50TH VANIER CUP INTERVIEW SERIES: 1979
A conversation with…
Keith Skiffington, defensive back, Acadia University Axemen
In Vanier Cup XV, the Acadia Axemen defeated the Western Ontario Mustangs 34-12 at Varsity Stadium in Toronto to claim the first CIAU football title in school history. The result was sweet revenge for the Axemen, who had lost to Western Ontario in both the 1976 and 1977 national finals. Defensive back Keith Skiffington, a Maritimer from Moncton, N.B., was one of many Acadia players who would earn a second Vanier Cup ring two years later following a triumph over Alberta.
What is your major memory of the 1979 Vanier Cup weekand the overall experience?
The Vanier Cup week was an awesome experience. Travelling from Wolfville, N.S., to Toronto to play in a national championship felt like we had made it to the big time. The events during the week — dinners and press conferences — only added to the experience. Winning the game was the icing on the cake.
Coach John Huard knew that we would be hyper when we arrived, so he encouraged us go out the first night we got there to let off steam and have some fun. We all went to the Brunswick House for a few beers. However, I remember him also saying that he “would give us enough rope to hang ourselves”. So after the first night, no one went out and it was all business until the game. That was the culture of our team.
What is your one major lasting memory of the actual game?
The crowd, the excitement of playing in a national championship game and the feeling, once we got a sizeable lead, that we were going to win!
Was there one key play you remember?
Western scored on their first drive and marched the ball fairly easy on us. On their second drive, our defence stopped them but, on the ensuing punt, Ron Martin got a roughing-the-kicker call which sustained the Western drive. Coach Huard was riled and I can remember him getting in Ron’s face, head tilted, giving him the look and questioning Ron’s discipline. Ironically, Ron went on to become a senior officer and had a stellar career in the US Marines.
Coach Huard called a timeout and spoke to the whole team on the sideline. He told us that we needed to settle down and play our game and that we were better than Western. From that point forward, the game changed.
(Note: Trailing 8-0 midway through the first quarter, Acadia scored 24 unanswered points before the halftime break to go back to the locker room with a 24-8 lead)
What was your personal greatest play or greatest moment?
The play I remember came after a catch made over the middle by their tight end. It wasn’t that spectacular a play but I had to make an open-field tackle, one-on-one. There was a video done on the game afterwards and that play was featured in it, so I always remember it.
Did anything unusual or out of the ordinary happen during the game or during Vanier week?
Princess Anne was in Toronto at the time and she attended one of the dinners and the game. Protocol was that everyone had to wait to eat until Princess Anne was seated. Trying to keep two football teams from eating the dinner rolls on the table before she showed up was something right out of a comedy sketch.
During the game, after one of our touchdowns, Bruce Tufts, who handled our kickoffs, lined the ball directly at one of Western’s front row guys. The ball bounced off him right back to us and we recovered it. We all thought Bruce was going to kick it deep. I asked him about that play after the game and he said he did it on purpose. On the previous kickoff, he had noticed that the Western player wasn’t paying attention and he had discussed it with Coach Huard.
Did the coaches do anything different from normal routine in the preparation for the game?
Before we left for Toronto, we practised at the Presidents Field at Acadia instead of our usual scruffy practice field, which was a change and a reward for making it to the championship. However, as a team, we had confidence in our ability to execute on both offence and defence and, other than a few adjustments based on film prep, we kept everything the same.
How did you or the team react to the stadium, the crowd, the weather?
We started the game slow and Western got an eight-point lead in the first quarter. Weather was not a factor but I think as players we were overwhelmed by the atmosphere, the 19,000 fans at Varsity stadium, and the fact we were playing Western, which had beaten Acadia in the 1976 and 1977 Vanier Cups. Western were bigger in size than us, particularly on the O Line, and they had Greg Marshall as their running back. Leading up to the game, all of the press talked about Western and how dominant they were. It took us the first quarter to adjust and settle down.
(Note: Marshall, who would win the Hec Crighton Trophy the following year as the most outstanding player in CIAU football, had a solid game with 96 yards and a touchdown on only 10 carries but, as a team, Acadia outgained Western on the ground, 210 yards to 182)
What are your memories of the post-game celebrations on the field and/or in the dressing room?
Post-game was awesome. The feeling of winning that game was indescribable. We had finally won the big game for Acadia and it was considered an upset. There was yelling and screaming, hugging and congratulating each other. At the same time, our 1979 team was very much a “get it done” team and, after the initial hoopla, the celebration in the dressing room was actually quite subdued.
We returned to the hotel and someone had put a case of beer in each of our rooms. We smoked cigars and there was a huge party that lasted through the night with all sorts of alumni and friends. We stayed up late and were a pretty tired group when we met in the lobby of the hotel in the morning to catch the bus to the airport.
What are your memories of the trip back home?
It was exciting going to the airport and getting on the plane with the Vanier Cup. People would stop and congratulate us along the way in the airport. They announced the win over the PA on the airplane and everyone on board cheered.
What was the reaction on campus when the team returned?
The real excitement hit when we got back to Wolfville, where the fire trucks met us at the Welcome to Wolfville sign entering town. We all got on top of the fire trucks and then went through the town with the lights flashing and sirens sounding. The streets were packed with students but also a lot of town people, everyone yelling, cheering and singing “Stand up and Cheer.” The celebration continued until the Christmas break and there was a definite lift and buzz on campus during the remainder of that year.
The Vanier Cup win put Acadia and Nova Scotia front and center on the national sports scene and instilled a sense of pride in many people other than those associated with Acadia.
At the time, how did winning the Vanier Cup change your everyday life?
It instilled a sense of confidence that has stayed with me throughout my life.
How often to you reminisce about your Vanier Cup wins?
The topic comes up a fair amount in conversations with people once they find out that I played football at Acadia in that time period. Coach Huard, the assistant coaches and my teammates are lifelong friends and we have that special bond formed by practising, playing together and winning. We get together as a group every couple of years, usually at a Grey Cup or Vanier Cup, and we tell the stories all over again and rib each other just like when we played together.
More about Keith Skiffington (courtesy of Acadia University Athletics):
In 1979, the Axemen were well prepared for the College Bowl — as it was called at the time — after previous participations in 1976 and 1977. The program went through an “Americanization” process in the 1970s with American coaching staff and players crossing the border to help put Acadia on the Canadian football map. Keith Skiffington, a native of Moncton, N.B., was one of a handful of young Maritimers in a starting role with the Axemen in the 1979 and 1981 Vanier Cup wins.
The former defensive back now resides in Halifax and is the president of Football Nova Scotia. He was recently named as an honorary captain of the Axemen football team in celebration of Acadia’s 175-year history.