In 1996, Brian Dobie and John Makie were at vastly different points in their lives.
Dobie had been hired that spring on an interim contract to coach the University of Manitoba Bisons football team. It was his dream job – a position the 21-year veteran of the Churchill Bulldogs’ program had been a finalist for multiple times in the past.
“This was THE job that I wanted my whole life,” he says. “It took me three tries to get it, and that for me was a process that was really valuable. When I got hired in May of 1996 on an interim contract, I was ecstatic. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
The position Dobie stepped into wasn’t easy. He was inheriting a program that, while showing promise at times, had recorded just four winning seasons since last claiming the Vanier Cup in 1970.
Year one was “disastrous” according to the well-respected coach, who was still adjusting after being fully engaged at the high school level.
“I very quickly realized I didn’t know what happens next or where things are going to go,” he remarked.
“In all honesty, it was overwhelming. The thing that stands out the most from that season was not really understanding what had to be done and not really knowing how it worked. I’d been coaching high school ball, so I wasn’t immersed in that culture. I was learning on a daily and an hourly basis.”
The team went 0-8 in 1996. That offseason, it became clear to Dobie that a revised recruiting approach was needed in order for the Herd to be successful.
“I had literally made a statement when I got hired that this team was going to be Manitoba through and through. I realized that in order to be successful, that verbatim couldn’t be the case. We’re a small province with a great football community, but in relative terms to the provinces where our competitors live, we’re very tiny. To do it with just Manitobans wasn’t going to go. I realized by the end of that 1996 season that I had to look elsewhere.”
It’s important to note that back at that time, there was very little national recruiting being done. Dobie, along with Blake Nill – a three-time Vanier Cup champion – both started going big around the same time.
Additionally, back in the late 90’s, you could play five years of junior football and then five years of university. Therefore, teams could have players on their squad that were hovering around 26 or 27 years old by graduation. Every team had the opportunity to take advantage of this rule, which officially changed in 2003. Thus, the 2007 season would see the last of the old guard.
Anyhow, Dobie had early recruiting success in BC, while Northern Alberta and Southern Ontario also became key areas of focus. There was also the odd player coming out of the Maritimes.
“I started, pretty much blindly, reaching for straws trying to make connections, and trying to work with some connections that I had around the country. Some of them really paid off, particularly in BC.
Essentially the plan was pretty simple – it hasn’t changed to today. That was to do everything we could to retain and sign as many of the best players as we can that are Manitobans, and supplement those Manitobans with as many of the best players we could sign nationally. Our target group initially, and still is today, is the province of BC. Northern Alberta became a big target group and still is. Southern Ontario and Quebec for a while in the early days was a huge recruiting ground for us.”
Impact of national recruits
In 1997, Dobie’s diverse Bisons showed promise, going 3-5. Two key recruits played major roles, in British Columbia native Will Loftus and Craig Carr of New Brunswick. The former previously played for the Surrey (now Langley) Rams, and was named a First-Team All-Canadian that season. The Montreal Alouettes took him in the third round of the CFL draft the following year, and he won Grey Cups with the Als in 2002 and Edmonton Eskimos in 2005.
Carr played for the Bisons from 1997-99, with his 2478 career rushing yards sitting third all-time in program history. He broke out in a big way in his first season, making plays as both as returner and rusher. He tallied 251 yards against Alberta midway through the year, and finished with 1015 on the ground overall. He was also named a Second-Team All-Canadian. Carr was taken in the second round of the 2000 CFL Draft and played six seasons.
Despite the talent on the field, the Herd went 0-8 the year after. Having gone two out of his first three seasons without a victory, Dobie couldn’t help but feel that he was on the hot seat.
“The second 0-8 experience for me personally, was overwhelming. I can honestly say at that time when I was immersed in that darkness, that I didn’t know if I was going to be given the opportunity to continue to coach.”
Thankfully for all involved, Dobie kept his job and continued to recruit and adapt. He was able to retain key contributors while also bringing in some high-end players.
Locally, linebacker Scott Coe – a 1998 recruit out of Kelvin High School – immediately played a key role, earning conference rookie of the year honours while establishing himself as one of the program’s all-time best over the following three seasons.
