Four years ago I wrote a piece explaining the state of Athletics at Brock University. It was a completely different time surrounding the Badgers. Not only does the department now have a handful of new faces with multiple coaching changes and student-athlete turnover, the department has seen a name change, improved its facilities and had some of its most successful years.
In 2015, the department had an interim Director of Athletics and Recreation, Robert Cargnelli. The former interim held the position after Robert Hilson shifted to a new role as Director of Business Development in the department. Both Cargnelli and Hilson have moved into other areas of Brock University, changing the face of athletics.
On February 9, 2016, the department announced that Neil Lumsden would be the new Director. Lumsden is a familiar face around athletics in Canada having played in the CFL and coaching football at the University of Guelph.
“Everyone generally in sport and business does a cursory overview of what’s going on,” said Lumsden, looking back at the start of his tenure at Brock. “Our goal is to give every student-athlete the opportunity to achieve success and have a great time.”
Lumsden said his analysis was based on paying attention. He wanted to understand the administration and areas that impact athletics, while also reviewing the culture and systems put in place by every coach.
A question Lumsden raised during our one-on-one sit down was: “Where are areas that can be improved that will [enhance] the experience for the students and raise the level of the university?” His reminder was that the student-athletes are students first and athletes second, and what goes on in the department also impacts the everyday student.
It was only six months following his hire, Lumsden and the department moved on from the name Brock Athletics and Recreation to Brock Sports. A name that reshaped the athletic department for the second time in three years. In 2013, Brian Hutchings, Vice-President of Finance and Administration at Brock made the call to combine Athletics with the Recreation department. Lumsden, in August 2016, took it to another level.
“That’s what we are. We are sport,” said Lumsden. “I’ve always wanted to do it better than everybody else. A good way to standout is identify who we are.”
Lumsden went on to focus in on how most university departments identify themselves as ‘Athletics and Recreation’, and it wasn’t enough for him to hold the same name.
“I have a motto I live by and interesting enough it spells ‘win’. What I noticed,” he said.
This goes back to his start on the job and his ability to watch what was going on in the department and what needed to be changed.
Something Brock was lacking compared to other universities was a training facility for its athletes. In August 2016, the department hired Steve Lidstone to be the head of Brock’s new High Performance Centre. A 3,000 square-foot facility, the centre is for the student-athletes to get their workout in away from the currently crowded Zone fitness centre that is shared with other students and community.
“One of the things we needed to do here was give our student-athletes a chance to get bigger, stronger and faster,” said Lumsden. “They are at a level of sport where that’s what it is about.”
“I can tell by watching them walk onto the court and how they look,” Lumsden continued about the High Performance Centre. “We are far more prepared to compete than we were four years ago on all fronts.”
Lumsden doesn’t take full credit for the changes that have happened around the Sports department, as there are a lot of pieces involved within and outside of it. However, Brock’s athletics has found a system that works from programs winning to sellout crowds.
Lumsden with the assistance of Hilson turned to students to improve the atmosphere at games. Winning has helped; forcing crowd turnout to be contagious from one sport to the other, but it is motivating everyone involved to get better as well. It started with a group of students that started the We Are Ready movement and it grew into a community of students that loved heading out to games.
“You’ve always got that core that builds the rest of your team out,” said Lumsden. “If you’re [first-year] here and people say ‘we’re going to the basketball game tonight and tomorrow night, that’s what we do here’, a portion of those [first-years] are going to start saying the same. They get hooked and the person next to them gets hooked, and it keeps turning and turning.”
Word of mouth has led to sellout basketball games for multiple seasons, along with a few Meridian Centre games that have drawn 3,000 to 4,000 fans. Brock even saw numbers rise for its annual Steel Blade Classic hockey game, and a solid turnout for the OUA Queen’s Cup.
There has been backlash that the department has put too much attention on basketball, shining little to no light on other teams.
“It’s a natural occurrence in any university environment. Everyone’s got their big dog,” said Lumsden. “It’s one of the most driven sports in the U Sports portfolio. It goes football, basketball, hockey – not necessarily in that order depending on who your school is, but that’s where the draw is. That’s the reality.”
Lumsden did bring up that a few years ago sports such as volleyball would only see parents in the stands, but that has slowly begun to change. Although basketball has taken the spotlight for many years, it is spilling over to other sports.
“Would I love to say that we have come to a point that Seymour-Hannah (the home arena for Brock hockey) will always be full on game-day? I’d like to say it, but we aren’t there yet,” Lumsden said when discussing the teams that play off-campus.
“Ever since I’ve gotten here there’s been discussion about arenas because of what is going on with the city of St. Catharines and their arenas,” said Lumsden, when asked if an arena could be coming to the campus. “There aren’t a lot of people throwing a lot of money at sport. Let’s maximize what we have and really use it to our advantage.”
What’s always been a big discussion at Brock, and was again brought up during last year’s Brock University Students’ Union elections, was football. With a lack of funds and space being the main reason football doesn’t exist at Brock, the former fullback explained that it goes deeper than all of that.
“We’ve got a pretty good thing going in terms of building support for everybody at different levels,” said Lumsden. “I wouldn’t do that to the other sports because everyone would feel the affect.”
He mentioned that it would hurt the support for the bigger programs like basketball and hockey, but also smaller programs like figure skating and ball hockey, which have also just recently seen their fan base grow.
During Lumsden’s tenure a lot of coaching changes have happened at Brock as well. Close to nine new coaches are in the department since 2016, but that number doesn’t include coaches that have been hired and later not brought back during Lumsden’s time as Director.
“One of the things we have to make sure is that we are giving our student-athletes the best opportunity to have a great experience. Not everyone wins championships, I get it, it’s just the way it is” said Lumsden. “We had to make sure we had great leadership in our coaches. That’s the number one priority for me when it comes to coaching.”
“If you talk to Brian Roy (head coach for Dragonboat) and Charles Kissi (former head coach for men’s basketball, currently on a one-year leave of absence), they talk in the same way. We want this, we want to do this, we are looking to do this,” Lumsden explained when mentioning that all the coaches, in the top tier or lower tier of athletics, understand the same philosophy. “Their attitude, drive, commitment and time they put in is the same.”
Lots of changes have happened in the last four years for Brock Sports, an Ontario university department that won eight banners this past year – arguably the best in year in Brock Sports history. Lumsden and the administration in the department have gone with a new culture, a new name, new coaches and increased fan pride. Next up for the Badgers is the expansion of The Zone fitness centre for the everyday student, potential opportunity for staff and students to be involved in the 2021 Canada Summer Games hosted in St. Catharines and more importantly, increased success for all the programs.
“We will always be that group that is doing more than the next group, so we stay in front of people,” said Lumsden. “I’m making the assumption that the guys at other universities are thinking the same way. It’s the old adage; if you think your competition is doing 100 push-ups, you better do 105.”