SFU’s new football head coach is a man with a story to tell

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Before becoming a coach, Kelly Bates had a 10-year career as an offensive linesman in the CFL, spending time on the BC Lions, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Edmonton Eskimos. Image courtesy of SFU Athletics.
Before becoming a coach, Kelly Bates had a 10-year career as an offensive linesman in the CFL, spending time on the BC Lions, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Edmonton Eskimos. Image courtesy of SFU Athletics.
Before becoming a coach, Kelly Bates had a 10-year career as an offensive linesman in the CFL, spending time on the BC Lions, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Edmonton Eskimos. Image courtesy of SFU Athletics.

After a two-month search for a replacement for Jacques Chapdelaine, SFU Athletics has announced former BC Lions running backs coach and draft coordinator Kelly Bates as the new head coach for the Clan football team.

It was a satisfying end to a shaky situation. Initially, the race was whittled down to three finalists; however, after negotiations broke down with the frontrunner of the three, SFU Athletics had to go back to the drawing board.

Already well into February, and with their recruiting process hindered, SFU Athletics went back to two candidates they had initially passed over: Bates and Khari Jones, both members of the 2014 BC Lions coaching staff. Only a week after SFU and its initial frontrunner had parted ways, athletics director Milt Richards officially named Bates as the 10th Clan head coach.

What sold Richards so quickly on the former offensive lineman who played on four teams in his 10-year CFL playing career?

“Kelly Bates is a fixture in BC football culture. He’s played and coached football at all levels, including the CFL [and] the CIS,” Richards told The Peak shortly after the announcement. “I believe he’s an excellent teacher. He can tell a story about football and what it means, and how it made him a better citizen, and what he’s going to try to do with our student athletes and make them better citizens.”

Bates was more than happy to share that story with The Peak.

“I come from the middle of nowhere in [. . .] Quill Lake, Saskatchewan. [I] was raised there, most of my family is from there. [It’s] a beautiful town in the prairies, I was very fortunate to have both sets of grandparents, a set of great-grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins — a little town of 500 people, a surrounding farming community that was tightly knit,” he said in his office.

“I lost that environment when I was 10, and moved away,” Bates explained. “From there I struggled as a kid, I wasn’t a great student, I didn’t really apply myself very well, I was really on a fast track to nowhere in high school when I had some people come along who really cared.

“They took the time to invest in me and show just tremendous patience,” he recalls. “The sport of football, combined with that, they saw a common denominator they could reach me. I had a great coach — Cal Hobbs — who had just finished his university career, and boy oh boy, he allowed me to grow within his team, and we started to have a little success, and you start to understand that the success you have on the field goes hand-in-hand with the success you have in the classroom.”

It took Bates an extra year to finish high school, and he had to come back to improve his grades for university. Eventually he was accepted into the University of Saskatchewan, where he won a Vanier Cup — the CIS trophy — and “everything clicked.”

A recurring theme in Bates’ story is that of being surrounded by “a ton of great people,” by caring staff. He admits he is still close to his university coaching staff.

“I was able to build those relationships with those coaches. They mentored me, they showed great patience, and helped me grow as a person, and sent me out as a much better person than when I went in, and as someone who is equipped with everyday life and hopefully have success at it,” he added.

“That’s what I wish to bring here to SFU. These poor kids haven’t had that over the last three years. It’s been a tough turnover for them, the amount of coaches they’ve gone through — not just the head coach, but there’s been 37 different coaches come through this program,” he explained. “We’re hoping to build a model of consistency. Really, it’s all about the kids, and trying to help them grow and become the people they want to be.”

With Spring Training beginning March 12, a coaching staff will be named in the coming days. Current recruiting coordinator Bryan Wyllie and director of football operations Michael Lionello will be retained on staff. Defensive coordinator Abe Elimimian, however, has left the program to join the University of Hawaii as a defensive backs coach.

“I like them. They care,” Bates said of the remaining coaching staff. “They love the game of football, and have personal relationships with all these guys. And they’ve done their best to hold it together.”

Bates admits that it’s not going to be easy to get SFU football to be competitive, but that it will be a “process.”