Former Gryphon player and coach Kyle Walters graciously agreed to answer some questions for this blog. There may, in fact, never have been a Peter Gryphon and a Gryphon Football blog if not for Kyle. I mean, none of this would have happened if my son hadn’t made a decision five years ago and told me, “Dad, I want to go to Guelph. I want to play for Kyle Walters”. Originally it was not my first choice for him, but after a conversation with Coach Walters I hung up the phone and told him “Go to Guelph”. It was a good decision.
1. Congratulations on your promotion to Assistant General Manager with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I’m assuming that a position like that offers at least a little more stability for you and your family. Was moving from the sidelines to the front office something you had been considering for a while? News reports are already speculating that you may be a candidate for a CFL general manager’s position in the future. Is that something you are interested in?
Hopefully more stability in this role but that was not the primary reason for pursuing this position. I approached the general manager and head coach after the season expressing my desire to expand my role in the organization. I have enjoyed the scouting component of my job and was looking for ways to grow that role. I think as a position coach or coordinator you are working toward becoming a head coach, whereas an assistant manager, scout or somebody in football operations you are working towards becoming a general manager. I have never taken a job thinking that it may lead to something bigger, I focus on the role that I was hired to fill, work hard and let the chips fall where they may.
2. You came to Guelph from a high school [Central Elgin?] in St Thomas back in 1992 to study biology and play football. What was it that made you choose the University of Guelph and the Gryphon football program?
St.Thomas’ Central Elgin is correct. The only school that was recruiting me for football was Western (St.Thomas is 30 minutes from London) and I was 100% certain that the school and football program was not a good fit for me. My physics teacher told me Guelph had an outstanding Science program and I remember watching Chuck Sims on TV thinking how great a running back he was. Those were the 2 factors that led me to Guelph.
[Editor’s note: Chuck Sims [1988-1991] was the OUAA Rookie of the Year in 1988. Sims earned OUAA All-Star honours and was inducted into the Univ of Guelph Hall of Fame in 2005.]
3. Your Gryphon playing career was bracketed by Yates Cup victories in 1992 and 1996. You came in as a RB and finished up as a DB. Your career included back-to-back All-Canadian honours in your final two years. What were the highlights and best memories of your playing days at Guelph?
My first training camp as a 170lb running back was very memorable. Guelph had a ferocious defense that I had to face every day. At night in East residence I would wonder what have I gotten myself into. I tore my ACL in the 1992 Yates Cup win so watching the semi-final loss to Queen’s was very difficult.
The 1996 Yates Cup team won on the road vs Western and Waterloo. We struggled in 1995 and were underdogs heading into the 1996 playoffs, so it was very gratifying for our players and coaches to have success. The 1996 semi-final loss to Saskatchewan hurts less than 1992 because that Saskatchewan team took it to us whereas we had a real opportunity to beat Queen’s. [Editor’s note: Queen’s won 23-16] It should be noted that both Queen’s in 1992 and Saskatchewan in 1996 ended up winning the Vanier Cup.
4. After a 7-year CFL career with the Hamilton Ticats, in 2004 you returned to the Univ of Guelph in a coaching capacity assuming the Defensive Coordinator postion. Two years later you became the Head Coach. What was it like being back at your alma mater and trying to rebuild the program? Certainly the competitive landscape of the OUA had changed from your playing days with the return of Queen’s and Ottawa from the OQIFC and the transformation of McMaster from OUA weakling to powerhouse.
It was great to be back in Guelph and I think any coach would love to have the opportunity to coach at their alma-mater. Western, Waterloo, Laurier were very strong and Toronto finished first in 1992 and won the Vanier Cup in 1993. It was an 8 team conference with 4 teams making the playoffs. Any of the 4 teams had a chance to win the Yates Cup. The addition of Queen’s and Ottawa is the biggest change. A 10 team conference, unbalanced schedule, 6 playoff teams and the introduction of scholarships have changed the landscape of the OUA since I was playing.
5. It has been my contention that even through the lean years, roughly 1998-2006, Guelph was a team that had talent including numerous All-Cdns and OUA allstars. But those teams were sometimes missing a critical piece or lacking in overall depth. I’ve called the 2006 Gryphon Recruiting class – FitzGibbon, Maver, MacDonald, Bomben, Adam Dunk et al – your first as HC, the best in the program’s recent history. [It’s too soon to pass final judgement on the 2011 & 2012 groups.] You followed that up with a couple more pretty good classes.
