50TH VANIER CUP INTERVIEW SERIES: Darwin Semotiuk, Western (1976)

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50TH VANIER CUP INTERVIEW SERIES: 1976

A conversation with…

Darwin Semotiuk, head coach, University of Western Ontario Mustangs

In Vanier Cup XII, the Western Ontario Mustangs outscored the Acadia Axemen 22-0 in the second half en route to a 29-13 triumph in front of 20,300 fans at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. It was the first of two straight Vanier Cup victories over Acadia for the Mustangs and head coach Darwin Semotiuk, who was involved in Western’s six CIAU football championship wins over his distinguished career, including two as an assistant coach (1971, 1974), two as bench boss (1976, 1977) and two as athletic director (1989, 1994).

What is your major memory of the 1976 Vanier Cup weekand the overall experience?

Anytime you’re playing for a national championship it’s very memorable, especially for a university like Western because it was being played in Toronto, at Varsity Stadium, so it wasn’t very far for students to travel. The unusual thing in 1976 was it was an evening game so my recollection is it was a pretty festive occasion. The Western students moved from the Ceeps – a bar in London – to Bloor Street in Toronto. It was a very well attended game as I recall, with attendance just over 20,000. There was a lot of excitement around it.

What is your one major lasting memory of the actual game?

The excitement was on the Acadia side for the first half of the game because they had a pitch-and-catch show with Bob Cameron and Bob Stracina, and boy, you look at the total yardage that they gained! They really, really played well offensively in the first half.

Once again, our Western students came to the rescue at halftime. It was my understanding that while we were in the dressing room, they stormed the field and it bought us an extra 10 or 15 minutes before we had to come back out. That was an incredible blessing because our three defensive coaches – Clarke Samways, Reg Richter and myself – got together and we basically put in a new defence to control Stracina.

We took one of our strong defensive backs, Chris Curran, a really good player, and put him of Stracina and basically played 11-man football the rest of the way. I don’t think Stracina caught another pass. We just shut down their offence and that was significant. Having the extra time [at halftime] allowed us to very calmly go through how we were going to make the adjustments, how we were going to realign and move people around, and more importantly to explain to the athletes that this is what we were going to do. To their credit, our players bought into it. Curran shut down Stracina. It was probably one of our better defensive achievements ever at Western. It led to more celebrations at the end of the game, when our fans stormed the field and the Varsity Stadium goal posts went down.

(Note: Stracina finished the game with 12 receptions for 221 yards, two Vanier Cup records at the time; his 12 catches were matched by McMaster’s Robert Babic in 2011, while his 221 yards still stand as the game’s standard)

The other memorable thing about that game was the incredible performance Bill Rozalowsky, the game MVP, had at fullback. We ran our 20 and 21 trap and he really rolled and rocked. He was a two-time College Bowl MVP, a significant achievement. Rozalowsky’s performance, but also the performance of Chris Curran, were memorable. If you can’t shut down their offence, it’s a shootout. You know, with those shootouts, you never know what’s going to happen, but we shut down their offence and we basically controlled the game in the second half.

(Note: Rozalowsky rushed for 112 yards on 20 carries on his way to game MVP honours)

Was there one key play you remember?

No, not really. The key play was the Western students helping us out [at halftime]. That was really fundamental to the success we enjoyed in the game. Had we not had that extra time, it would have been difficult.

What was your personal favourite moment?

When the gun went off at the end, when it was over with! It was a great achievement for our football program; we had an outstanding group of young men who led the way. That was the first of our two back-to-back national championships. I think we are still one of the only teams that have done that along with Laval, Manitoba and Saint Mary’s. That was a good achievement, an outstanding group of young men that are still very, very, close.

Did anything unusual or out of the ordinary happen during the game or during Vanier week?

No real recollection of anything during the week. But during the game itself, there was that storming of the field by the Western students. I didn’t see it myself but it was reported quite loudly – ‘Guess what? There are a whole bunch of kids on the field and you’re not coming out for a while’. The officials came in and said, “You know, it looks like we’ve got a crowd issue that we’re trying to control and you’re going to be delayed going out.” We said, “keep them out there as long as you can!”

