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Coach Mac hangs it up after 12 years with Guelph Gryphons

Mike MacDonald received the provincial OUA and national U SPORTS volunteer coach of the year awards in 2021

Offensive line coach Mike MacDonald of Ontario university football’s Guelph Gryphons has decided to retire from coaching with the team after 12 years on their sidelines.

“I think the time was just right,” the 64-year-old said. “I felt like the time had come. This particular year, I was away from my wife, away from my home for three months which was hard – harder on her. We have this lovely home in the county and it's a property and there's work that needs to be done to keep it up. You know, there comes a time when you want to do other things.

"Football's an all-consuming thing. Coaching football at that level is very intensive. I love it. I love coaching. I love competition and my time at Guelph was outstanding, but we want to be able to do some travelling now.”

MacDonald, who had been a sergeant in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, retired immediately after the completion of the 2021 season when the Gryphons lost the OUA West final to the Western Mustangs.

“My wife has put up with me coaching for over 40 years and 28 years in the Mounted Police when you're away from home a lot and long hours and all of the commitment and stress and moving around all over the place,” he said. “I felt it was just finally time for us to take some time for us and do some travelling. I missed some family events this year because of football. I don't want to miss any more of those.”

During most of his time with the Gryphons, MacDonald commuted from Burlington where he had also been involved with coaching in the minor football association there. After his wife retired around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, they moved to the Picton area. That meant this recently completed season he lived in Guelph and was away from his family.

While he is retiring from an active coaching role with the Gryphons, he’s not totally walking away from the sport.

“I've had a great career coaching. I love coaching,” he said. “I'm probably going to be doing a little bit here in the local area, get involved maybe with high school or there's a CJFL team here that has already asked me to help. I might do some not full-time stuff, just skills work, clinic work, help wherever I can.”

He’s also not abandoning the Gryphons, a team that has been good to him and his family. Both his sons, Brett and Daniel, played for the Gryphons while he was coaching there. They weren’t offensive linemen so he didn’t directly coach them.

“I'm also going to be eyes and ears for the Gryphons in this area, this region,” he said. “I'll do a little bit of recruiting. If the guys know of somebody down here they want me to go see play, I'll go see them play. I'll go to some high school games and just see what's out there. I think it's an area that we haven't really exploited as much as when I moved here. I've got a running back committed to us already from Belleville who's an outstanding running back. So I'll do some of that. I'll keep connected to the program. As they say, once a Gryphon, always a Gryphon.”

MacDonald started as an assistant offensive line coach after his son Brett transferred to the University of Guelph following the steroid scandal with the Waterloo Warriors that resulted in that school stepping away from football for the 2010 season.

“My first year was Stu Lang's first year (as head coach),” MacDonald said. “The reason I ended up at Guelph was that my son, Brett, transferred from Waterloo to Guelph after that steroid incident at Waterloo. He did not believe that the program was going to survive.

“Stu had taken over and I was asked if I would help Carl Tolmie, who was the offensive line coach at the time. I was coaching (Burlington) Notre Dame high school football in the fall. I was coaching (Burlington) Stampeder football in the summer. I would go from a Notre Dame practice, drive from Burlington up to Guelph to help Carl on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and then game days. That's how I got involved, through my son Brett. I was there from the start of Stu Lang's tenureship as the coach.”

MacDonald is grateful for having the fortune to know and work with Lang.

“He had a great influence on me both as a coach and man,” he said. “He is truly a great human being that sees the big picture better than anyone I have ever met. He was a great coach and mentor and the program would never have enjoyed the success it has without him. He had a great impact on a lot of young people, the players loved him.”

Lang was the first of four head coaches the Gryphons had during MacDonald’s time with the team. Lang stepped down from the head coaching position following the team’s OUA championship Yates Cup win in 2015. He was replaced, in order, by Kevin MacNeil, Todd Galloway and Ryan Sheahan. The transformation from Galloway to Sheahan brought 11 new coaches in, meaning MacDonald was one of the few returning coaches and the only full-time coach back with the team.

“It was a challenging time, but we came out of it and had a pretty good season learning a whole new system and a whole new way of doing things,” he said. “I've had four head coaches at that school in the time that I've been there. Each guy has his own way of doing things and that's the nature of it. You need consistency so I guess an old guy like me was the consistency.”

During his time with the Gryphons, MacDonald worked with 80 offensive linemen according to the rosters on the Gryphon web site. And eight of them (Jake Piotrowski, Cameron Thorn, Kyle Fraser-Audit, Matt Toppan, Andrew Pickett, Jaylan Guthrie, Eric Starczala, Coulter Woodmansey) were picked in CFL drafts.

“Quite a few went on. My view of it was that I'm going to give you everything I've got and I expect you to give me everything you've got and together we'll do this,” MacDonald said. “We'll get better and we have a chance to succeed. I think being, and it's a cliché, but firm and fair is a way a coach should be. It should be objective. Players are pretty smart. They know when somebody's not being clear with them or truthful with them. I don't operate that way. My coaching method was to be up front with them, let them know exactly where they stand, where they're at in their development, why they're not dressing, why they're not starting and what they can do to get to that point and that I will help them get to that point.”

MacDonald capped off his time with the Gryphons by winning both the provincial OUA and national U SPORTS (Gino Fracas Award) awards for volunteer coach of the year. He stepped back into a part-time role in 2021 and that made him eligible for those awards.

“It was gratifying because a coach is nothing without his players,” he said. “If his players don't buy into what he teaches or how he teaches or his philosophy on football and life and hard work and all of that, if they don't buy into that no coach can be successful. So I was proud of it on behalf of my players because without players a coach won't accomplish anything. I was proud of what my players had done to put me in a position to win that.”

The affect he had on his players became apparent when they came forward to offer congratulations for those awards and best wishes when he made his retirement notice public.

“I had players and people reaching out to me who I hadn't coached since atom Stampeders type of thing, so it was an honour. It's an honour, it really is and a proud moment.”

He also made sure to reply to all of them.

“I wanted to make sure that anybody who took the time to reach out to me, I was going to reach out back to them. That's just the way I was brought up. It's common courtesy and I was grateful to them.”

Those players reaching out also confirmed he’d done a good job with his football and life lessons.

“Two of my proudest moments as a coach was attending weddings in the last couple of years,” he said. “Being invited to go there and to attend those weddings and all of a sudden there are 10 of my guys that I coached there and we get a chance to socialize and say hello and catch up. That's why you coach. For me being able to have that kind of a positive effect on young people is far more important than championships.”