That’s my longwinded preamble to get to a couple of questions: a) looking back at it was the 2006 recruiting class a turning point for the Gryphon program or is that overstating things? and b) what were you thinking and feeling as you saw some of your recruits and former players – Reinhart, Millar, Androschuk, Baines, Dunjko, Fortino, Dimitroff, Thorn, Richardson, Meschino and others – playing such pivotal roles in the Gryphons’ 7-1 season and return to the Yates Cup.
Keeping Justin Dunk, Adam Dunk and Nick Fitzgibbon in Guelph was very big for our program at the time. Those 3 local recruits could have gone anywhere and had success. It gave our program a sense of legitimacy and showed other recruits that Guelph could be a viable option for football.
I follow the Gryphons every year and obviously with their success this year it was more enjoyable to watch the games online or on the Score. I was very happy for the entire program and it was a great feeling seeing some of the players that I coached still contributing.
6. Sticking with recruiting, as I understand it the recruiting model that the Gryphon football program continues to use and develop grew out of a conversation around your kitchen table with yourself, John Casasanta and Bill Brown. Did you envision what you guys were doing would have a lasting impact?
My first thoughts on recruiting after becoming head coach were this: we wanted to keep the best local talent at home but I realized Guelph was not a big enough city to support the program with enough recruits on a yearly basis. We needed to find an area that would be a recruiting stronghold for us. The Niagara Spears had a strong OVFL program and there was not a hometown University to compete against so it seemed like a logical choice. That is how it got started.
I met with Pete Partridge who introduced me to the local football community and without a doubt my meeting with John Casasanta was the best thing that I did from a recruiting standpoint. Johnny became the point man for all of our Niagara recruiting. He knew all the local talent and was able to build strong relationships in the area. It made my visits to Niagara very efficient, I would be debriefed on all the local talent before showing up. In 2007 James Savoie, Jedd Gardner and Sebastian Howard all came to Guelph and contributed immediately. Getting those 3 players had a similar effect on our program like the Dunk brothers and Nick.
Bill Brown has grown and managed the recruiting infrastructure to the level it is now. It is quite obvious the work that Bill has done from a recruiting perspective is the reason more quality recruits are choosing Guelph.
7. And another decision of yours that continues to benefit this program was your hiring of an inexperienced receivers coach back in 2009. Did you have any idea from what you saw in his first season as a CIS assistant that Stu Lang would be successful as quickly as he has with this program?
Stu came through the office looking to be a guest coach at training camp so that he could improve for the next high school season. After meeting with him, it was clear Stu had a passion for the game and not many coaches were coming through my office owning a handful of Grey Cup rings. Instead of a guest coach, I asked Stu if he wanted to be the receiver coach. The rest as they say is history.
8. I know from my communications with your wife Rena, as well as Gryphon coaches, that you stay in contact with Bill Brown, Stu Lang and others in the program. [ I also heard you were in Alumni Stadium visiting with Gryphon coaches and players just the day before the Winnipeg announcement and kept your big news a secret.] Can you share any of the advice or insights you have offered your coaching successors? What do you see as the challenges for this program going forward?
I just call Stu or Billy from time to time to congratulate them after wins or give them a pick me up after losses. Stu and I will talk about some of the issues that both he and I dealt with as the head coach. Billy and I will talk special teams at length. The special teams coach is usually a solitary individual so it is nice to bounce ideas around. I think Guelph will always attract interest from recruits because it is such a great school and campus. You combine that with the new facilities and a trip to the Yates Cup and you have a recipe for sustained success. That being said, the OUA is very competitive on the field and on the recruiting trail so there is a fine line between wins and losses.
9. What were the greatest games that you were apart of as a Gryphon player and as a Gryphon coach?
I remember the 1992 semi-final game vs Toronto. We won in overtime which meant a trip to the Yates Cup that was being played at the Sky Dome. Playing in that facility was very exciting at the time.
As a coach the atmosphere at the 2007 Yates Cup in Guelph is very memorable. The outcome was not what we wanted but I’m glad the players got to experience playing in a game like that. It is the same way I felt for this year’s team.
10. In my opinion one of the toughest losses during your head coaching days was the 2009 season opening loss on the road at Queen’s, 52-49. Followed closely by the Homecoming loss to Western, 41-39. It seemed to me the momentum and the boost to confidence either of those victories could have produced may have changed that season. What are your thoughts on that 2009 team?
My biggest disappointment as the head coach at Guelph is that I could not build on our successful 2007 playoff run. I was hoping 2008,2009 we would be hosting playoff games and competing for championships but games like you described in 2009 occurred too often. I am hoping that Stu can get the program over the hump that I could not.