The team also found their quarterback of the future in 1999, in Shane Munson. A Thunder Bay native, he started straight out of high school for Manitoba and still holds many team records such as career passing yards (7474), completions (507) and touchdowns (62).
“It was quite amazing when I look at the number of quality players that committed and agreed to come on board and play for an 0-8 team,” reflected Dobie. “The character of that recruiting class is what changed the course of the program.”
Over the next two seasons, the Herd went 11-4-1, reaching the Canada West playoffs on both occasions.
In 1999 – led by Carr’s 1015 yards on the ground and 49 tackles from former Edmonton Huskies linebacker and Second-Team All-Canadian Joey Mikawoz – Manitoba built confidence.
“Our guys were proving to themselves that they could win, that they were good players and that we were a good team,” added Dobie.
Moving in the right direction
In 2000, the program took another step in the right direction, posting their best regular season record under Dobie at 6-1-1. It was also the team’s best overall record since 1969, when they claimed their first-ever Vanier Cup. The back-to-back winning seasons also marked a first since 1968-69.
Individually, Mikawoz set a then Bisons record for tackles in a season with 65 (since broken by DJ Lalama in 2016 with 72.5). He earned the Presidents Trophy as the Most Outstanding Defensive Player in Canadian college football, pacing a dominant defence that led the conference in quarterback sacks with 25 while also allowing a conference-best 17 points per game. Mikawoz was joined on the All-Canadian team by 6’3” cornerback Darnell Edwards, a 1999 recruit out of Montreal who led Canada West in interceptions in 2000 and 2001.
“I think our guys started feeling that they could win a Vanier Cup,” says Dobie.
“They weren’t far wrong, but when I look back on in in retrospect we really weren’t quite there. We might’ve had the players to win it, but we didn’t have everything we needed to win it. We didn’t have all the structure and intrinsic things that we’ve learned going through all the battles. We were moving in the right direction, but we didn’t know what the end of the tunnel should look like.”
It didn’t take long for UM to find the light at the end of the tunnel. In 2001, they rolled to a 7-1 regular season record with an unprecedented 11 players being named All-Canadians.
Among the crop was powerful defensive tackle Israel Idonije, a local product from Brandon who played over a decade in the NFL. His 16 sacks between 2000-2002 still rank fourth all-time. Coe, Edwards and Mikawoz were also selected, as was British Columbia native Jamie Boreham, an immensely tough safety who’d previously played in the CJFL with Abbotsford and in university for the U of S. He’d already been selected by the BC Lions in the 2001 CFL draft, but lent his services to Manitoba in a big way for the next three seasons.
On Nov. 17, 2001, the years of hard work, patience and strategic recruiting paid off, as the Bisons returned to the Vanier Cup for the first time since 1970.
Their path to get there was nothing short of memorable, as UM took part in an all-time classic against OUA champion McMaster in the national semi. The game was tied 6-6 until the 3:55 mark of the fourth, where Munson – a Canada West All-Star who threw for just under 2100 yards – broke the game wide open with a 57-yard rushing touchdown on a quarterback draw. That ignited a 21-point outburst and a 27-6 victory.
Dobie’s reaction at the end of the game was one of pure joy.
“I remember that the field was flooded with people. It was such an awesome experience, Manitoba finally breaking through and going back to the Vanier Cup. The last time around was 1970. I hugged my wife and kind of just moved away from her and looked at her and screamed Jackie, we did it! We’re going to the Vanier Cup!”
In retrospect, Dobie admits that in 2001, winning the national semi essentially served as the program’s Vanier Cup. It was an affirmation that his efforts on a national scale had paid off, and that there was a positive, and winning culture established.
“In my mind we had climbed the mountain. We’d taken the University of Manitoba to the Vanier Cup, and you know what, let’s see what happens next week. Win or lose, we were going to play in the Vanier Cup and that’s all that mattered.”
In the national final, the Bisons went up against the undefeated Saint Mary’s Huskies, who’d also gone close to three decades without a Vanier at the time. They went 8-0 in the regular season, allowing just five points per game defensively thanks to an aggressive defence that under head coach Blake Nill ran a number of different blitz packages.
