After going a combined 15-1 in regular season play between 2001-02, Brian Dobie’s Manitoba Bisons entered a rebuilding phase, finishing 6-10 over the next two seasons. The team also said goodbye to the likes of Joey Mikawoz, Scott Coe, Israel Idonije and others who had helped turn the program’s defence into the best in the nation.

“They were pretty tough years for us I think because 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 we were kind of owning it,” recalled Dobie.

“We hardly lost any games over that period of time. That wasn’t the case in 2003 and 2004. I will say this. We were understanding what it takes to win. I don’t mean games, what it takes to ultimately win. We were growing towards that understanding.”

Dobie continued to attract top talent from across the nation as UM matured. Cory Huclack, a 2002 commit out of Oak Park, and Kenton Onofrychuk (2004) – who posted 53 tackles with the Winnipeg Rifles in 2003 – were key local additions at linebacker.

As usual, the BCFC also provided a huge pipeline. Abbotsford’s Bob Reist (2003-07) and Victoria’s Mike Howard (2003-07) were among the Herd’s commits at defensive back, along with Tri-City linebacker Jeff Alamolhoda (2003-07). Defensive lineman Simon Patrick (2003-07) also made his way to University Stadium following a successful career with the Edmonton Huskies.

Each of these athletes were present during an ugly, rainy practice in October 2004. The day in question was one of the key ingredients that started the team “culturally on a winning path to the Vanier,” according to Dobie.

“Our old practice fields were barely fields. They were mud patches when it rained. It had been raining for three days and on that day, it was pouring rain. It was a literal mud pile swamp. We were having a terrible practice. It was like people just weren’t into it. I stopped practice and lined them up and just berated them,” he recalled.

“The more I berated them, the angrier I became. I went okay, let’s go! We started near the golf course link fence and we started to run, do crab walks, push ups, sit ups and other “fun” drills, and we went the length of the field almost to the road. I’m going to say that’s 500-600 yards. Then, we turned around and did it again, and again and again.

I’m going to say that we did this for 45 minutes. Guys were throwing up and swearing and cursing. I said, anybody that’s unhappy and wants to leave, be my guest, just know that you won’t be here tomorrow. Nobody left. They all endured it and hated it. It was an angry team that night leaving the field.”

“I’m not that guy, but it’s one of the best things that I personally did as a head coach in my career,” Dobie added.

“It was a group of players that we didn’t know at the time would become the base of our Vanier Cup championship team. I’m telling you, I believe it in my heart that it started that October day in all that mud and rain on that field that night by doing that. Our team became closer. All of us became closer. Everybody realized that we were in it together and that it wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to be tough and ugly at times.

When you think back on it, that night in the mud and rain symbolizes all those words I just said. That’s kind of what that group became. They became tough and they became closer teammates. That was the building of a Vanier championship team. You could see it really get rolling for real in 2005.”

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The Herd went 4-4 in 2005, returning to the post season for the first time since 2002. They fell 33-24 in the conference semi-finals, but were confident heading into ’06, as a solid core of the team – including most of the defence – was returning.

Manitoba’s aforementioned recruits played a huge role. Reist began his first of three straight years as a team captain in 2005, while Patrick was an All-Canadian. Additionally, Huclack was a conference all-star after registering five interceptions.

Offensively, Manitoba was supposed to have as many as six pivots entering training camp in 2005, however that number got trimmed significantly. Ryan Zahara – a former Edmonton Wildcat who learned under program record-holder Shane Munson – earned QB1 duties. His backup was John Makie, a Regina product who’d set a CJFL career record for passing yards the year before.

He didn’t know it at the time, but two seasons later, Makie would help the Herd reach the pinnacle of university football. That year though, he was the understudy, someone who Dobie had immense trust in, because, as usual, he’d done his research during the recruitment process.

“He called my mom, my dad, my girlfriend. Even my godparents I think he had a conversation with,” chuckled Makie.

“This guy was everywhere in my internal network with the people that mattered the most to me. He was recruiting them, as well as myself, as I just said well, this is the guy that I want to be around with. I want to link myself up with a coach who cares about his players. Not only that, I wasn’t really being recruited by the U of R at that point. They said come over if you want, but they weren’t giving any scholarship money. It was their loss.”

Neither Makie nor Zahara were gifted with game-changing athleticism. Instead, they used their football IQ and work ethic to achieve success alongside veteran offensive coordinator and former NCAA pivot Jeff Stead.

“I’m no athlete. I’m the slowest guy on the field in the quarterback group, but I just always said how much do you want it? You’ve got to always be putting in the work,” Makie says. 

“Ryan wasn’t a physical specimen either. I think he was 5’9” on a good day and not very athletic, but he was smart as a whip. He had me looking at things completely different from what I’d already known. It enhanced my game being in the film room with that guy. A lot of the success I experienced in 2006 was from learning from Ryan Zahara, as well as Jeff Stead. Jeff was there with me the whole time. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about coach Stead and the way he ran his offence.”

Another first-year Bison in 2005 was offensive lineman Ryan Karhut. A five-year member of the Edmonton Huskies who’d also spent a year down south, he’d been on the radar of Dobie since 2001, when he first started recruiting him.

“[Dobie] started contacting me pretty early. I remember it was 2001 and 2002 because they were on TV playing in the big conference championship games. It was kind of a fun time to be outside of the program, because the program was so visible,” says Karhut.

