Very few would have had a problem with Ryerson University athletics director Dr. Ivan Joseph taking a day off last week to celebrate the first anniversary of the ultra-modern Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC).
He led the revitalization of the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens into a new $60 million multi-functional athletic and recreational centre for Ryerson students and the community.
Never one to indulge in self-gratification, Dr. Joseph – who has a chessboard in his third-floor office – was at work at 4:45 a.m. last Wednesday planning his next moves to enhance the sports program and complement the exquisitely transformed Gardens that ESPN last February named one of the 10 most historic North American stadiums.
In the next two weeks, Joseph expects to close a deal for a new soccer facility.
“It’s within a three-mile radius of the MAC and it’s a state-of-the-art facility that will attract national championships,” he said. “We think we will have it signed, sealed and delivered by next month.”
Securing a soccer stadium has been a priority for Joseph who, in addition to his administrative duties, has coached the men’s team since arriving on campus five years ago.
The team will play its home games this season at Monarch Park and Downsview stadiums.
“Clearly for two months of the year, I am not a functioning athletics director,” said Joseph, who led Graceland University men’s soccer program for nearly a decade. “I love coaching. I just can’t sit in an office and be totally disengaged from students. I love interacting with students and that is what recharges me. At the same time, I am only able to coach because of the quality of people around me like the associate director and the great assistant coaches that take care of the brunt of the administrative pieces.”
Joseph, who migrated from Guyana with his family at age five and attended King City Secondary School and Laurentian University before Graceland recruited him as a student-athlete in 1993, admitted letting off a huge sigh of relief when 74 per cent of the student population voted in favour of the new facility after a similar referendum turned it down five years earlier.
A total of 4,754 students voted with nearly 3,500 giving the university the green light to increase tuition fees by $126 to support the new centre.
“I think it was good that I was naïve and I didn’t realize how much was on the line,” he said. “What we did was use a grassroots approach in as much the same way it’s done in Iowa when it comes to elections. For me, it was all about how many people we could individually touch. When I looked across Canada, I noticed that every single referendum generated about 10 per cent of the student population in total votes. So that told me that if we had 28,000 students, then if we could get 2,500 ‘yes’ votes, we would win without a problem.
“I knew we had 200 athletes and so we had a prep rally at which we laid out the strategy. Each athlete’s job was to bring 10 friends to say ‘yes’ to the referendum, On top of that, I initiated a policy where I said to the intramural students (there were about 2,000 at the time) who were paying all this money that there is going to be no more intramural fees and we are going to include that in the price. That meant that for some of them that were playing 12 sports, it was actually going to be cheaper and they agreed. Most importantly, they realized that we were just asking for the average fee of $189 as compared to the over $350 for the University of Toronto and York University. I think us being reasonable certainly guaranteed us more likely to succeed.”
Getting the students’ support was critical. But having president and vice chancellor Dr. Sheldon Levy’s unwavering backing was absolutely necessary.
“When after just eight months here, he told me it was time to lead the referendum, I didn’t think I was ready,” said Joseph, who was an assistant professor in health and physical education at Graceland. “He however assured me it was time and I was capable. When I asked him how he knew that was the right time his response was that if you have been on a campus long enough, you know when there is a good feeling and people are willing to be supportive.
“Sheldon is all about the Maple Leafs and if he had his way, this building might have been a shrine to the old Gardens. I don’t have the same culture. I wanted something for students that is necessarily not entrenched in Canadian lore of the typical first-generation athletes. By Sheldon giving me the freedom to influence the design, I didn’t miss it. He was generous in his leadership and he allowed me to have an equal say in directing how this building would be. That was really important because it modelled for me how to be generous in my leadership to the people under me which made for a better overall product and facility.”
Student participation in intramurals has increased by almost 65 per cent in the last year.
“That tells me that if we build it, they will come,” said Joseph. It’s that simple and that’s right out of the field of dreams of Iowa. We realize we are at capacity, but we have been intentional in our diverse programming. You can’t just have basketball and soccer. You must have cricket, badminton and those sports that may not have large numbers, but will facilitate different types of people and different opportunities. We made it easier for students to join and form clubs. We now have baseball and dragon boat clubs which didn’t exist before.”
The university has almost 28,000 undergrads and 5,000 graduate-level students.
A year ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper opened the centre that has already accommodated several high-profile events, including the Ontario Liberal Party convention, the grand slam of curling, the ring of honour wrestling and this year’s Jack Donohue International basketball classic featuring Canada and Jamaica.
However, hosting National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division One basketball team Wake Forest last October stands out for Joseph.
“It was close to sold out and you felt the energy,” he said. “That’s when I knew we are on the right track. That’s when I really felt it.”
The Ryerson men’s basketball team’s first opponent in the 2013-14 season is the Wisconsin Badgers on August 25.
Since its establishment 65 years ago, the polytechnic institute-turned-university has won just one Ontario University Athletic title – men’s curling in 1959-60.
Joseph is confident that will soon change.
The men’s soccer team lost just one regular season game and the women’s volleyball side reached the national Final Four for the first time ever last season.
“We want to win a championship and we want to get to the national championships, but we want to do it right and in a way that makes our university proud,” he said.
With Joseph at the helm, Graceland won its first National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics soccer title and every varsity player that competed at least one season for him graduated.