WATERLOO — The University of Waterloo Warriors’ football coaching turnstile has finally stopped spinning, and now the players can’t stop grinning.
When Ontario University Athletics football camps opened this week, veteran Warriors linebacker Brendan Conway found himself answering to his fourth head coach in his five seasons at Waterloo.
But the Burlington native figures new Warriors head coach Chris Bertoia, signed to a long-term deal in the off-season, is here to stay. And that belief makes all the difference
“Last year, there was uncertainty. The school believes in (Bertoia). He can stay here 20 years doing this job,” said Conway, 23.
“That fact brings a lot of confidence to the players coming in that he’s the guy who will be there for them until they graduate and also for the vets.”
Since Tuffy Knight’s glory days with the Warriors nearly two decades ago, and his successor Chris Triantafilou, the team has mostly sputtered.
Others coaches like Dennis McPhee, Joe Paopao and current assistant Marshall Bingeman have given it the old college try.
But there’s no denying the Warriors, without a winning season since 1998 and without a playoff appearance since 2003, were stuck up to their axles in mud. They’ve won only four games in their past four seasons combined.
Bertoia, 38, a former offensive lineman for the Warriors during Knight’s glorious run, went on to become the recruiting co-ordinator and assistant coach for the Western Mustangs.
At Waterloo, he enters his first season as a head coach at this level and first as an offensive co-ordinator.
But what the well-respected Bertoia lacks in experience, he more than makes up for with exuberance.
“We’ve got a young and energetic staff,” Bertoia said Monday of his new assistant coaching hires — Matt Robichaud (defensive co-ordinator), Andy MacGregor (receivers), Sam Sabourin (strength and conditioning) and former Laurier quarterback and offensive co-ordinator Ryan Pyear (quarterbacks).
“Some people might say we are inexperienced. And they are right.
“But Greg Marshall and Glen Constantin had to start somewhere, too,” Bertoia said of two of the most famous coaches in Canadian university football.
Bertoia said he’s thrilled with the morale — and financial — support that UW’s administration has offered the football team.
And the players — 92 of them in camp this week — sounded like they are eager to make another fresh start, this time with a long-term objective.
“There’s been a real noticeable attitude change since (Bertoia) got here. You could see that translate on the field right away,” said Warriors sophomore quarterback Lucas McConnell, 19.
“People are flying around the field. Everyone is competing and guys are having fun,” said the Waterford, Ont., native.
“Our goal is to achieve the same level of success that Coach Bertoia reached when he played here. We want to bring back Warrior pride. We want to make something our fans and this community can be proud of. “
The Warriors have 40 freshmen in camp and about 10 seniors to build their team around this season. Team depth is much improved over last season when the threadbare club went to battle with just seven offensive linemen on its roster.
This year, the Warriors are bigger in size and in numbers. They will march 13 O-linemen to the trenches, including six-foot-five, 290-pound freshman Jesse Gibbon from Hamilton.
“There’s going to be bumps in the road, no doubt. I’m going to make mistakes just like the players,” said Bertoia. “We accept that and we’ll learn from it.
“If it all works out, this is where I retire,” said the coach. “I can’t see myself any place else.”
The Warriors open their regular season on Aug. 30 when the Guelph Gryphons visit Warrior Field for a 7 p.m. kickoff.