50TH VANIER CUP INTERVIEW SERIES: Pat Sheahan, Queen’s University Gaels (2009)

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Photo credit Yan Doublet

50TH VANIER CUP INTERVIEW SERIES: 2009

A conversation with…

Pat Sheahan, head coach, Queen’s University Gaels

In Vanier Cup XLV, the first one played in Quebec City, the Queen’s Gaels staged the largest comeback from a halftime deficit in game history to defeat the Calgary Dinos 33-31 in front of a standing-room only crowd of 18,628 at PEPS Stadium. It was the fourth national title in program history for the Gaels, who had previously triumphed in 1968, 1978 and 1992. It was also the first Vanier Cup as a head coach for Pat Sheahan, who had helped McGill claim the CIAU banner as an offensive coordinator in 1987 and had guided Concordia to the championship game in 1998, only to see his Stingers drop a 24-17 decision against Saskatchewan.

What is your major memory of the entire Vanier Cup week and the overall experience in 2009?

We had three young coaches at the time, including my son, Ryan Sheahan, Mike Stagg and Ryan Bechmanis, and what a tremendous job they did of organizing our program from a logistics point of view. At the same time, what a tremendous job Tom Hopkins and Geoff Mellor did making sure that our on-field practice regimen was organized and good to go.

When you go to the national championship from Tuesday until late Saturday evening, there are a lot of details that need to be managed. I thought our staff at Queen’s did an amazing job of managing the team so that the coaches could coach and the players could play.

We had a bit of an emotional rollercoaster coming in. We had a great win at home against Laval in the Mitchell Bowl so we didn’t have too much time to recover. Then we also had a tremendous challenge with tickets and parents were scrambling around to get tickets, which was a bit of a distraction.

And then there was the post-game celebration which took a considerable amount of organization and special thanks goes to Joey Pal, Skip Eaman, Paul Hand, Don Bayne and Bob McFarland, people like that, who did a tremendous job at organizing the reception. They took that upon themselves to make sure that the Queen’s contingent had a place to report to.

Fortunately, from my experience, I knew that there were a number of things that had to be done but I was grateful to have people to lean on in order to complete the task.

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

We were down 25-7 after 30 minutes and it was an interesting place to be at halftime. We hadn’t played particularly well, there were a lot of very simple things that we didn’t do well. I think when you put it in perspective, that morning the coaches were out running around at 6:30 a.m., loading the bus because we had to check out and, win or lose, we were leaving right after the game. It’s the morning of the biggest game of our lives and what are the coaches doing at 6:30 a.m.? Well, they’re out there packing the bus.

So it was no surprise to me that our team had a slow start. There were so many things going on and so many distractions. We got in there at halftime, and I remember having a very candid but calm conversation with the team. I challenged them and I told them that everybody thinks we’re going to come out in the second half and be very impetuous, and we’re going to start to play a rambling-gambling style. I said we’re going to do exactly the opposite, we’re going to come out in a very calm demeanor and we’re going to dedicate ourselves to scoring the next touchdown. I felt if we could reduce the deficit to 11 points, automatically we would be back in the game and I had every confidence the team was going to play much better in the second half. But I also felt that if Calgary scored first after the break, that probably would have put it just a little bit out of reach.

When we came out for the first series, first of all, we lined up in two formations that we hadn’t used all year. And in both cases, Calgary must have had some kind of blitz or something on, because as soon as their free safety realized that we had gone to an empty backfield on both occasions, the Calgary defence used both timeouts. It seemed like a small thing at the time but later on in the game the use of those two timeouts would come back to haunt them because they couldn’t stop the clock at a time when they needed to in the dying minutes.

What do you remember as the key play of the game?

On that first series of the second half, we made a first down and were in pretty good shape. On second-and-10, Danny Brannagan throws the ball to my son, Devan, who scores a 60-yard touchdown which breathed life into our team. It kind of gave credence to the fact that we had a plan and, if we stuck to the plan, it was going to work and all we had to do was chip away at the lead in the third quarter, and then we could come back and beat them in the fourth.

As far as singular plays go, that was a magnificent pass and catch, but Scott Valberg also had a couple of outstanding receptions, Blaise Morrison had a couple of terrific plays; Marty Gordon and Jimmy Therrien both had great runs. There were also great defensive plays in the ballgame, and Dan Village hit his kicks and had a tremendous punt late in the fourth quarter.

In championship games like that, it’s so difficult to put your finger on one play but those would be the highlights that struck me.

(Note: Queen’s scored 26 unanswered points after the halftime break to go up 33-25 six minutes into the fourth quarter. Danny Brannagan, one of a number of seniors playing in their final university game, merited the Ted Morris Memorial Trophy as game MVP after he completed 17 of 33 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns. Valberg, also a fifth-year veteran, led all Gaels’ receivers with 109 yards and two majors on seven catches)

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

There were a number of things actually. In the game itself, you could say Calgary using their timeouts after we came out in an empty backfield.

Prior to the game, we started the week on Monday night. We had practice and about a half an hour before our evening meeting I got a surprise visit from Bob Wright, the quarterback of the 1983 Queen’s team, who was a very well-respected member of that team. He came in and he had a little gift bag and had brought me a bottle of wine. He said, “look, I just want you to know how proud we all are of the team and, win or lose, we think this has been a tremendous season and you’ve provided us all with great entertainment and a real source of pride.” Then he said, “I just have a small token of appreciation for the job you did”, and he gave me this bottle of wine. Then he said, “What’s going to happen when you get to Quebec City is things are going to be really crazy, they’re going to go fast. So you take a few minutes and pour yourself a glass of wine and remember to enjoy this for all that it’s worth, because you’ve really earned it.”

