Feature / Spring 2004
Team Players

Through Project Blue, alumni and friends are creating a 
level playing field for student athletes


When the young alumnae of this team reminisce, it’s not about their accomplishments, though they’ve had many since women’s rugby became an intercollegiate sport in 1994. An Ontario Women’s Interuniversity Athletic Association silver in its first year of existence; seven players on Canada’s national team; three All-Canadians. And – name a team that can boast this – two Rhodes Scholars: Phyllis “Allie” Binnie (BSc 1997 Trinity) and Andrea Iaboni (BSc 1998 UC).

The rugby alumnae would rather talk about black eyes. And going to classes with bruises on their shins. And moments of camaraderie – such as when they played at night during a snowstorm, huddling together at halftime, trying to keep their bodies warm and their spirits up. They delight in having played the “gentlemen’s sport,” which deems that participants knock each other around the field for 80 minutes and then retreat to a pub, where the home team treats the opposition to food and pints. “We sang songs and we talked about rugby. I met some of my best friends that way,” says former player Sarah Hall (BSc 1996 New College), who now coaches the U of T team. “We were out there to try something new. It was full contact and physically exhausting, but we learned that you need your team. You need everyone out there on the field making tackles and supporting each other and communicating. It teaches you that about life.”

Life came knocking for these young alumnae in 1997 when 
U of T launched Project Blue, a fundraising campaign to endow intercollegiate teams, academic scholarships and two sport-research centres in the Faculty of Physical Education and Health. U of T athletic directors and coaches set endowment goals for each team, ranging from $13,160 for Nordic skiing to $1.5 million for football. The university promised to continue funding operating costs for its 46-team intercollegiate program, including money for league play, coaching, facilities and uniforms. However, it needed team endowments, which would yield yearly interest to provide the enhancements – coaching assistants, specialized equipment and travel to competitions for national and international experience. If alumni could raise $2 million before year-end 2002, the university promised to match it.

By the end of 2002, Project Blue not only met U of T’s $2-million challenge, it surpassed it. At the close of 2003, with matching monies, Project Blue had raised $4.7 million. However, it still has a way to go to reach its $7.4-million goal. Some teams and scholarships and the two sport-research centres are still looking for endowment money.
It’s been a huge team effort and a tough go, admits Project Blue campaign chair Bill L’Heureux (LLB 1971). The “bottom-up” campaign attracted gifts from as many as 3,500 alumni and friends. “Not many phys. ed. grads go into huge-paying jobs. We’re not likely to get the $2-million gift,” he says. “It’s harder for us, but for me, it was payback time. Sports helped shape my life and my character.”

Today’s student athletes and scholars are already benefiting from the money raised by Project Blue. It helped send 45 track athletes and 24 swimmers to Florida for warm-weather training camps over the winter break, bought boats for the rowing team and a $3,000 scrum training machine for the men’s and women’s rugby teams.
The funding will also help student athletes chase the Olympic dream. Case in point is first-year phys. ed. and health student Mark Dillon, who last year achieved the sixth-best junior high-jump mark in the world. To become an Olympic contender, he needs to compete in Europe with the world’s best high jumpers this summer, and Project Blue will help him get there. “Varsity budgets are spread evenly between athletes,” says swim coach Byron MacDonald, “but athletes with international aspirations need disproportionate funding. We need to be able to send the best to compete internationally so we can attract the best to our programs.”

Project Blue is also endowing academic scholarships in physical education and health as well as co-curricular scholarships, which are awarded to students who attain both academic and athletic excellence. Now, the Faculty of Physical Education and Health awards nearly $160,000 annually. Alumni who donate to Project Blue scholarships will have their donation matched by the provincial government’s second phase of the Ontario Student Opportunity Trust Fund (OSOTF).

Scholarships help students such as Angela Nardella, a fourth-year physical education and health student and swim-team member. “Swimming teaches time management,” says Nardella, “and it gives you an element of mental toughness. You know how to work hard and that working hard will get you somewhere.” Earning two scholarships meant that she could limit her part-time job to five hours a week, allowing her to train 15 to 20 hours a week and also be a volunteer therapist for the football team.

Between 1993 and 1995, the athletics department faced down a double torpedo: a budget cut of $1 million and a stipulation to achieve gender equity. Men’s and women’s sports were to receive equal funding. Football, women’s ice hockey and 11 other intercollegiate sports were put on the chopping block. “A civil war erupted,” says Bruce Kidd, dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Health. “Students and alumni pushed back and said there should be more [sports opportunities] rather than less.”

After what Kidd describes as “a long and rancorous” consultation, U of T agreed that it should offer a wider variety of sports rather than limiting the teams to just a few, as other universities have done when faced with budget squeezes. “These steps made us the strongest and richest [athletic department] in terms of opportunity in Canada, if not North America,” says Kidd, “but restoring programs meant that the university couldn’t go it alone.” Students stepped up and now pay $180 a year in ancillary athletic fees. Project Blue helps alumni to contribute as well.

