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It's a whole new ball game

CIS season brings not only new stadium, but new culture to Bison football

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Brian Dobie will be the first to admit it: his office -- the one he has called his home away from home since 1996 -- is an absolute mess, the epitome of organized chaos.

There isn't one patch of floor visible, other than where the door swings open and closed. Pictures are coming down from the wall, garbage bags are full of close to two decades of stuff and, amid all the rubble, he even found his first playbook from the '96 season -- sticky-note messages to himself still attached to the cover.

The University of Manitoba head football coach will soon be moving across the street to spiffy new digs at Investors Group Field and, in the meantime, he's got spring practice to organize before he heads to Toronto to work as an analyst for TSN's CFL draft day coverage on Monday and then to London, Ont. for next week's East-West Game.

And in those moments when he isn't on the phone or talking to a coach, a player or former Bomber boss Paul LaPolice, Dobie -- now 60 -- is positively beaming. That part isn't new, for Dobie always seems to have that kid-on-Christmas-Eve grin on his mug.

But this year, it's different. This year that smile is even bigger and broader.

"New season and hope always springs eternal, right?" begins Dobie on Friday, just a few hours before he led his 2013 squad in its first spring practice. "But even more so this year. The new stadium? I mean, wow!"

Dobie, like just about every coach in every sport all over the planet, will open this spring session with some concerns about his roster. He's worried about the depth on his defensive line, will be replacing starting quarterback Cam Clark, who graduated, and has his fingers crossed the vets and new recruits in his secondary can really step up this season.

But for years Dobie & Co. essentially won despite their facilities which, to be kind, were laughable. And now the new stadium -- with all the amenities -- will take Bison football to a new level.

And, Dobie hopes, help develop something else.

"We had a decade where we really ran the table," Dobie explained. "We were the third-winningest program in the nation, we went to a couple of Vaniers, we won in '07... we had our culture.

"But between '07 and now it's like we were in never-never land. We just weren't finding the right mix, the right fit, the right everything and the stadium situation kept looming.

"Now we are within one inch of moving in and in my opening address (Thursday night) to the team I said, 'All of you have an opportunity not to start a new program, but to input on the culture that will be carried forward from now on. It's a whole new deal now.'

"Yeah, we're still the University of Manitoba, yeah, it's still Bison football. That stadium represents a cultural change opportunity. The players that have seen it are blown away and can't wait to get in. But now it's about backing it up."

The Bisons will get a better feel for the club they've pieced together over this weekend's on-field sessions, but hope to build on last year's 4-4 campaign that featured the program's first playoff appearance since winning the 2007 national championship.

Still, last year also ended with back-to-back losses to the powerhouse Calgary Dinos that, Dobie confesses, shattered the confidence of everyone in Bison colours. So, again, 2013 begins with an effort to change the culture but also about re-establishing a winning attitude.

"That was not a good way to end the season," said Dobie. "It's one thing to lose, but losing the way we did... Calgary outwilled us. As disappointed as I am in saying that and humbled as I am in saying that, we were outcoached and we were outplayed. As it began to slip away they imposed their will on us, like a good team should do.

"So, the first thing we have to do is raise our confidence level. I think we have a good group of players and a significant amount of talent.

"Now we have to back up what we look like by establishing who we are."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 C5

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