If Ontario university basketball play returns for play in the first few months of 2021, it should bring back memories of the heyday of the Guelph Gryphons.
The Gryphons won their one and only OUA provincial university men’s basketball title in 1990, the first year they reached the CIAU (now U Sports) championship tournament since their lone national title win in 1974. The Gryphs also went to the national tournament in 1991, 1992, 1995, 1997 and 2003. Current coach Chris O’Rourke was the coach in 2003 while Tim Darling guided the Gryphons to the four tournament appearances in the 1990s.
“I enjoyed my time at Guelph,” Darling said during a video chat from Hong Kong where he is currently based. “I was just sad it ended the way it did, but I was real happy with all the experience there.”
Darling’s contract was not renewed following a loss in the national consolation final, the fifth-place game, to complete the 1997 season and O’Rourke was promoted after serving as an assistant coach.
“I wish it could have finished on a more positive note, but I never regretted my time in the Royal City,” Darling said.
During Darling’s tenure, OUA basketball used a two-division format and there was no interdivisional play as there is now. The fall was used for preseason games and the regular season started when students returned to school from the Christmas and exam break.
With the current Guelph Gryphons Athletic Centre not even a thought at that time, the Gryphons played their home games in the old Mitchell Athletics Centre and it would be packed. Stands went all the way to the rafters and fans often showed up for the women’s game, always the first game of a women’s-men’s doubleheader, in order to get seats for the men’s game. And it would be an experience.
“We had that place rocking,” Darling said. “The players were like NBA players in town. I exaggerate, but I think they were more popular than the Storm because in basketball, you're more visible than in hockey. They can see you and it's more intimate.”
The gym was also nicknamed the House of Slam in the 1990s during the days of Tim Mau and Eric Hammond, although Darling didn’t take credit for that name.
“John Beechy, our manager, he called it that,” Darling said. “I brought the guys in who could do the slams, but he called it that.”
And the gym would be a raucous place during Darling’s time. He recalls one time when they were hosting the Western Mustangs and the fans were each given a copy of the school newspaper, the Ontarion.
“They had the paper so when they introduced Western, all the fans put the paper up (in front of their faces) and yelled 'Who cares,’” he said. “They never ceased to surprise me with the hijinks and you had crazy Dino jumping around. You had to love his passion and enthusiasm.”
He also remembers the support the fans gave the team, even during the warm-ups.
“The loudest I heard our gym in all the years was when Darren (Thomas) dunked in the warm-ups,” Darling said. “He was 5-foot-5 and the place just (went wild). I wasn't even watching, but the place goes nuts in the warm-up so I go 'What the heck happened?' ‘Darren, he dunked.’”
While Darling is proud of the success the team had on the floor, he’s equally proud of the effort the players put into their schoolwork.
“I'm just so happy that we gave an opportunity to so many guys who weren't the greatest students, but we gave them a chance and got them in,” he said.
Darling had his assistant coaches monitor the players’ schoolwork as he didn’t feel he would be the right person for that job. However, he could certainly relate to the players and their academic endeavours.
“I was certainly not a good student,” he said. “I got kicked out of three high schools in the States and in Canada and I had to go to community college in order to get into university and so on. I could appreciate giving people that chance and believing in them and making them believe in themselves, really.”
During Darling’s 11 seasons with the Gryphons, they posted an overall regular-season record of 102-48 that included eight seasons when they hit double digits in victories. And the regular season was 12 to 14 games in length those seasons.
After his time in Guelph, Darling spent time as an assistant coach with the Brandon Bobcats of the Canada West conference and at Acadoa pit East before moving on to coach in Lebanon, England, Hong Kong and Poland. He coached teams to championship wins in Lebanon and Hong Kong and got a Masters degree during his time in England.
Darling also coached the Hong Kong national team for 10 years during which time the team appeared in three Asian Games tournaments and three Asian championship tournaments.
He was to have coached in Division 3 of the Hong Kong league this year, but the coronavirus pandemic has scuppered that.
Almost unbelievably, Darling, the student who was booted out of three high schools, has now taught high school and he’s also become a basketball referee. The irony of that wasn’t lost on the coach who used to argue with OUA referees.
When he went to see a game in Hong Kong in which his former player Kyle Julius was the coach of visiting touring side. At halftime, Julius was having a heated discussion with one of the referees.
“I'm in the stands going 'No, don't do that.' Me of all people am telling him not to yell at the guy,” Darling said. “How ironic is that -- pretty funny.”
While the Guelph Nighthawks of the Canadian Elite Basketball League are not in the market for a head coach, if that situation were to change Darling would certainly like to be considered as a candidate for the job.
“I'd go back in a heartbeat and coach that team,” he said. “I've watched that league (online). If I went back and coached that team, I think the community, the guys that remember, would come out and watch.
“I'd go back there in a heartbeat. I know we could win and get people interested again.”
“That would be full circle. It would be so ironic – 27 years later and go back and win a championship with that team.”