Despite strong showings in recent national semifinals, Atlantic Canada’s football conference – the Atlantic University Sports conference (AUS) – has not sent a team to the Vanier Cup since 2007. As a result, many have raised questions about the level of competition in the conference. These questions are often centred around its size. With four teams, the AUS is the smallest conference in Canadian college football, a status that many feel must change if Atlantic Canada is once again to send a team to the Vanier Cup.
On Dec. 15, 2016, after much speculation and years of discussion surrounding the need for a fifth team, the Atlantic University Sports conference (AUS) announced that the Bishop’s Gaiters would be joining its ranks. The agreement is for an initial two-year period before Bishop’s re-evaluates its status in the conference.
Over the past three years, the Gaiters have had a record of one win and 20 losses against their Quebec opponents. Furthermore, the team has recorded just two winning seasons over the past 13 and has not won a playoff game since 1994.
With only 2,300 students at Bishop’s, making it the smallest school in Quebec’s athletic conference, the school’s football program has been eclipsed with the rise of national powerhouses Laval and Université de Montréal. These two schools are much larger and have expansive operating budgets for their football programs, which have forced the rest of the conference to either invest heavily in their programs or become uncompetitive.
After another frustrating season in 2016, highlighted by a 44-0 defeat to Laval and a 61-0 defeat to Montréal, head coach Kevin Mackey resigned from the team. “Having grown increasingly frustrated with the overall conditions and continued leadership turbulence at Bishop’s University, I am choosing to leave on good terms,” Mackey said in a Bishop’s Athletics press release.
Around the time of Mackey’s departure in November, speculation began circulating that Bishop’s may make a move to join the AUS football conference.
“For us in the AUS we were, for 20 years now, looking for an expansion opportunity,” Mount Allison’s athletic director, Pierre Arsenault, said. “Bishop’s was looking for a solution beyond their current existence.”
One of the oldest programs in the country with a school similar in size and resources available for athletics, Bishop’s resembles its AUS counterparts in all but geography. “Once you could figure out the geography and the logistics of them existing in our league, them as a member really lines up with who we are as institutions,” Arsenault said.
The addition of a fifth team in the AUS means that the season will be extended from an eight-week to a 10-week schedule, with two bye weeks. “The schedule is set up in a way that makes a lot more sense,” Mounties head coach Scott Brady said. “It’s going to give the guys a better chance to stay healthy the whole way through the season.”
In addition to building more rest into the schedule, the addition of Bishop’s into the AUS means some of the quirks of a four-team conference are now a thing of the past. “You are not playing a team three times in a season and potentially playing them a fourth time in playoffs,” Brady said.
The problematic interlock week, which saw teams from Quebec and the Maritimes match up, will also be discontinued. “It’s going to make the schedule that much more competitive because every game is in conference, every game counts toward the conference standings,” Brady said.
Bishop’s presence as the conference’s fifth team also adds stability to the AUS. In the past, the four-team conference faced uncertainty whenever AUS teams went through periods of financial difficulty and faced the possibility of folding.
Along with making Mounties football more visible to potential Quebec recruits, Brady looks forward to reconnecting with Quebec alumni who were instrumental to the Mounties’ success in the late ‘90s. “Seeing the support we have up there is incredible, and I think it’s going to recharge our supporters [in Quebec] to see a game every year,” he said.
Despite their difficulties in Quebec – having gone 1-20 in their own conference over the last three years – the Gaiters are 2-1 against AUS opponents.