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Gridiron Guru

Mike Tanner just might be the winningest coach in Canadian football history

Mike Tanner watched the game-winning field goal sail through the uprights, a little low but good enough, and turned around to see all the kids on his sideline hugging each other and jumping out of their cleats. It was four decades since he’d started coaching and he was watching his team celebrate a provincial championship for the 21st time, but damn it, this had to be the coolest yet. “You 60 kids, us 15 coaches—we’re never, ever going to forget this game,” Tanner told his players later as they kneeled around him. “Twenty years down the road, you’ll see one of these guys and say: ‘Do you remember?’”

When you’ve had a career like Mike Tanner, perhaps this country’s greatest amateur football coach, it’s tough to remember every big game. When you’ve won the title more than 20 times, the victories all kind of blend together. “It’s funny,” Tanner says. “You remember the ones you lose a lot more than the ones you win.” Of course, Tanner has a lot more wins to remember than losses. For the past 40 years, he’s coached boys’ high school football in Halifax, leading his teams to the Nova Scotia championship game 30 times. It’s a near-unbelievable body of work—easily the most successful of its kind in the province, probably in Canada.

Chances are he won’t be forgetting the score of his latest triumph. That game, played on a cold, clear day this past November, was especially memorable because Tanner’s Citadel High School Phoenix won by just a point over the Sir John A. Macdonald Flames, relying on a field goal with 30 seconds left to seal the team’s fifth consecutive championship and 44th consecutive win, something no Nova Scotia team has ever done. Tanner had twice before won four consecutive provincial titles—eight of the 10 awarded in the 1980s—but he’d never reached five. The Flames held a 13–0 lead at halftime and were up 16–14 with minutes to play, forcing the Phoenix to drive the length of the field and try a field goal. Tanner watched from his sideline with an intense calmness, arms crossed, bare legs standing stiff under shorts, absorbing the wicked Maritime wind on a seven-degree day. He looked supremely confident everything was going to work out. But underneath that rigid stoicism, his heart was racing like a hamster wheel. “I don’t like kicking field goals,” Tanner says. “It’s high school football—a lot can go wrong.”

But if there’s a high school team in the country prepared for any and every situation, it’s Citadel. Tanner and his staff have an extensive playbook of more than 100 plays run in more than 20 different formations. The Phoenix are so well drilled, Tanner often calls just the basics—a run up the middle or a passing play with four receivers—and his quarterback will call the protection and snap count based on what he sees on the field. Citadel’s defensive coordinator, Jeff Lawley—a former player under Tanner who’s coached alongside him for more than 20 years—studies film meticulously, diagramming opposing teams’ plays. During practice, Citadel’s backups run a scout team on offence and defence, mimicking the opposition to prepare the starters.

These are techniques used by Canadian university squads, not high school teams often hampered by a lack of resources, time or sheer willingness. Every year Tanner sends a handful of kids to those CIS programs a step ahead of their peers. (One player, Tyrone Williams, graduated to Vanier and Grey Cups, and won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys in the early ’90s.) But he never thought about taking that step himself. “I would’ve had to stop teaching, which I didn’t want to do. And being around these kids keeps me young,” he says. It’s true. Tanner’s 64, but he could pass for 50.

His coaching career began in 1973 at Queen Elizabeth High School in Halifax. Tanner had been a standout at QEH himself, part of the team that won the first organized provincial football championship in 1966. After attending Mount Allison and Dalhousie universities, Tanner—a speedy defensive back—was picked by the Montreal Alouettes in the fifth round of the 1972 draft, but opted to return to Dalhousie to earn his master’s instead of trying to make it in the CFL. It remains one of the few regrets of his life.

After earning his degree, Tanner took a job teaching phys. ed. at QEH and began coaching football as well as boys’ and girls’ basketball. The time crunch was unreal, especially when the football and basketball seasons overlapped and Tanner was scheduling practices around practices. From September through to March break, Tanner wouldn’t go a day without being involved with some sort of activity at QEH. Then he’d go home to watch film, design plays and prepare practices late into the night.

He taught and coached at QEH for 34 years—dropping his basketball duties after 20—before the school merged with another in the area and both moved into the newly opened Citadel High in 2007. He retired from teaching shortly after, but couldn’t imagine life away from the sidelines. He wound up coaching the children of former players and his own son, Will, who eventually joined his dad’s coaching staff—a 15-man crew with two coaches for each position, all former Tanner players.

The deep staff allows Tanner to delegate many game-day responsibilities, giving himself more time with individual players—what they did right and wrong, helping them understand opposition schemes. The only time he asserts his absolute control is when there is a potentially game-changing decision to be made. He insists on calling those shots because he wants to be the one to take the blame if things go wrong.

Playing for Tanner means five practices a week (sometimes beginning at 6:45 a.m.), a pledge to attend all classes and maintain high grades, and an unbending commitment to the structure and discipline of his program. Tanner, who doesn’t have a cellphone or an email address, is old-school. He doesn’t believe in second chances and every year he cuts a handful of players for off-field indiscretions. In 2008, he kicked a starting offensive guard off the team just two days shy of the provincial championship. This past season, he removed four players—including two during the playoffs. “We don’t screw around,” Tanner says. “The kids know the expectations. They get one chance—if they mess that up they’re gone.”

Tanner has no designs of stepping away from coaching, and with Citadel graduating just 11 seniors from the 53 players who won last year’s title, a sixth provincial crown is certainly within reach. It would just be adding brush strokes to the masterpiece that is Tanner’s career, but that’s not the point. He doesn’t do this for the accolades; he does it for the memories. Sort of. “This was by far one of the most exciting finals I’ve been a part of, and I’ve been in a lot of them,” he told his huddled troops on that cold day back in November. “I don’t know if we’ve ever won on a field goal.”

Really, who could remember?

 

 

, SportsNet magazine

JULY 15, 2013, 1:05 PM
 

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. 

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