Dan McNally’s favourite memories of his 14-year coaching career with the Gryphons are a pair of Yates Cup championship wins, and he feels a little bad about it.
“That’s unfair to everyone else that was here and did their part and didn’t win a championship,” he says. “That as much as anything is a function of timing.”
McNally had a good sense of timing when he arrived in Guelph to become head coach of the Gryphons in 1987, three seasons after they’d won the national championship Vanier Cup game. Previous coach John Musselman had left to become the athletic director at his hometown university, the University of Windsor.
The Gryphons reached the Yates Cup final in McNally’s first season, but lost to Laurier. They’d get there two more times with McNally at the helm and won them both – 45-10 over Western in 1992 and 23-13 over Waterloo in 1996.
But the season before his last Yates Cup win is one that McNally also remembers. The Gryphons were 1-7 that season, the worst single-season record during his time at Guelph.
“I look at the 95 team that some … took pains to remind me that it was the worst team in the country and that you’re not going to get better next year,” he recalls. “That 95 team really, to me, is one of the most memorable. We were close. We were knocking on the door all year long and they knew it. The fact that they hung in there with the same guys the next year, the same players and the same coaches basically and won the Yates Cup.”
In the 1995 season, three of the losses were by less than a touchdown.
“That was a big turnaround,” McNally says. “We were 1-7 and probably ranked 24th out of 23 teams.
“Those things kind of stick with you.”
McNally recorded 50 regular-season wins with the Gryphons in his coaching career, the most by any Gryphon head coach. He also had 51 losses and three ties. And he was 6-6 in the playoffs.
During his time with the Gryphons, McNally tried to cultivate the family feeling that every team talks about, but just seems to be more prevalent at Guelph. He wanted the players’ parents to attend the games and stick around afterwards.
“We just tried to do things where after the game the parents got together,” he says. “That just started to develop. We’d have our post-game receptions and more and more parents would hang around. We’d have dinners and things like that.”
It just seemed like a natural thing to do and really wasn’t all that hard to get the parents involved.
“That was to me just what made sense,” McNally says. “Your folks are interested in what you do and they’d like to come and see you play so let’s try to make it welcoming and things like that. To me it’s a pretty easy extension and a pretty easy connection to make.”
There have been a lot changes with the sports facilities on campus since he was coach here. McNally got a close look at them a couple of months ago when he had a tour of the campus prior to the Gryphon Football Gala when the 1992 team was honoured.
“It would’ve been nice (to have those facilities when I coached), but that just wasn’t in the conversation at all back in those days,” he says. “We were playing at very old facilities (throughout the league) and our facilities at Guelph at that point were fine relative to everyone else.”
Prior to attending the gala, McNally watched a YouTube video on the 1992 Gryphons and found it enthralling.
“It was exciting,” he says. “I was just shocked how good we were and how well we made plays.”
McNally’s football coaching career has gone full circle. He started as an assistant coach with the Acadia Axemen in Wolfville, N.S., after playing there. Now he’s back there as an assistant coach and admits he doesn’t follow the Gryphons.
“I don’t follow anything very much. I really don’t,” he says. “I’m a semi-professional hermit and it’s nothing other than I really like my life out there. It’s quiet. I really don’t feel the need to go anywhere and do anything that isn’t right there for me.
“My world keeps getting smaller. I used to be able to tell you year after year who won the Vanier Cup and who was in the semifinals and all those things, but not anymore. I’m just worried about – we’re playing Mount A next week or StFX or Saint Mary’s. That’s about as far afield as I cast my eyes right now.”
McNally will get a chance to see this year’s Gryphons during the pre-season when Guelph, Acadia and St. Francis Xavier get together for a three-team event at Antigonish, N.S., Aug. 19.