Michael Faulds knew the odds were stacked against him.
“I was 29 at the time, from a rival school and I had no experience as a head coach,” said the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks head coach.
It was four years ago this month that Faulds was hired as head coach of the Golden Hawks football program. In those four years, he’s managed to turn a 1-7 program into a Yates Cup winner, and he earned himself the accolade of being named the best university football coach in Canada.
But, in typical Faulds fashion, the Eden Mills native deflected the personal award to his team and the program he’s contributed to.
“The coach of the year award is really recognition on the national level of what this program has become,” said Faulds from his office in the cozy confines of Classen House, a stone’s throw from University Stadium.
The decision to hire Faulds back in 2012, an exceptionally rough time for the program, was one that changed the future for Faulds and the football program.
So what was it about the 29-year-old who beat the Golden Hawks on a regular basis with the rival Western Mustangs during his playing days? What was it about the guy with only three years of experience as a coach at the CIS level? It started with just a conversation.
“There was something to the conversation that we had that (showed) he was prepared and ready to go for it,” said Laurier athletic director Peter Baxter, who is in charge of hiring and, in some cases, firing coaches. There is a committee of stakeholders who review candidates, but it’s Baxter’s signature that sends out the job offer.
“When we did the interview process, he knocked it out of the ballpark,” said Baxter, adding that he works with Laurier sport psychologists to really determine the best fit. According to that test, Faulds, “had all the assessment factors that would make him a great head coach.”
Faulds’ football resume may not be as long as others, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in breadth.
Starting in football at the ripe age of six in Guelph, he was gripped by the gridiron. Continuing in high school, he played with the John F. Ross Royals in Guelph, but teacher job action threatened to cancel football before his Grade 12 season.
He then transferred to St. Andrew’s College private school in Aurora, with the hopes of being offered a scholarship by a major NCAA Divison I university.
Still unhappy with the offers he received, he went to a prep school in Philadelphia. After that, he finally accepted the University of Toledo’s scholarship offer, where he spent two years. He then joined the Western University Mustangs, where he set national records for passing yards in a season (3,033) and career passing yards (10,811).
After his playing career was over, he joined the York Lions as offensive co-ordinator, where he turned a dismal offence into a top-10 force. On top of that, he’s represented Canada three times as junior and once as a senior on the national football team.
Despite being a naturally shy person, Faulds was drawn to leadership roles — first as a quarterback, then as a coach.
“I love to lead,” said Faulds. “Not in the sense of being in charge, but organizing things.”
Behind the scenes, the committee and Baxter knew they had the right guy. But with typical head coaches sporting grey beards and sometimes too-long resumes, it wasn’t all that widely accepted.
“There are a lot of people out there who felt that because of his age at the time and the fact that he was a Western guy, (he wasn’t the right fit),” said Baxter. “But you take all those factors out and he won the job.”
So bright eyed and bushy tailed, Faulds had to hurry up and wait. It wasn’t until after the Christmas break that he could finally organize a meeting with his players.
“A lot of the guys still talk about that meeting today,” said Faulds.
Defensive lineman Kwaku Boateng, who was a recruit at the time of his hiring, admits some players thought Faulds may have been too young to be a head coach, but it was Faulds’ own philosophy that made them believe.
“He really taught us that we are all equal,” said Boateng, a CFL draft hopeful for this spring.
But that was four years ago. This is now.
Faulds isn’t shy about the fact that there has been CFL interest in his services and it is only going to increase with the Frank Tindall trophy sitting in his office for the season. But right now, coaching USports-level football is a little more comfortable for him and his wife Stacey, a former Western cheerleader.
With seven years remaining on his contract with Laurier, Faulds officially has his own team — as of next season, not one player from the Gary Jeffries regime will remain on the team — and he’s able to live a slightly more comfortable life with his family.
“I like working with these guys and I’m at the point now where this is my team.”
If there’s one thing Baxter can point out as a negative about Faulds’ tenure at Laurier — if you can even call it a negative — is his drive to win.
In the sixth game of the season in 2013, a season in which the Golden Hawks finished 1-7, Baxter remembers how upset Faulds was at the loss. It was a controversial non-call on a touchdown scored by Anthony Pizzuti that would have won the game. But officials determined, falsely, that the catch was not made in bounds.
“Thank God for his wife Stacey,” said Baxter. “We had to remind him that this is going to be a process and it’s going to take three to five years. He wanted to come in and win right away.”
Faulds’ students-first approach is music to Baxter’s ears. With Faulds, he said there has been a renewed focus on education and commitments to not only the school and football program, but athletes bettering themselves in whatever way possible.