Rugby’s Jing Kao (BSc 1999 Innis) and Sarah Hall recognized the campaign to be an extraordinary opportunity to ensure that women’s rugby would not only survive, but thrive. But moving the ball up this field would be tough. “How do you approach women who have been out of school for just a few years and are not making big money?” asked Kao. Two anonymous alumni pledged $215,000 to match money donated to women’s and less-traditional sports at U of T. Consequently, every dollar that women’s rugby received magically turned into at least $4. First, the dollar donation was matched by the University of Toronto to make $2, then by the anonymous alumni to make $4. (If the donor happened to work for a company that matched employee donations, the $1 would start out as $2, then be matched by U of T and the anonymous alumni to make $8.)

Hall sent out a letter to former teammates asking them to give $300. Many pledged by credit card – $20 a month over 15 months. The parents of a couple of student team members pitched in, and so did two players on this year’s roster. One player pledged $5 a month on her credit card. “It was a little-by-little thing,” says Kao, “but even someone giving $50 was great, because you knew it would double and double again. Every contribution really mattered, so it was exciting to get every call.”

The initial campaign raised $23,477 that, when matched by U of T, rose to $46,894. Women’s rugby at the University of Toronto is on its way to its endowment goal of $80,000. “I know that wherever we go, whatever happens, there’s a chunk of money in the bank for the women’s rugby team,” says Hall. “It’s a good feeling to know that we’ve done our part to help the team survive.”

Teams that have achieved the greatest success have followed the example set by Friends of Football, an alumni group that rushed to the aid of the team in the early ’90s when its very existence was threatened. Founded by such past U of T football-team members as former Ontario Premier Bill Davis (BA 1951 UC), Chief Justice of Ontario Roy McMurtry (BA 1954 Trinity) and Senator Trevor Eyton (BA 1957 Victoria, JD 1960), Friends of Football now has 500 to 600 active alumni. The group hosts annual golf tournaments and dinners, runs membership drives, solicits telephone donations, finds corporate donors and even supports the coaching staff’s recruitment efforts. In addition to the money it raises for each year’s team, Friends raised $592,484 for endowments that, when eligible donations were matched, came to $1,028,678 for Project Blue.

Reaching the $1.5-million goal will require a winning team, says chair Peter McNabb (BA 1973 Victoria), and fortunes look bright under new head coach Steve Howlett.
The new Varsity Stadium and hockey arena, still in the proposal stage, are expected to encourage donations. The new venues will be a huge shot in the arm to both fundraising and recruitment campaigns – not only for football, but for all the teams that would use the facilities, says McNabb.

The sports that are developing alumni “teams” à la Friends of Football are enjoying similar success in achieving Project Blue goals, says Robin Campbell, executive director of development in physical education and health. He has worked with coaches to establish alumni chairs and committees for 16 sports, but 10 sports still require leaders to step forward. “It takes years to put the elements in place, but we are starting to see the results of teams that reached endowment goals in 1999,” says Campbell. The endowments for some teams are starting to pay interest, which helps offset the need to fundraise annually to meet budget shortfalls. It is annual fundraising that leads to donor fatigue, he says.

Here are some of the success stories. Michael Nobrega (BA 1970 St. Michael’s), whose daughter Vanessa plays on the women’s basketball team, headed up a traditional letter-writing campaign, which raised $195,991 in just two years. When the eligible portion was matched, there was $390,718 to endow women’s basketball.

Swim coach MacDonald, who has trained more than 50 international swimmers in his 25 years of coaching at U of T, has built a strong alumni team around the program. “We have a party for all the graduating members of the team and we give them a plaque and something special: a U of T pen so they can write their donations to the team. They know that when they leave, they’re supposed to give money back – when they can, of course.” And they do. Henry Vehovec (BASc 1979) headed the swim team’s campaign, which raised $347,785. When the eligible pledges were matched, the swimming endowment rose to $695,570. Men’s ice hockey, rowing, men’s rugby, squash, track and field, women’s volleyball and men’s water polo have also mounted strong campaigns.

Still to attract leading donations for endowments, however, are the two U of T sport-research centres. The Centre for Sports Policy Studies, in addition to conducting research, acts as an adviser on sports policies developed by governments and regulatory bodies. It also lobbies for the humane treatment of high-performance athletes. The Centre for Girls and Women’s Health and Physical Activity leads research into the treatment and prevention of illness and the promotion of health for girls and women. There’s a pressing need for both centres, says Dean Kidd. “We have an epidemic of childhood obesity and alarming levels of physical inactivity, which is much more serious among young women.”

A longtime advocate for women’s sports, Helen Gurney (BA 1940 UC) wrote A Century to Remember, 1893-1993: The Story of Women’s Sports at the University of Toronto and headed a committee to update contacts for sports alumni. Through Project Blue, she created a fund that helps send students to phys. ed., sports and health conferences so they can present papers and research. “I’m a great believer in participation,” she says. “If students get involved in something they care about passionately, they become better people. So, I do what I can.”

The importance of getting involved was a message shared by rowing alumna Dr. Emma Robinson (BSc 1994 Trinity, MD 2002) at a recognition reception for Project Blue donors and volunteers last spring. She had never been in a rowing scull before coming to U of T, but went on to capture silver and bronze medals at two Olympics. “Intercollegiate sport offers an opportunity to immerse yourself in a sport, get good coaching and see where it takes you,” she says. “It propelled me far beyond where I expected to go.”

Margaret Webb (BA 1985 UC) is a Toronto writer.


Add a Comment

required, use real name
required, Not for Publication
optional, eg: BSc 2008

Next story in this issue: »
Previous story in this issue: «