VANCOUVER - Blake Nill says he could be taking on the biggest challenge of his career.
The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds introduced Nill as the new head coach of their football team on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after he resigned from the same position with the Calgary Dinos.
"It was something that I thought about long and hard, but I was convinced in my discussions with the athletic department, with the backers, that it was time for UBC," Nill said at his introductory new conference. "They wanted to step up and they wanted to put their football team as the flagship and get them back on the map.
"I've always felt B.C. is rich with talent, the university is rich with tradition, and now it's just a matter of combining everything (and) changing the culture ... making sure the kids understand what it takes to be successful, and I think I'm capable of doing that."
Known for his ability to recruit, Nill might have his work cut out for him in the short term. UBC hasn't won a conference championship since winning the Vanier Cup in 1997 and is coming off a 2-6 campaign that cost head coach Scott Olson his job.
The Thunderbirds have not had a winning season since 2004 and are a combined 24-56 over the last 10 years, but Nill said there is reason for optimism
"I can honestly say this may be the most talent-laden team that I've taken over," he said. "I think (it's) more or less installing a new culture. Installing a culture of work ethic, of speed, of strength, of accountability.
"Once the kids realize they need to be accountable to themselves and their teammates, I think you'll see a change fairly quickly."
Nill spent the last nine seasons with the Dinos, leading them to six straight Hardy Cup titles as Canada West champions and three Vanier Cup appearances.
Prior to that, the native of Hanna, Alta., coached the Saint Mary's Huskies for eight years, making four trips to the Vanier Cup, including victories in 2001 and 2002.
"Extremely difficult decision, extremely tough decision," Nill said of leaving Calgary. "But I believe as a coach there's 10 years in your career (at one university). I think that once you get to the seventh, eighth, ninth year of a certain tenure, it's time to look at another place — something to rejuvenate your desire, your passion for the game.
"That was a big factor in my decision to come here."
The future of UBC's football program had been subject to a review earlier this year, but Nill said he got assurances that the university and its alumni are willing to do what it takes to be competitive at the national level.
"I have two motives for all my kids: I want them to graduate and I want them to have a shot at a ring," said Nill, who had 23 players drafted by CFL teams during his time in Calgary. "If that was too extreme, they had the wrong guy in the meeting ... now I'm here to get to work."
Canadian university football's coach of the year in 1999 with Saint Mary's, Nill has a career regular-season and playoff record of 130-47. He was 6-2 with the Dinos in 2014 before losing to the Manitoba Bisons in the Hardy Cup.
"We knew we needed the right leader. We knew we needed an extraordinary coach," said Ashley Howard, UBC's managing director of athletics and recreation. "We knew we needed somebody with CIS experience — not just somebody with a proven track record of maintaining success — but somebody who knew how to build teams."
Nill said that while focus has to be on recruiting and improving the product on the field, it's equally important to build up UBC's alumni association so that the football team can compete financially with CIS powerhouses like Laval, Montreal and Calgary.
"The universities throughout the country are not prepared to fund (football programs) entirely, so what you need is third-party funding," he said. "I was convinced by the athletic department and the backers that I have met that they are ready to go all in in terms of getting UBC football on board and up to the level where it should be."
Nill, who said UBC pursued him harder than any other potential suitor has in his career, added he's hoping to get sense of what he has to work with on the current roster over the next three months before spring practice.
"I'm neither soft nor cuddly. It's going to be a situation where the kids are going to have to respond to what I expect. I'm a fundamentalist," said Nill. "I expect a lot of hard work. I expect total commitment. I'm a very logical coach. I look at things and say 'Logically if you're going to beat the University of Calgary you have to be bigger, faster, stronger.'
"The only way you can do that is through hard work in the gym. If that doesn't work with this current group of young men it's my responsibility to go out and get another group."