Coaching continuity vital to success of Gaels Athletics

Queen’s Athletics and Recreation must give young coaches time to get their feet wet

Pat Sheahan is entering his 12th season as head coach of the football team. He led the Gaels to a Vanier Cup title in 2009.
Pat Sheahan is entering his 12th season as head coach of the football team. He led the Gaels to a Vanier Cup title in 2009.
Dave McDowell has been the head coach of the women's soccer team since 1988. He won a national championship last fall.
Dave McDowell has been the head coach of the women's soccer team since 1988. He won a national championship last fall.

Queen’s most recent national championship teams have a common denominator.

Their coaches have been at Queen’s for over 10 years. Pat Sheahan coached the football team for a decade before the Gaels won the Vanier Cup in 2009, while Dave McDowell led the women’s soccer team to a national championship last fall after 22 years as head coach.

The importance of coaching longevity extends across the sports world. But there are certain challenges that are unique to CIS sport. In a climate where there are significant roster changes every year, with key players graduating and new recruits coming in, an experienced coaching staff is often the only source of stability and continuity.

Men’s basketball guard Brett Whitfield is heading into his third season with the team and he’s playing under his third head coach. This means that he will likely once again be part of a team that will be starting from square one. The team will need to implement a core foundation before even considering success.

In recent years, the impatience of Queen’s Athletics and Recreation has prevented these foundations from being laid. The Athletics department has often opted to replace young, hungry alumni for bigger names who are unfamiliar with Queen’s sports. In 2007, Queen’s released rookie coach Chris Gencarelli after he led the men’s soccer team to an OUA bronze medal. They brought in Carlo Cannovan, a more experienced name, only to get rid of him two years later. Athletics conducted an application process in early 2010 and chose to reinstate Gencarelli.

This spring, Queen’s didn’t keep men’s basketball head coach Duncan Cowen, a rookie head coach who had a combined nine years of playing and coaching experience with the Gaels. The team’s new coach, Steven Barrie, has a bigger reputation, but has little experience coaching CIS men’s basketball and no experience at Queen’s. It is an eerily similar appointment to Cannovan.

Whitfield said he’s been impressed with Barrie. But the guard conceded that it will take time before results come.

“The goal is obviously to win, but whether we will be there next year is tough to tell,” Whitfield said. “I think that [Barrie] is a great coach, and that it’s going really well. But it will take time.”

Instead of being impatient with young coaches on losing teams, Athletics should look at its winning teams and learn from them. Pat Sheahan is set to begin his 12th season as head coach of the Queen’s football team.

Queen’s football has a stable system in place because Sheahan is an expert in university football. He knows about admission criteria for recruits; he knows how to engage alumni; he understands the unique challenges facing student athletes; and he’s able to prepare his players to win football games.

“Program continuity is important for success,” he said. “We have a consistent voice, consistent expectations, consistent recruiting.” It’s also important for a coach to know how to operate in a CIS system, and Sheahan’s staff is made up of guys who have CIS coaching experience, Queen’s experience, and professional experience.

This season is Pat Tracey’s 11th as defensive coordinator with the football team. Two other assistant coaches, Ryan Sheahan and Ryan Bechmanus, are Queen’s football alumni.

Sheahan said there’s no magic formula for championships. It took him ten years to get to the Vanier Cup. Winning just takes time.

It takes depth to win championships. A team needs two or three good recruiting classes to come in together and look to find success later in their careers. That formula is what brought Queen’s a Vanier Cup.

“In our Vanier year, our best players spanned over three different recruiting classes,” said Sheahan.

Dave McDowell has been coaching the woman’s soccer team since 1988, and he said his experience has allowed him implement strategies and programs so that his players always know what to expect.

“We surround our players with excellence,” he said. “That is very quickly pushed onto our younger players from our older players.” When McDowell took over the women’s soccer program at Queen’s, he had no coaching experience and knew nothing about women’s soccer. After more than two decades, he’s won a national championship.

“The longer you’ve been coaching, the more likely you have to figure things out,” he said. “The more you do it, you’re more likely to get it right.”

Athletics is guilty of pulling the trigger on too many coaches who haven’t shown results right away.

If they need some pointers, they only need to head over to Richardson Stadium. They’ll see what happens when coaches are given some freedom to operate.

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