On September 24, the SFU Clan football team had a historic loss in their homecoming game, losing by 76 points. They’re pushing almost three years since their last win, leading many to languish SFU’s decision to participate in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
The SFU men’s basketball team doesn’t look to be doing any better, having a turbulent couple of years capped off by their ex-coach, Virgil Hill. The women’s team fares much better, but doesn’t get as much hype and attention as they should. Those are just three of the 17 teams that participate in the NCAA from SFU, which include golf, soccer, and women’s volleyball.
It’s been about seven years since SFU joined the NCAA, and SFU has yet to be a winner in any of their Division II sports. They’ve had a few playoff appearances, and even a few playoff controversies, but it’s been awhile since SFU brought home any hardware.
This isn’t to say that SFU has been terrible, as they’ve actually been pretty successful overall. They recently ranked 15 out of 306 in the Learfield Directors’ Cup standings, which measures the overall success of collegiate athletics programs.
Amidst all this, let’s take a look back at where this all came from, and potentially where the school could be heading as they continue to carry on as “Canada’s team.”
Joining the NCAA
Simon Fraser University had been trying to join the NCAA for nearly fifteen years before they played their first game in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC), which is the division SFU plays in.
The first attempt to join was back in 1997, when SFU was still part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), but they were turned down. They would later go on to partly join the Canadian Interuniversity Sports league (CIS, later renamed to U Sports), which was one of the top leagues in Canada.
SFU would have teams play in both the CIS and NAIA up until 2009, after they successfully made a bid to join the NCAA. They gained conditional acceptance for the 2011–12 season, but ended up starting a year earlier thanks to a proposed ban on SFU teams by CIS.
They would compete as part of a ten-year pilot program for Canadian teams in the NCAA, but with provisional status. This meant they weren’t allowed to advance to national championships. This led to a frustrating time for teams like men’s soccer, who were the number one ranked team back in 2011–12, but weren’t given the chance to prove themselves on the biggest stage possible.
Beginning in the 2012–13 school year, SFU would become a full member and the only international representative in the NCAA. They met all the requirements, which included having at least five men’s and five women’s teams, with at least two team sports per gender.
This would be helpful for recruitment, as athletes were passing over SFU in favour of CIS teams solely for the chance to participate in national championship games.
Why make the switch?
Many have questioned why SFU is even in the NCAA to begin with, which is a valid question for those wondering about the history. The truth is, the administration meant for the school to play in the United States when it was built back in 1965. Gordon Shrum, the first Chancellor of SFU, loved American football so much that he wanted his school to be playing that over the Canadian style.
They joined the NAIA right away, which is catered to play in the United States, although it does have several teams outside of it. According to Wikipedia, “The SFU Clan holds the NAIA record for most All-Americans and U.S. National Champions (individual),” which is hilarious, but also showed the high competitive level that was the school’s standard.
This would suit them fine up until 1997, when many of the American schools that SFU would have played against moved into the NCAA. As mentioned previously SFU would try to follow them, applying to the NCAA, but getting rejected. Instead of shutting down the teams who would no longer have anyone to play against, they would split their teams into the NAIA and CIS.
However, this was far from ideal for some teams, like football, basketball, volleyball, and wrestling. The travel and the cost associated with it shot up exponentially, as travelling to Manitoba proved much more difficult than games in Washington and Oregon.
Oddly enough, it would be the University of British Columbia that would open the door for SFU to join the NCAA. They were the main school leading the charge of the Canadian team pilot project, however they would ultimately opt out. Thanks to that, SFU gets the claim of being Canada’s team, which makes for a great sales pitch.
Controversies of a Canadian team
The switch to the NCAA hasn’t been the easiest road, especially because of the hurdles that being an international team has created.
The first time was in 2012, when the team was ranked number one heading into the playoffs, giving them the opportunity to host their first-ever playoff game. However, other schools in the GNAC objected, because players and team staff did not have passports to enter into Canada.
Their arguments were heard by the NCAA, and SFU saw its host status taken away, eventually being forced to set up shop as the “home team” in San Francisco. Despite going out of their way to find a solution to the issue, the NCAA would eventually decide to just take away SFU’s hosting rights entirely, giving them to Grand Canyon University, who finished number two in the region.
This would happen once again in 2016, although renting out a neutral field in Seattle allowed them to keep their hosting rights.
SFU teams that aren’t in the NCAA
When SFU was petitioning to join as a full-fledged member, then-director of athletics Milton Richards said, “We have 17 [teams] and you only need 10 be be a Division II member [so] I really don’t see us adding any more programs,” in an interview with The Globe & Mail.
However, that may not be the case, as there is a chance that hockey might be on the table to join the NCAA. Currently, SFU lists hockey, field lacrosse, and cheerleading as non-NCAA sports, to go along with their recreation and recreation clubs.
The reason that hockey isn’t a part of the NCAA is that there just isn’t a Division II for hockey. Currently, the school plays in the British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League (BCIHL) as an alternative.
In the summer of 2016, new athletics director Theresa Hanson made waves by announcing that SFU would like to join Division I for NCAA hockey, potentially joining as early as next season. Under the current rules for Division II, teams are allowed to have one men’s and one women’s team join the uppermost echelon.
SFU Athletics was also looking into adding a women’s beach volleyball team, bumping them up to 19 NCAA teams. This would give them representation in nearly 80% of Division II’s 25 possible teams (not participating in games such as rifle, equestrian, and bowling).
What comes next?
As we mentioned, Simon Fraser University ranked 15th in the Learfield Directors’ Cup. This comes after placing 55th the year before, which is still impressive considering there are 306 entrants. Teams like cross-country, women’s basketball, volleyball, and our soccer teams might not be grabbing headlines, but they are doing right by the school.
However, SFU might start to get more recognition as a trailblazer in the international aspect of the NCAA as another team might be joining.
In April of this year, SFU officially joined a pilot program created by the NCAA, allowing other schools to go through the same process. Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior, a school in the Baja California region of Mexico, wants to join the NCAA. They even have the backing of the California Collegiate Athletic Association.
Perhaps if more teams join the NCAA outside of the US, it will lead SFU’s inclusion in the sporting league to be seen less as an experiment and more of a pioneering effort. Unfortunately, this might dramatically reduce the odds of Simon Fraser University remaining “Canada’s team.”