attitude definitely affects you and influences you .

Another coach who influenced me a great deal was my DL coach in my first year with the Gryphons, his name was Ken Hussey. He was technically sound, very knowledgeable  and a great motivator.  He later coached in the USFL as well as the CFL.

My high school coach Chris Bartolucci [St Charles College, Sudbury] continues to be a source of inspiration for his years of commitment and dedication to the sport of football. He has influenced countless young men and had an positive impact on their lives.

4.   You are the longest serving member of the current Gryphon coaching staff, coaching since 1987 I believe.  You have played for or coached with quite a few head coaches – Dimitroff, Musselman, Brown, MacNally, Arnott, Walters – as well as numerous defensive coordinators. How do Stu Lang and Kevin MacNeill fit in with that group?    

The Guelph Gryphon Football Program is in good hands with Coach Lang and Coach MacNeil and is definitely heading the right direction.  

Coach Lang is assembling all the pieces of the puzzle for the Gryphon Football Team to be successful; recruiting, Stadium, practice facility, field equipment, weight room,  honouring our history/tradition, etc, etc, etc. However, in my opinion the biggest impact Coach Lang has made is with the coaching staff that he is assembling, he is bringing together professional, knowledgeable and committed coaches. The addition of OLine Coach MacDonald this past year was critical. Mike is outstanding and will develop our OL to the level it needs to be to win a Championship.

DC Kevin MacNeil is a very hard worker, he will spend a tremendous amount of time on evaluations and breakdown of film to put together the best game plan possible for our opponents. He has had success as a player and as a coach winning the Vanier Cup with WLU in 2005 so he knows what it takes to win. I enjoy working with Kevin.

5.    I’m interested in what you think of the direction that Stu Lang has taken the program since he took over in 2010.  In particular, since the day he was hired Coach Lang has talked about recruiting outstanding student-athletes and competing for the Yates & Vanier on an annual basis.  Is he on the right track? Are his goals acheivable?

Coach  Lang is absolutely on the right track. Recruiting is critical for the Gryphons to be successful. It is not easy in the OUA as all the Teams are very competitive in the recruiting game, it will take time. Coach Lang has assigned Bill Brown to head up our recruiting efforts and Bill is doing an excellent job, the last 2 classes of recruits are some of the best we have ever had.

1996 Yates Cup
Coach Cluff with his DLs [Jeremy Oxley #55, Bill Vastis #68]

6.    You have coached and developed some outstanding players. Off the top of my head I can think of a couple of All Canadian D-Linemen – Jeremy Oxley and Chris Hladich – that you have coached. Who are some of the best you have worked with? What about some of the “over-achievers”, the guys who did the most with what they had, even if they weren’t the biggest or most talented kids coming out of high school?

Jeremy Oxley was special (6’6”, 380lbs) and this player could move. He was an excellent “1” tech .  All-Canadian 2x , should of won the Metras Trophy.


Bill Vastis – all Canadian – best player vs. the run and pass

Chris Camboia – allstar – tough

Hugh Tharby – all-canadian – very smart player

Sean Hagarty – all-canadian – quick for a big man – great pass rusher



Sean Spender –all-canadian / CFL Montreal – excellent athlete

Mike Hradil – allstar – athlete

Elvio Bomben – allstar – tough, tough,  tough

Dan Noble – allstar – excellent athlete – strong / good vs. the pass and run

Mike Mansell – allstar – great pass rusher

Chris Hladich – allstar – excellent athlete – fast

Grant MacDonald – allstar – tough and very skilled

Many of these players were LB’s in HS and we converted them. They were quite often the best player at their HS and they were athletic and could run. At the HS level most coaches need their best defensive player to play LB, however as they entered university they got bigger and fit best into our system as D-Lineman.

7.    In recent years we have had some good D-Linemen but depth has usually been a concern.  It would seem that is changing in 2012.  Not only do you have all your starters coming back [Mike Millar, Cam Thorn, Kalvin Seilis, Jordan Thompson] but you had several young players who also gained experience in 2011 [Jeff Finlay, Hunter Bowman].  On top of that, you have the best group of DL recruits in the OUA coming to training camp this August.  What can we expect from this unit in 2012 and going forward?  Are there some in this group that you think we be future all stars? 

This year’s DL group has a great mix of veteran experience and youth.

Mike Millar, Cam Thorn, Kalvin Seilis, Jordan Thompson return bigger,  faster and more experienced. 

Young players like Blake McNeely, Jeff Finlay, Hunter Bowman, Chad Sorenson, Kevin Denhollander could push for a spot.

I am very impressed with the incoming players Zack Mallough, Patrick Gerrie, Donnie Egerter, Ryan Searle, and Reza Shayani

Depth will not be an issue.

I am looking forward to the season………………

Go Gryphons.

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