Longtime coach, teacher and manager has ambitious plans for athletics at U of G
BY LORI BONA HUNT
The showers in the men's room weren't ready, there was trouble with the swimming pools, and there never seemed to be enough clean towels to go around.Welcome to Tom Kendall's inauguration as Guelph's new director of athletics.
But the glitches didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the longtime coach, teacher and athletics manager and former vice-president of Basketball Canada. After all, during those same first weeks, the football team went undefeated and the men's and women's cross-country teams were both ranked number one.
As far as Kendall was concerned, it was a near-perfect beginning to his dream come true.
“This is the kind of job you wait your entire career for, a tremendous opportunity,” he says during an interview in his office.
He had said those same words a few nights earlier at the annual Gryphon Club Hall of Fame dinner. Standing in front of a full house that included current and former athletic stars, Kendall publicly professed his happiness at coming to Guelph. He already looked at home, talking and joking with people as if he had known them a long time, as if U of G had been home for years rather than weeks.
“After one week here, I already felt comfortable, and that says a lot.”
Indeed, his career has spanned more than 35 years in three countries, including athletics management, coaching and recruiting, and teaching and chairing university departments.
“When I was offered the position here, I didn't hesitate,” says Kendall. “It seemed a natural fit.”
There were practical reasons for moving to Guelph from Nova Scotia, where he was director of athletics and recreation at St. Francis Xavier University. Guelph was closer to the younger of his two grown sons (he lives in Burlington); his family wanted to live in a mid-size town; and his 14-year-old daughter, Rebecca, hopes to one day become a vet. But Kendall says it was U of G's philosophy about athletics that appealed to him most.
“The focus here is on developing the whole person, not just the athlete, with an emphasis on accessibility and opportunity. I'm a firm believer in that as well. I came from a working-class family in England and wouldn't have been able to get an education had the state not paid for it. I think we need to do everything we can to ensure that students have the opportunity to succeed. We should provide access to recreation and fitness and opportunities for athletic excellence to anyone who wants to benefit from it.”
After spending several years in the United States as a coach, Kendall learned first-hand the importance of adhering to that philosophy. South of the border, money for scholarships and recruitment efforts is often plentiful for collegiate-level sports, and competition for the best athletes can be fierce.
“While it was fun and exciting, what was lacking was the holistic view of where athletics fits into an academic institution,” he says. “No one likes winning more than I do, and my career shows that, but it has to be put into perspective.”
Only about one to two per cent of all university athletes go on to have a professional career in their sport, he says.
“The fact is, athletics has to be part of the overall development for a student; it can't be the be-all and end-all. Students should have the opportunity to win a national championship or make an Olympic team and get an excellent education. My goal is for people to look at Guelph athletics as an example of how it should be done.”
Kendall emigrated from England to Canada at age 23 after being recruited for a high school teaching job in Saskatoon.
“I came here on what I thought would be a two-year contract and never went back. I just fell in love with Canada.”
He had always planned to be a physical education teacher, but lasted only nine months on the job. “It wasn't challenging enough; I needed more.” So he switched to biology and started coaching the high school basketball team.
Eventually, he enrolled in a graduate sports management program at the University of Alberta. “I had no intention of ever coaching basketball again,” he says. But while he was working on his master's thesis, he was approached by his adviser, who asked him to be his assistant coach for the basketball team.
In 1977, Kendall joined the University of Winnipeg's sport studies department, where he was able to indulge his interest in the academic side of sport management. At the end of his second year, he was asked to take over as the women's basketball coach.
“I reluctantly agreed. I had never coached women and had no interest in coaching women. I was a jock and had always been around male athletes.”
That decision, however, would change his life. “I can honestly say my experience in Winnipeg played a significant part in my development, both professionally and personally.”
Kendall says he was soon in awe of the dedication and skill of female athletes. “I also appreciated their lack of ego. ”
Coaching at Winnipeg is also how he met his wife, Gail, a former member of the university's basketball team.
“She had just finished playing when I took over and had also just finished her degree. I asked her to assist me because she'd been on the team and knew all the athletes. I thought it was a good idea at the time. It turned out to be a great idea.”
The two ended up working together for 22 years, 16 of them at Winnipeg. During their time there, the basketball team won 11 conference titles and three CIS titles in 1993, 1994 and 1995. Between October 1992 and December 1994, the team established a North American college record, winning 88 consecutive games.
In addition, Tom Kendall coached Canada's Junior National team at the World Qualifying Tournament in Mexico in 1995, was president of the Manitoba Amateur Basketball Association from 1981 to 1993, and was the Canadian delegate to the International Amateur Basketball Federation. He also managed Basketball Canada's national team programs from 1981 to 1985.
As a team, he and Gail were so successful that they were recruited together to California University of Pennsylvania, he as head coach of women's basketball and she as an assistant coach.
“We enjoyed Pennsylvania very much,” says Tom Kendall. “There was a good budget, a very successful team. But it was just coaching; there wasn't the stimulus of academics.”
So after four years in Pennsylvania, he sought out a position in sports management and found an opening at St. Francis Xavier. He spent five years managing 11 varsity teams and a $20-million facility that housed two ice pads, a conference centre and a wellness centre.
Here at Guelph, one of the major changes Kendall would like to see is an improved athletic facility.
“We're bursting at the seams, our equipment is outdated and our fields are overused. On the fitness and recreation end, we need to do better.”
At least the unexpected setbacks during his first few weeks have been remedied. The men's showers are working, the pools are trouble-free and a whole batch of new towels has arrived. Kendall has now turned his attention to bigger issues.
“I'd like to find a way to develop first-class student activity centres and opportunities for everyone to reach their potential in recreation, fitness or competitive athletics. We would like to establish the benchmark for excellence in our field. I know my goals are ambitious, but I wouldn't say they are unrealistic. I think people have a clear vision of where we want to go and are excited about it.”
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