How the oil-thigh lost its shine: Queen’s fading football tradition

Tracking Queen’s football’s history from the golden years to times of tumult 

Attending Saturday football games was once an integral part of the Queen's experience
Left, Centre: Queen's University Archives, Right: Jeff Chan

“Queen’s! Queen’s! Queen’s! Oil Thigh No Banrighinn Gu Brath! Cha gheill! Cha gheill! Cha gheill!”

The thunderous Queen’s war cries which once flooded campus on football game days are no more, their echoes having faded into silence long ago.

While many students may look at you sideways if you were to suggest venturing to west campus to catch the game, football was once at the crux of Queen’s identity and a tradition that brought students together.

“Older Queen’s people really identify with Queen’s football but no young person would ever think to identify themselves as being from Queen’s because of the football games they go to on Saturday,” said Merv Daub, former Queen’s football player, coach, professor emeritus, and author of Gael Force—a book detailing the history of Queen’s football.

“Whereas a lot of older people, that’s the one thing they remember about the place: ‘my god, did we ever have a good time on Saturday afternoons.’“

While football carried much more significance in the old days, it wasn’t without its ups and downs. Immediately following the Second World War, football experienced a rough patch. On-campus sports had been on hiatus for five years during the war effort, and once many veterans flooded campus on the G.I. bill— a government program to readjust veterans to civilian life—few had scholastic ambitions beyond getting their degrees and finding work.

Despite the lower levels of interest from would-be players, along with lacklustre team performance, attendance to the tricolour’s games hardly waned.

“Even though they were losing all the time, the stadium was always sold out. It was the social thing of the week.”

The years following WWII until the mid-1950s were what Daub referred to as the ‘character building years’ in his book. In 1955, however, there was a marked shift. Assistant coach Hal McCarney recruited star players who, with coach Frank Tindall’s strategic genius, were able to earn the Gaels consecutive national championship titles in ’55 and ’56. 

It was in the 60s, however, that Queen’s football hit its stride. As the new decade ushered in the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, it also brought a new level of success for the Gaels that have been dubbed ‘the golden years.’

It was also when Daub joined the tricolour. Faced with four serious options for undergrad, Daub chose Queen’s because he enjoyed the “poor man's” vibe the university had at the time and was impressed with Tindall, contrasting what he saw touring Western, he said.

Throughout the 60s, Queen’s amassed five championship titles and won 77 per cent of their games.

In addition to on-field success, Queen’s football was infamous for their hijinks and debauchery—something that was lauded by fellow students but lamented by the administration.

One especially popular tradition was known as ‘goal-posting’. Students travelled with the team to away games and, if Queen’s won, would storm the field to try and tear the opposition’s goalposts out of the ground.

“When I was at my first game at Queen’s, we played before 20,000 people and I was flabbergasted at all these people. Walking off the field after the game, which we won, the cops are all out on the field, there are hundreds of [Queen’s students] rushing to get on the field and tear down the goalposts and all these Toronto guys are trying to defend them.”

“People would climb up on the goalposts and pull them down with ropes. It was a totally different deal. They also trashed railway cars and things like that, so [the current generation] is pretty benign in comparison.”

The 60s also marked a change in the type of football player who laced up for the tricolour. The rosters of the 50s were filled with ‘old-boys’—relatively straight-shooters who liked to drink hard after games and attended university mostly for sport. While the players in the 60s ditched the crew cuts for a John Lennon-adjacent look, they were also far more interested in their grades and placed an emphasis on individuality.

While the optimism of the 60s found its way into Queen’s football, so did the turbulence of the 70s—a time marked by civil strife and economic upheaval—signalling the beginning of the end of football’s ‘good ol’ days.’

“I think the cultural transition going on in society, the fact that Queen’s became less of a lunch-bucket university and more a place where private schoolers came to school, and third the moving of the stadium from the middle of campus to west campus—all those things made a big difference to the role that football played in the life of the city and the university.”

Following football’s move west, the effect on attendance were felt immediately.

Queen’s football made rebounds in its on-campus relevance throughout the ’80s and ’90s and during their most recent Vanier Cup victory in 2009, but things never fully rebounded.

Interest in football became sporadic, depending on how the team performed throughout the season. Students would get struck with excitement once the Gaels reached the depths of the playoffs and venture out west or even take busses to the Vanier Cup. But regular attendance to weekend games? Forget it, Daub said.

Another dagger to the football tradition at Queen’s was the University’s harsh crackdown on drinking at games—something students found off-putting.

“Students always drank, students were always hooligans, but for some odd reason, starting roughly in the 80s, it became culturally far less acceptable to be drunk in public and do all kinds of crazy things, and the university cracked down very hard on that.”

“In the 80s they just went completely berserk on this and so you know, people stopped coming—that, plus the fact that they had to walk all the way out to west campus.”

Despite this loss of tradition, Daub, a lifelong contributor to Queen’s football, is optimistic for the team’s future. He believes Queen’s is building a very strong team under head coach Steve Snyder, but the university needs to better promote the football experience to its students.

“I would more actively promote the games as a great place to show University spirit and enjoy yourself and get a chance to yell at the top of your voice and support your fellow students.”

“It will also establish a kind of memory that you’ll recall far longer than any parties you might have had on Aberdeen street.”  

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