I really appreciated one of the alumni taking the time to come over to the stadium to just make this gesture of appreciation on the night before we left for Quebec City. I saw Bob on the field before the game, and of course it wasn’t long after that he took ill and died the following year. That was just one of those things you never forget.

Did the coaches do anything different from normal routine in the preparation for the game?

It was very different from the regular routine since we were on the road and had to get all of our video set up. Defensive coordinator Pat Tracey struggled early in the week because he has such a penchant for preparation and has a very systematic way of taking a team apart. With all the travel and the relocation, his personal schedule was off, so by the time we got to Wednesday night, he was very concerned. He didn’t feel that he had enough quality time on the film himself, didn’t feel that he had enough time to put together a plan for Calgary. He had put so much time and energy into getting ready for the Laval game that we really couldn’t afford to think ahead after that.

Then, there was this sort of cross-over point and once again Ryan Bechmanis got in there and got the video setup and got it organized and sat down along with Bob Vespaziani and Coach Tracey and they took it apart. At the end of that Wednesday night meeting, I’m not sure exactly how late into the morning, they had a plan and two days to implement it.

How did you or the team react to the stadium, the crowd, the weather conditions?

We were sort of chastised as the villains in Quebec City, as we were responsible for raining on their parade by beating Laval in the Mitchell Bowl. The stadium was sold-out as they were anticipating a triumphant return of their local heroes from Kingston, so there was a little bit of shock and certainly some resentment.

I’m sure the majority were fairly neutral. But if you were to ask someone coming into the stadium who they were pulling for, they may not have been pro-Calgary, but they were definitely against Queen’s.

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

It was pandemonium on the field. The presentation of the trophy was at field level and there was this giant melee of people and they had told everybody on the loud speaker to stay off the field. But I’m afraid that when you tell that to Queen’s fans, that means run, rush the team on the field.

There were interviews, there were hugs, little groups gathering for the presentations of the trophies and I was looking for my family, so it was a really, really bizarre time and a blur. I remember being one of the last ones to come off the field. Nightfall was setting, it was starting to get cold but I remember embracing my family and I was approached by several of the key alumni and they looked more stunned than anything to be honest. They had just been so taken by the journey that the team had been on all year, I don’t think anybody thought we’d beat Western the second time and nobody certainly believed we’d beat Laval, and here we are beating Calgary as well.

I went into the locker room and addressed the team. We hoisted the trophy and had a toast and I brought them back to that point at halftime where we weren’t on the verge of despair because we were a quality team, but that’s when most teams despair and I reminded them about the mountain we had to climb and the only way to get it done was that they had to lean on one another and they had to help each other through it. So it was just an emotional release after that.

Afterwards we went over to a beautiful reception that was organized by the football alumni. It was a tremendous celebration and a real golden Queen’s moment. They provided a first-class reception for the team, it was a place for the parents to gather and then it was 7:30 p.m. and time to go. We got on the bus and made the trek home to Kingston.

(Note: Queen’s playoff run was memorable in 2009. After defeating McMaster 32-6 in the OUA semifinals, the Gaels won shootouts against Western in the Yates Cup, 43-39, and Laval in the Mitchell Bowl, 33-30, before their comeback win over Calgary in the Vanier Cup)

What are your memories of the trip back home?

I think we walked into our home at quarter to four in the morning. And guess what my wife and I did? We sat there and watched the game! So really it was unbelievable and really a great thing.

What was the reaction on campus when the team returned?

Of course, you can’t be in two places at the same time, so we only heard about it, but we heard there was another golden moment in the university district in Kingston and at that moment when we were declared national champions, all the kids in the neighbourhood all ran out into the street and stopped traffic and there was this giant celebration. I would have loved to have seen the Queen’s students come alive like that. We only heard about it when we came back but I’m sure it would have been neat to see.

It wasn’t long after we returned when we got right back into reality because my wife had a pretty serious medical operation. She had kept it from us and she let us know on Monday that she was going in the hospital on Wednesday, so we got right back to reality in a hurry.

I got sick that Wednesday night and couldn’t attend the parade that they had Thursday for the team but Coach Tracey was there to represent me, and the whole staff and the team were honoured.

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

There is a point of self-actualization that every coach has. I can recall I was in my fourth year with McGill as an assistant coach when we won the national championship. What you don’t realize at the time is what an unbelievable achievement that is. Here I am 30 years of age and we win the national championship. What you learn later is there are people who spend their entire careers without getting a chance to go to the national championship, let alone win one. So there really is a very succinct club, and I sort of got an auxiliary membership as the assistant head coach.

Coming to Queen’s, talk about a legacy program. One of the things that people around the program were not shy about saying is that for the previous four decades, Queen’s has had a team go to the Vanier Cup, in ‘68, ‘78, ‘83 and ‘92. My decade is coming to an end. We hit 2009 and in addition to everything else and all the other pressures of trying to bring a national championship back to Queen’s, my decade is on its last stand. So I could only imagine the critics saying how we had made in the last four decades and not this one. We ended up getting it done on time so it was just one of those things that worked out nicely.

As I told my two sons, you don’t know when your next opportunity to be a national champion may come and as the years go by, you will learn how truly special it is.

How often to you reminisce about your Vanier Cup win?

There was just a great group of guys that came together on time and got it done. It was a culmination of years of work of course and that’s what is most gratifying about the whole thing. It’s not just having a great season; it sometimes takes you a career to get you into a position to win a national championship.

Where did you go to university, what did you study, and did you play football there?

I have a Bachelor of Science in physical education and a Masters in Education from Concordia, and a Masters in Sports Administration from McGill. I played football for five seasons with Concordia as a tight end and offensive lineman.

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