The game was close at halftime, with SMU up 18-13. The Huskies took control in the fourth quarter, out-scoring Manitoba 17-0 en route to a 42-16 win.
“That 2001 team, wow. It was an amazing team. It was arguably the best team we’ve ever had. I’m using the word arguably so I can be politically correct, but I’m not kidding you. It was a great team,” noted Dobie.
“We did all the right things, we just couldn’t pull the trigger on it. There were just things missing that we at the time didn’t realize were missing. We hadn’t learned as many of the lessons that we needed to learn, and we hadn’t evolved to the point that we needed to be at to help a team win a Vanier Cup.”
Seven players from Manitoba’s 2001 roster were drafted the following spring, however the Herd remained a contender. Led by All-Canadians such as Mikawoz, Idonije, Munson, Boreham and former Vanier Cheetah Boyd Barrett, the Herd went 8-0 in the regular season but failed to advance to the Hardy Cup.
“We were really good in 2002, and certainly could’ve gone to the Vanier and maybe won it in 2002,” added Dobie. “We were undefeated. We’d already lost some players from 2001 though, and after 2002 we lost a bunch more of significant players, so we were kind of in a rebuilding phase.”
That rebuilding phase took place over the course of the next two seasons, as Dobie and his coaching staff continued to learn how to structure themselves and operate. The lead man also continued his national recruiting efforts, finding the quarterback that would lead the Herd to the promised land along the way.
Back in 1996, John Makie was nowhere near superstar status as a quarterback. Instead, he was a heavier set kid playing fullback on his bantam football team. Fueled with passion, his end goal was to be a signal caller. His dad was taught by the legendary John Hufnagel and had previously trained him at the position, so he felt he had some of the necessary tools to be successful at the high school level.
“I really wanted to play the quarterback position. I talked to the coach about it and showed him my arm strength and gave him everything like that. He said ‘oh yeah you’re good, but you’re in grade ten right now so we’re going to stick you at tight end.’”
Moving into grade 11, Makie dedicated all of his training to being a quarterback. The hard work paid off, as he earned starting duties for Dr. Martin LeBoldus, helping the school to the 1998 6A city championship despite being one of the smallest high school populations in the division.
Makie’s progression as a pivot was aided by John Foord, who’s coached at the school for 30 years, while also winning a provincial title with the Golden Suns as a player in 1987. With the help of Foord and others, the school has moulded into a powerhouse, consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top ten high school football programs.
It was under Foord that Makie learned the value of film study, something he’d carry with him the rest of his life, both as a player and coach.
“Johnny Ford, I’ll never forget him in my path in the sport of football. He was a guy that taught me about film and about the extra work that you need to put in as a quarterback to know your opponent. He would keep me after school. I remember late nights even in the school going over VHS tapes. Once he showed me this film I was almost like well, this is almost like cheating. He would teach me a whole heck of a lot about what to look for in your opponent. It was the smaller details that did give me an edge, and not only that, it got me excited about prepping for a game.”
The Golden Suns threw the ball more than any other team, which gave Makie valuable experience and reps.
“There was one game where we threw the ball 40 times, and that was a big deal in high school football,” he chuckled. “That was my last game at Taylor Field against Winston Knoll.”
Destination 1: Valley City State
Makie’s senior year didn’t go according to plan, however his performance on the field had turned some heads. At the end of his grade 12 year, he was approached by Corey Goff, then the receivers coach and passing game coordinator for provincial champion Sheldon-Williams. Makie didn’t know it at the time, but Goff would go on to become a valuable resource and aid in his life.
Back in 1999 though, the pair’s main connection was the fact that they’d faced off against each other. Goff – who also helped the Golden Suns’ basketball team – had recently finished playing receiver for Valley City State University (VCSU) in North Dakota, and saw the potential in Makie. This was partly due to the fact that he threw for over 300 yards against Sheldon-Williams, despite Goff figuring out LeBoldus’ play calls.
