Simon Fraser's Somto Anyadike runs against Midwestern State on Sept. 24, 2022. Simon Fraser’s Somto Anyadike runs the ball against MSU on Saturday, September 24, 2022 at Memorial Stadium. (Naomi Skinner/Wichita Falls Times Record News, via USA Today Sports.)

After a month-plus of heavy backlash from athletes, alumni, and fans against Simon Fraser University over the school’s April decision to shut down its football program, that may be set for a reversal. The Burnaby, B.C.-based university has now announced the hiring of a special advisor to “review options and search for a sustainable way forward” for the Red Leafs’ football team. And while SFU was the only Canadian school competing in the NCAA (in Division II, since 2010), and continues to do that with their other sports, their announcement of the hiring of special advisor Bob Copeland includes the detail that he will evaluate the possibility of the football team returning to Canadian competition in Canada West and U SPORTS:

Copeland is a senior vice president at McLaren Global Sport Solutions. He has previously consulted on projects for U SPORTS and the CFL, amongst other leagues. And that release indicates that his report will specifically look into the possibility of the Red Leafs (renamed that in 2022, following the 2020 decision to abandon their previous nicknames of Clan and Clansmen) considering U SPORTS as a destination. Here’s more on that from the release:

Terms of Reference for the work include to:

1. Provide an independent assessment regarding the viability of resuming an inter-university football program at SFU in 2024 or later.

2. Evaluate support for competitive exhibition game opportunities for SFU football student-athletes in 2023 as a means of transitioning to a potential new operating model and league in 2024.

…4. Initiate a dialogue with selected football governing bodies to explore the feasibility and requirements of SFU football being granted membership status. For example, this shall include USPORTS, Canada West Athletics Conference, NAIA, and other organisations that may be identified.

5. Seek the perspectives of other football stakeholders in Canada including the Canadian Football League, Football Canada, and others that may be identified.

SFU’s other current 16 varsity programs remain in NCAA Division II in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (apart from women’s wrestling, which is in the Women’s College Wrestling Association). Their football team played in that conference from 2010 to 2021 before they and the other two remaining GNAC schools sponsoring football (Central Washington and Western Oregon) announced a move to the Texas-based Lone Star Conference for football only. But that conference recently announced they wouldn’t allow the Red Leafs (seen above in a Sept. 24, 2022 game) to continue there after 2023, and that led to SFU’s controversial April decision to shut down their football program even earlier than that.

What’s particularly interesting about the terms of reference here specifically mentioning U SPORTS is that that concept was given short shrift by SFU around the initial announcement of eliminating football. The university announced they had had talks with U SPORTS, but director of athletics Theresa Hanson told Jess Balzer of the Burnaby Now then that “Pursuing an exemption for football only would be very complex, it’s unprecedented. …There’s no path for that.”

As many noted then, though, “unprecedented” didn’t stop SFU’s 2010 move to the NCAA. And there were indications from U SPORTS and Canada West officials that they were expecting an application from the Red Leafs and would consider it, but they never received one. Now, it looks like that pathway will be more fully considered under this review. (The review had been previously announced in April, but without a lot of specifics. It now has a special advisor and spelled-out terms.)

It’s also notable that this news of Copeland’s appointment comes on the same day as a group of current players losing their bid for a court injunction to reinstate the program. The B.C. Supreme Court has made it clear they won’t force SFU to bring football back. But even with that, there does appear to be more hope for the program than there was around this announcement of Copeland as the special advisor, and with specific terms of reference on potential exhibition games this fall and dialogue with U SPORTS.

SFU played football by Canadian rules in Canada West and U SPORTS predecessor CIS from 2002-2009, winning the Hardy Trophy as Canada West champions in 2003. Before that, they played football by American rules in the NAIA from 1965-2001. It’s not clear yet that they’ll be heading back to Canadian football, as the NAIA is also mentioned here, and that could perhaps be an option as well. But the formal announcement they’re considering Canadian possibilities, and some other ones, raises some hope for the future of this program.

There seems to be strong support for the return of SFU football from alumni and the community. The Simon Fraser University Football Alumni Society recently raised $700,000 in a fundraising drive (which will be distributed to the program if and when it’s brought back). And B.C. Lions’ owner Amar Doman has spoken about his eagerness to help bring the Red Leafs back to life. The team has only gone 18-99 over 12 NCAA seasons, but it’s faced a lot of challenges there with travel, the border, and more. And there are a lot of people who do want to see this program come back.

SFU football has been huge for the CFL as well: 217 players from the university have been drafted into that league over the years, more than any other school. And 11 prominent former SFU football players asked the university to remove them from its Hall of Fame if they wouldn’t bring football back. Perhaps Copeland’s appointment and his upcoming review, which is set to be completed by September, may make that unnecessary.


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.