Gary Waterman – Head Coach, StFX University Football (U Sports)
By Dashawn Stephens, PRSVRE
What does it mean to be a builder of a program’s history in 5 different decades? Just ask Gary Waterman, 1 of only 3 Black Head Coaches in Canadian university football. The St. Francis Xavier University (StFX) football head coach has roots within the program’s history that stretch back to 1988. It was then, a young Waterman began his collegiate playing career with the X-Men. Pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in science and physical education, Waterman played on both sides of the ball as both a running back and defensive back. In 4 seasons with StFX, Waterman was 3x AUS All-Star and 3x team MVP. Most times, athletes opt to use every year of eligibility they can in order to continue playing the sport that they love. However, for Waterman, his sights were already set on beginning the next chapter of his life.
“I always had an inclination and passion for coaching. I knew that as a teacher, [coaching] was something that I wanted to get into, so I started coaching right away, and from there it led to an opportunity at a high school on a part-time contract and that [eventually] got extended into a full-time job”
That coaching opportunity came at Father Michael Goetz Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario. Fulfilling his passion for serving youth, being a full-time teacher allowed Waterman to step into the next chapter of his football life. Coaching at the high school level served as an opportunity for Waterman to tap into his identity as a coach.
”There are so many ways to get successful and styles to get successful. It’s really about finding out who you are as a coach, and as a person and a leader in terms of that responsibility, and then it’s about learning and being a lifelong learner”
Waterman would go on to teach at Father Michael Goetz Secondary School for 15 years. In addition to coaching football, he also coached basketball, track and field, and even took a shot at hockey. However, for Waterman, football always carried sentimental value. That same sentimental value is what brought Waterman back to Antigonish in the 2004-2005 season when former StFX head coach John Bloomfield invited Waterman as a guest coach for X-Men practices. What started out as guest coaching invitations eventually evolved into a defensive coordinator offer at StFX. Waterman jumped at the opportunity and moved with his family back to Antigonish, Nova Scotia – putting an end to his nearly 20-year teaching career in the GTA. Continuing his teaching career in Nova Scotia, while crafting defensive schemes, Waterman spent 3 seasons as the defensive coordinator for the X-Men before eventually taking over as the Head Coach in 2009.
At the time of his hiring, StFX hadn’t won the Loney Bowl since 1996. Now at the helm for the team that he once suited up for, Waterman was motivated more than ever to lead the charge in recreating the X-Men success that the football community in Antigonish had so desperately coveted.
“We had players and teams that were good enough to win, and for whatever reason, we just couldn’t get over the hump”
In Waterman’s first season as head coach in 2009, he coached the X-Men to a 6-2 record and even an appearance in the Loney Bowl. The X-Men came up short against the high-powered Saint Mary’s Huskies. Waterman and the X-Men would knock on the door of the Jewitt Trophy again in 2014 but would fall short to the Mount Allison Mounties. Similar to the ghosts of StFX past, the X-Men were equipped with great players and had built great teams, but just couldn’t get over the “hump” that had denied them of a conference championship for 18 years. That changed in 2015.
With the pursuit of a conference championship solely on his mind, Waterman led the 2015 X-Men on a campaign that saw the team go 5-3, fighting their way back to another Loney Bowl appearance. A rematch with Mount Allison in Sackville, Nova Scotia bore a similar resemblance to their 2014 Loney Bowl meeting upon anticipation. However, the end result saw the X-Men pulling off a 14-12 victory.
“We had to kick a 42-yard field goal into the wind, and it bounced off the uprights and rolled in to put us ahead, and then [Mount Allison] was driving down the field and we picked the ball off to end the game”
This victory brought StFX their first conference championship win since 1996. As an alumnus, Waterman knew the importance of this win to the StFX community. During one of his most crowning moments as a head coach, Waterman’s mind was solely on the talented X-Men players and coaches of years past who came up short.