“He stole our signals. We had a wristband where you signal in the numbers, and he figured out the number scheme, and sure enough, we never changed our play call. Our wrist band was the same from game one to game eight,” joked Makie. “He scouted our plays and knew what was coming, and we still threw for over 300.”
With Goff’s help, Makie was able to enroll at VCSU, a small NAIA school which has 249 member institutions spread out across North America. Makie was the backup quarterback in 2000, and was “in his glory” due to the amount of football-specific training that occurred down south.
“I traveled with the team and got to experience university football the way it is in America. And it’s true, I found out very quickly that it’s like a religion. I probably went maybe five days that year without throwing a football. There was always something to do with weights, with practice, with film, with throwing extra routes. It was just nonstop every day.”
Admittedly, Makie didn’t take school as seriously as he should have. The team also redshirted another quarterback that year that they were prepping to become the starter in 2001. With all of this combined, he saw the writing on the wall and chose to depart.
“At the end of the day I was just like okay, I’m not doing well in school, it’s the second semester. About one month left of school I made my decision to go home and play junior football. It was a mixture between I don’t think I was ready for university life, and I just didn’t put in the amount of work that was needed for university.”
Junior football success
Makie’s return home also marked a reunion with Goff, who brought him into the Regina (originally called Prairie) Thunder program. The Rams had moved up to the university ranks the year before, and joining them was quarterback Mark Anderson. Makie duked it out with Stefan Endsin – now the offensive coordinator for the club – winning the battle for the number one spot, a position he manned for the next three seasons.
Alongside head coach Randy Shaw, Makie lit up the Canadian Junior Football League. In 2002, he was the MVP of the Prairie Football Conference as the Thunder went 6-2. Shaw was also named the CJFL Coach of the Year that season after guiding a third-year program to new heights.
At the conclusion of the 2002 season, the Rams recruited Makie, which should come as no surprise. Typically, the top end players coming out of Saskatchewan and Regina – especially at the quarterback position – would choose to stay loyal to their province and commit to either the U of S or R.
The man with a cannon for an arm held off that year, as Shaw wanted him to come back for one last season in an attempt to make a run for a national championship. In a tragic turn of events, the team didn’t do as well as expected and for whatever reason, Regina wasn’t calling.
To make matters worse, Shaw was let go at the end of 2003 due to friction with the Thunder’s new board of directors. On top of that, the new head coach’s offensive philosophy didn’t line up with Makie’s. He wanted to run a two-quarterback system, which wasn’t going to help the pivot in his attempt to earn a university scholarship offer, and ultimately a degree.
“I was getting serious about going to university. That was the ultimate goal for me was to go back to university and get an education,” he says.
“That was the deal that I made with my grandma on my mom’s side. She said ‘don’t just be playing this game for nothing. You shouldn’t be spending this much time with the game if you’re not going to get anything out of it aside from fun. You make sure you get something out of this.’ My mom always said ‘university is the goal, if you can get a degree out of this sport then you run out and get it.’”
Once again, Goff stepped up. He’d accepted a new role as offensive coordinator with the Vancouver Trojans in 2004 and suggested that Makie join him out west. The Trojans had been the worst team in junior football for the last decade, but Makie stayed loyal to his roots and it paid off big time.
“What we ended up doing was something special. Corey Goff really recruited hard for that team, and we had some real big ballers, and some Bisons alumni too. Randy Simmons was on that team, and Matt Singer. There were a lot of Bisons that came from there.”
The Trojans made noise in the British Columbia Football Conference, advancing to the playoffs. Personally, Makie set a then junior football record for career passing yards, throwing for a total of 9370.
Bisons head coach Brian Dobie, who was doing his typical run of recruiting in the area, took notice. He’d seen Makie play years earlier against the Winnipeg Rifles and was interested, but didn’t expect him to be available.
“I’ll never forget. The first thing that came out of his mouth was ‘you’re a done deal with the U of R, right?’ I looked over at Corey, who was doing the introduction, and I was like oh coach no, we’ve got to talk. From that point, the rest is history.”
Stay tuned for part two next Thursday, as we discuss Manitoba’s 2004, 2005 and 2006 seasons, while also detailing the stories of Ryan Karhut, Matt Henry and Eddie Steele.