As coaches, did you do anything different from normal routine in the preparation for the game?

We tried to keep it as normal as possible but when you go to Toronto, all of a sudden, there are distractions and then someone is saying ‘well let’s go out and have a beer’. So your reaction is to apply the principle of ‘you’re here, enjoy the experience, live the experience, but use good judgement.’ Our players were pretty responsible when it came to that. They played hard for the first day or two and then they got serious.

How did you or the team react to the stadium and the crowd?

The Western students definitely outnumbered the Acadia students and they were boisterous and festive. The Western students, particularly when we get near the end of the season and Homecoming, they show up and they buy into the success the football team is enjoying. They have fun with it, and it’s a really good spirit generator and a great profile generator for the university as well. You get national television and the national media coverage and all that. It’s money in kind, revenue in kind and important for the university.

What are your memories of the post-game celebrations on the field and/or in the dressing room?

Well, the memory was that there were a lot of people on the field and we thought ‘let’s get out of here before we get hurt.’ In the dressing room, the players were really, really excited about what they had achieved. You create a lifetime memory when you win a national championship and we did, thanks to a very convincing second half. I think we were the better team.

What are your memories of the trip back home?

The bus ride home the next day was actually fairly memorable in that it was sort of the only day in the season where we relaxed, sort of took a moment, in our own way, to reflect on a great season, on a great achievement: a national championship and a lifetime memory. On the Monday, we were right back into recruiting and preparing for the next year. So one of the things I talked to the team about was, make sure you take the time to reflect on what you achieved and who you achieved it with, and remember that you have a lifetime memory and lifetime friends.

What was the reaction on campus when the team returned?

I think the university was pretty happy with the result and there were a couple of events that were organized to celebrate the team’s achievement. The university was pretty good about doing that. Recognising the fact that national championships don’t come that easily and when you win them, you take the time to celebrate them.

At the time, how did winning the Vanier Cup change your everyday life?

It was just a privilege to be a part of that and to be able to share it with some outstanding human beings who have become lifelong friends.

How often does the team get together to reminisce about the Vanier Cup win?

The team has events that are centered around Homecoming celebrations and X number of years celebrations. The ‘76 and ‘77 teams were pretty close and they do events in Toronto and also events up in Collingwood, where they go skiing.

What did you study in university, and where?

I have an undergraduate degree and master’s degree in Physical Education from the University of Alberta, where I played football and basketball. I graduated with my PhD from Ohio State.

More about Darwin Semotiuk (courtesy of Western University Athletics):

One of the greatest coaches in Western history with a career overall record of 71-23-1 and .753 winning percentage, Darwin Semotiuk had a significant impact on the Mustangs Athletics program as a whole from 1971 onward. As an assistant coach, head coach, athletic director and professor, he is one of the key figures in Western sports history.

Semotiuk, who merited the Frank Tindall Trophy as CIAU coach of the year in 1976, was involved in all six of the Mustangs’ Vanier Cup wins, serving as an assistant coach with the 1971 and 1974 championship teams, head coach of the 1976 and 1977 squads and as the university’s athletic director in 1989 and 1994.

Prior to his success as a coach and administrator, Semotiuk had a standout playing career on both the gridiron and the basketball court with the Alberta Golden Bears, including serving as captain of the basketball team for five seasons and co-captaining the football program from 1963 to 1967. He played in the initial invitational Canadian College Bowl with Alberta in 1965 and was later drafted by the Calgary Stampeders. However, rather than continuing his football career in the CFL, Semotiuk joined the Canadian national basketball team from 1965 to 1967 and then became head coach of the University of Manitoba’s men’s basketball program for one season, before pursuing his PhD at Ohio State and starting his career at Western in 1971.

A member of the University of Alberta Sports Wall of Fame and of the Mustangs Football Champions Club Wall of Fame, Semotiuk was also named London Sportsperson of the Year in 2009. Recently retired from full-time teaching at Western, he holds the position of Professor Emeritus in the university’s School of Kinesiology.

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