Skip to main content
Original Issue

But is it simon-pure?

A pariah in its native country because it gives out athletic scholarships, Canada's Simon Fraser University is going for its sixth straight national title—in the U.S.

Next week the Clansmen of Canada's Simon Fraser University travel to Marshall, Minn. where, barring an upset, they will win their sixth straight NAIA swimming championship. If they follow past practice in other respects, they will arrive on the scene wearing kilts (Simon Fraser was an explorer and fur trader of Scottish extraction), cheer one another's triumphs beneath a large maple-leaf flag and, at meet's end, heave their coach into the water. And if he holds to form, Paul Savage will sink to the depths with a satisfied grin.

These frills will obscure, at least for the moment, the slightly awkward fact that Simon Fraser, while whooping it up in U.S. small-college ranks, is an out-and-out pariah in its native land. This odd situation began developing when Simon Fraser opened its doors in 1965, an eager little institution (present enrollment 8,500) with low-slung buildings and a huge covered mall admirably laid out along the spine of a forested 1,200-foot mountain just east of Vancouver. Maybe it was this setting that inspired him, but Gordon Strum, the school's first chancellor, pledged a major thrust into U.S. sport, predicting that Simon Fraser would turn the Pac-8 into the Pac-9 and play in the Rose Bowl. The gentleman allowed that this would take about a decade.

Though these ambitions were quickly toned down, Simon Fraser was soon faring well enough against American small colleges—and very well against other Canadian schools. The key to its success was a decision to award athletic scholarships, which Canada's colleges have eschewed as a peculiarly American evil. This put Canadian rivals at a disadvantage, and they grew even more restive when Simon Fraser joined the NAIA in 1968, becoming one of two Canadian schools (the other, Ontario's Lakehead University, does not grant athletic scholarships) in the 515-member association. Three years ago the other Canadian colleges decided that Simon Fraser was a hopeless renegade—their moral outrage no doubt heightened by the lickings they were taking in sport after sport—and stopped scheduling the school. It now plays a U.S.-only schedule.

While Simon Fraser is scarcely happy about its outlaw status at home, this only seems to make it all the more determined to prosper in the U.S. Perhaps fittingly, the 44-year-old Savage, Simon Fraser's swimming coach from the start, is a U.S. citizen, a onetime University of Washington team manager who diets a lot, worries even more and shows up at meets with a red plastic whistle the size of a tomato around his neck. In Simon Fraser's high-ceilinged pool building, two things spare swimmers the constant lash of Savage's tongue. One is that he is forever dashing off to his office for coffee and a smoke. The other is the moderating presence of his wife Marg, an assistant professor of kinesiology and his unpaid but hardworking assistant coach.

"Marg is calm and pleasant and I'm just the opposite," says Paul. But Marg Savage says, "Paul's excitability is part of the team's psych. The swimmers see him keyed up and they do better as a result. Besides, Paul is not as much out of control as he sometimes seems."

Savage is sufficiently self-possessed when it comes to recruiting. Canada's best swimmers generally go to major U.S. universities, but being the only Canadian coach to offer scholarships enables Savage to bag enough unpublicized homegrown talent to give his squad the flavor of a national all-star team. He is also a canny if rather demonic scheduler. In 1968 he sent his team on what came to be known as "the death march." This was a string of dual meets on the West Coast, during which, recalls Athletic Director Lorne Davies, "we swam everybody but the dolphins at Marineland." In all, there were 11 meets in 12 days, and Simon Fraser was walloped by powerhouses such as Southern Cal, UCLA and Stanford. But there were enough Chico States and Cal-Fullertons thrown in so that Simon Fraser won six meets.

All of which helped make the Clansmen a seasoned bunch by the time they began NAIA competition in 1969. After placing third, third and second in successive years, they won their first championship in 1972 with 332 points to runner-up Claremont-Mudd's 217. Nobody has come close since. In 1975 Simon Fraser swimmers won 14 of 16 events to amass a record 515 points over runner-up Central Washington's 191. Last year the Clansmen outscored Central Washington 412 to 201 in a meet that featured the farewell appearance of the versatile John VanBuuren, a Vancouverite who in his four-year career became the only NAIA swimmer ever to win the maximum possible 12 individual events at the championship meet. Suffering other graduation losses, Simon Fraser suddenly seemed vulnerable.

