Few Canadian universities have struggled to put together a winning football team quite like the York Lions.
Cross-town rival University of Toronto comes close, at least in recent memory, but it can at least boast of having a more storied history. The Varsity Blues have won 25 Ontario championships since 1898, the most recent coming in 1993.
As for York University? Not a single Yates Cup win. Ever.
The Lions haven’t even won a game since 2007 – against U. of T., oddly enough.
But there’s a glimmer of hope for York. The university has begun making changes to gain some respectability around the league, including new facilities and academic help programs for athletes, but none are as significant as undergoing a national search this past summer to hire a new coaching staff with a history of success.
Through all the applications and auditions, it was former Concordia University’s Warren Craney who emerged with the head coach position.
Craney served as the defensive co-ordinator for seven seasons with the Concordia Stingers, where his teams have been perennial contenders, undone only by the dominant Laval Rouge et Or for top team in Quebec over the last decade.
Now working in a completely different environment, Craney acknowledges the difficulties of transforming a perpetual loser into something more respectable.
“Definitely the biggest challenge is trying to change the culture,” said Craney over the phone. “These kids haven’t had a winning atmosphere in quite a long time. It’s been about four years now.”
And that fact is not lost on its fans. With York’s on-field failure, there has been questions as to whether the university should scrap the program altogether.
Craney understands the notion, but is defensive about the school’s commitment to producing a winning football team.
“The school here is definitely, definitely behind this program,” he said. “If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have went out and done a national search to bring a coach in. They wouldn’t have signed me to the long-term contract they did.
“The kids now know what’s going on,” Craney added. “The kids have seen the improvement since the new coaching staff has taken over. So that’s definitely not an issue right now.”
York alumni living the pro football life
If there’s any inspiration for current Lions players to draw from, they don’t have to look any farther than their backyard.
Three former Lion members are now playing a big part for the Toronto Argonauts: Jeff Johnson, Andre Durie, and newly acquired Ricky Foley.
Both Durie and Johnson shared running back duties last week with the injury to Cory Boyd, and will be called on again this weekend against the Edmonton Eskimos.
Meanwhile Foley has reached a new level as he was named the CFL’s most outstanding Canadian last season while playing for the BC Lions.
He signed with Toronto on Sept. 14 after failing to crack an NFL lineup.
Three quality players, all of whom made it big with York football as their background.