“I was interviewed at the end of the game and asked what it felt like and I said
‘I’m most happy for these guys, but I’m equally as happy for the players who were here before us that were unable to get the job done. This is their victory too. This is for those guys as well’
That to me was a great moment”
The 2015 season marked the first of three conference championship wins for the StFX X-Men over the course of 4 seasons. In each of those three championship seasons, Waterman also took home AUS Coach of the Year honours.
Since being hired as head coach in 2009, Waterman has recreated a tradition of excellence at StFX. 15 athletes have been drafted to the CFL while playing for Waterman – including Hénoc Muamba, the first player in X-Men history to be drafted 1st overall. Now entering his 12th season as head coach of the X-Men, Waterman looks to continue a tradition of excellence in Antigonish, while keeping the door open for the X-Men of today to become the CFL stars of tomorrow.
Only 1 of 3
Waterman is currently only 1 of 3 Black head coaches in U SPORTS football. The lack of minority head coach hirings in U SPORTS football has become a glaring issue across the country, as the league has 24 remaining teams, and 2 conferences without a single Black head coach.
“There is work to be done when you look at the landscape of all athletics. We want that to grow in terms of representation. That’s a challenge. That’s one of the things that we are hoping to see, more opportunities for people of colour…to be a head coach at a U SPORTS school is a blessing, but we wanna continue to push the envelope”
In addition to the lack of head coach hirings, Waterman shed’s light on another issue that deserves more attention. The financial compensation of Black coaches for their services. When Waterman was defensive coordinator for the X-Men, he had to work as a full-time teacher in Antigonish because the program was unable to provide full-time compensation for his coaching services. Waterman believes this is an issue that should be among the top priorities for all 27 U SPORTS football institutions.
“There’s a lot of Black coaches, but they aren’t getting full-time salaries. They’re doing other work and coaching. So increasing the number of paid positions for Black coaches [should be] a goal across the country”
In addition, Waterman believes that the practice of networking should be adopted by agents of change from coast to coast as strength truly does exist within numbers.
“A lot of times there are a lot of little things happening, but everyone is working in silos. There is no interconnectivity to what is happening. I think a big part of it is connecting the dots, so that you can make the whole landscape [bigger], and then working together and collaborating”
In a league where Black head coaches are scarce, Waterman serves as an inspiration to many. One of the people that Waterman has served as an inspiration to is former StFX receiver Kwame Osei. Osei is now a receivers coach with the Queen’s Gaels football team but cites Waterman as one of the driving factors for his coaching passions.
”Seeing [Gary Waterman] as a Black head coach made me believe that I as a Black man, can one day be a head coach too”
Waterman believes that ethnic representation on U SPORTS football coaching staffs is essential in inspiring youth Black coaches to chase their aspirations.
“When you have a face that looks like you and identifies with the same experiences that you have, it helps with building confidence, it helps with building comfort. You can see yourself accomplishing those things because someone is actually doing it! To have diverse faces in these positions for people that are aspiring to do these jobs are very critical in having them get that belief and confidence they can do it as well”
When it comes to racial equity in Canadian sports, the time is now more than ever for sport leaders to step up and perform. One initiative borne from action is the Black Football Coaches of Canada (BFCC), the football sport subdivision of the Black Canadian Coaches Association. The BFCC first came together through the connecting of Black collegiate football coaches across Canada, including Waterman and Osei. The group also encompasses men and women in tackle and flag football across the country. Waterman is also the Chair of the newly created StFX Athletics Racial Equity Committee to help lead positive change through StFX University’s athletics department.
So, what does it mean to be a builder of a program’s history in 5 different decades? For Gary Waterman, it means 3 AUS All-Star selections, 3 AUS Coach of the Year nods, 3 Loney Bowl victories, and 15 players drafted to the CFL. It also means breaking colour barriers and fighting for institutional change while inspiring the next generation of Black football coaches. For all that he has done (and will continue to do) on and off the field, Gary Waterman truly is a Trailblazer in Canadian Heritage and a Leader through Sport.