“I ended up going to the University of Central Florida. Coach Dobie and I, we stayed in touch, because he’s such a good relationship builder. I felt like he was more than a coach trying to recruit me, so we stayed in contact and stuff. After I left Central Florida, I met with a couple of other coaches from Canada West programs, and I honestly had no interest whatsoever. If I was going to play anywhere, it was going to be Manitoba.”

Manitoba didn’t have a lot of depth on the offensive line, but they were massive… for the most part.

“In 2005 it was pretty shocking. We were enormous. I was by far the shortest guy on the o-line and I think I was the lightest as well,” noted Karhut.

“We were just gigantic. We had Riley Clayton who’s 6’5” and about 310, we had Terry Watson who’s 6’6”, we had Stephen Fedus, who’s 6’5” and Tye Smith, who was about 6’7”, and then there was me at 6’3.”

Karhut’s well-rounded knowledge of the game is what set him apart. He was a conference all-star right from the jump, helping running back Darwin Thompson rush for 788 yards.

“I always knew I wasn’t going to be the most physically gifted person out there. There’s not a lot of Division 1 or CFL teams drooling over a 6’3”, 290-pound offensive lineman. They can find those guys everywhere. I just pride myself on learning and understanding and developing my mental side of the game as much as I could.

It started in high school. I got super into the idea of coaching, simply to learn more about the sport, because I felt like I had a very sheltered scope or knowledge of the game at that point from only playing o-line and d-line pretty much my whole career. When I was in high school I started coaching peewee football and going to all the practices, and it taught me a tonne super quick about the game.”

It also helped that Karhut was lined up against Simon Patrick at every level. The former Huskies star, who was “built like a grizzly bear” earned All-Canadian status in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and sits seventh in program history with 13 sacks. His unrivaled determination on the field forced those around him to get better.

“There is no difference between Simon Patrick and a grizzly bear,” joked Karhut.

“The other crazy part about Simon Patrick was that he never changed. I played high school football with Simon and he looked the exact same as he did in junior football, where I also played with him, and then in university. He was the worst person to practice against, because there was no such thing as taking a play off. He gave you everything he had on every play.

I literally think he put me on the right plane and projection for my own football career, because in my first year of high school, I played centre, he played nose tackle and we ran a 30 front. We had like 27 guys on our high school team. We didn’t have a scout team offence or defence, so I practiced against him every single day and every single rep. It made me go from an okay player to a somewhat better than okay player.”

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The battle-tested Bisons entered 2006 with a focused energy, and it paid off. They went undefeated in the regular season, outscoring their opponents 363-143, the latter of which was a league low. Dobie was also named Canada West Coach of the Year for the fifth time.

“When I first came in 2005, it was a lot of energy, a lot of excitement, but not really a lot of sureness or awareness of how to point that energy or how to guide that energy to be the most productive way it could be,” says Karhut.

“In 2006, we came out with so much energy and so much emotion behind us, and we just steamrolled everybody, because that energy was finally pointed in the right direction, and all in the same direction. You could see the whole locker room transform. It was like everyone had suddenly seen the path that we needed to take to be really good.”

In his first year as starter, Makie led an incredibly efficient Bisons attack which complemented a stout defence.

“It was an explosive season. I think it took some of us by surprise, like me with how dominant games were. A lot of it is in due part to our defence. Our defence was extremely good in 2006. Our offence, we got the ball quite a bit and our stats were gaudy. The number one job I had was to not turn over the football. That was the mantra. In that 2006 season I only threw two picks I think.”

Alongside Patrick, fifth-year Huclack also earned All-Canadian status after posting a team-high 47 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. He was among a leadership group that fostered a culture of toughness on the field.

Another difference-maker was Bob Reist, a three-year captain from 2005-07 who was among the fiercest competitors in the nation at safety. He’d been an All-Canadian and the BCFC’s top defensive back between 1999-2002 and brought an intensity that rubbed off on everyone around him.

“Bobby Reist kind of exemplified who all of them were. He was just so blatant,” reflected Dobie.

“In 2006, we were decimating Simon Fraser out in Vancouver. It was halftime and the score was 45-0. We got locked out of our locker room at halftime, so we had to wait. When that happened, Simon Fraser, who left the field after us, had to go right in front of our guys to go to their locker room. It was relentless.

What I remember more than anything – and all of our guys were doing it – Bobby Reist was spitting venom. He was screaming at them, it was like sharks to blood. That was Bobby. He was a guy that I would have to go all the way out to the hashmarks when the other team was being introduced and literally grab him by the collar, and he would be angry at me. He was emblematic.”

Despite a dominant regular season, Manitoba’s dream for a perfect campaign fell short in the Hardy Cup, as they were upset 32-15 by Saskatchewan. There were over 900 yards of total offence in the contest, with the Huskies racking up 300 yards rushing.

 “My best friend, and my mom’s godfather, Terry Watson, that was his last year. I lived with him, and we had to watch the rest of the playoff run while the Huskies were making it all the way to the Vanier Cup,” commented Makie.

“Watching that game I just remember how upset Terry was, and how upset everybody felt.”

Many players on the team took the loss to heart. In the offseason, they made a decision as a team that spearheaded them towards greatness.

“Traditionally that’s when we all kind of go home,” says Makie. “After the 2006 season, I’m certain that none of our guys went home. It was business in the weight room, it was business on the field.”

Stay tuned for the conclusion of The Making of a Champion next Saturday, as we dissect Manitoba’s perfect season in 2007 in detail, with comments from Dobie, Karhut, Makie, as well as running back Matt Henry and defensive lineman Eddie Steele.

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