So what did Savage do in preparation for this season? He got himself a fine crop of freshmen. He welcomed back freestyler-butterflyer Doug Martin, an Ontario native who won three NAIA titles in 1974 and 1975 but took off last year to prepare for the Olympics, in which he was 22nd in the 200 butterfly. And, in a coup that may put Simon Fraser even more securely atop the NAIA pack, Savage picked up two-time Canadian Olympian Bruce Robertson, silver medalist behind Mark Spitz in the 100 butterfly at the 1972 Games and world champion in that event in 1973. Now 23, Robertson is a transfer from the University of British Columbia, where he did not swim competitively.

But then Savage almost lost Robertson. This occurred in late November when the coach turned down the former champion's request to skip scheduled workouts during Christmas vacation in order to go job hunting and visit friends in Ottawa. Robertson went anyway, quitting the team for six weeks.

Under coaxing from other team members, Savage swallowed hard and invited Robertson back, assigning him and two others who had been chafing under heavy workouts (Martin and sprint star Jim Shockey) to what the coach calls "the social club," meaning they can pretty much practice when they feel like it. "These are talented swimmers and maybe they can get away with it," Savage says. "It's against my better judgment, but athletes are changing."

If only the continuing controversy in Canada over Simon Fraser's breakaway policy on scholarships could be resolved as easily. Everybody would benefit—in revenues, if nothing else—if the Clansmen were to resume natural rivalries with Canadian schools, especially with the University of British Columbia, whose campus is visible from Simon Fraser's mountaintop. Moreover, it scarcely seems right that a Canadian school can win "national" championships in the U.S. but not in Canada. And that it boasts quite a few All-Americas but not a single All-Canadian.

"We're being discriminated against," insists Athletic Director Davies. "Canadian universities think nothing of playing a school like Utah State, which gives scholarships, but refuse to play us because we do the same thing." Davies claims that Simon Fraser's scholarships keep at home Canadian athletes who would otherwise gravitate toward the U.S., and that, in any case, other Canadian schools have booster clubs that pay athletes. Meanwhile, he proudly points out that Simon Fraser produces more Canadian Football League players than anybody else. And that in 1975 Simon Fraser's soccer team made it to the NAIA finals in its maiden season and last spring won the championship. That 1-0 victory over Rockhurst (Mo.) College was not exactly what Chancellor Strum had in mind, but the game was played in the Rose Bowl.

The signal success of the Clansmen has doubtless exacerbated the feeling among Canadian intercollegiate officials that Simon Fraser is less than simon-pure. Particularly irksome is the fact that the province-supported school spends tax money for athletic scholarships. Then, too, nationalist sensibilities are offended by Simon Fraser's insistence on forsaking honorable, if humbler, competition at home to seek glory among U.S. schools. Ironically, supporters of some of those same U.S. schools circulated petitions at the NAIA championships a couple of years ago urging that Simon Fraser be expelled from future competition. Fortunately, the campaign seems to have fizzled, easing the specter of the Clansmen being hounded from country to country in search of competition.

Given his school's situation, it is probably a good thing that, before dual meets. Savage joins in singing, with feeling, the national anthems of both his native and adopted lands. This season his team is 6-1 in those dual meets, the loss coming at the hands of Savage's alma mater, Washington, which placed 20th in last year's NCAA meet. But Simon Fraser beat another NCAA school—a 75-38 rout of Oregon. Among this season's individual standouts is 1972 Canadian Olympian Anne Marie McCaffrey, a junior who swam in the last two NAIA championships, the only woman ever to do so. She did not score in either meet and Savage says he found a spot for her on the team simply because "she does the work." In other words, she is not a social-club member.

Nevertheless, there is suspicion that she is also an element of Savage's psych. During an easy dual-meet win at home this season over Southern Oregon, McCaffrey was climbing onto the starting block for the 1,000-meter freestyle when the opponent next to her said, "This is embarrassing, swimming against a girl."

"Don't worry about it," she replied. McCaffrey was paced by teammate Kelly Franks, who eased off at the end to allow her to win in 11:51.7. Of all those grumbling about the mavericks from Simon Fraser, few have been unhappier than that Southern Oregon swimmer. McCaffrey beat him by two lengths of the 25-meter pool.


Coach Paul Savage blows the whistle for Simon Fraser; others want to blow the whistle on it.


Bruce Robertson, a former world-champion butterflyer, is setting his own pace at Simon Fraser.