The godmother of Canadian women's college basketball
By ROBERT MACLEOD
Saturday, March 9, 2019 Print Edition, Page S1
TORONTO -- In the competitive world of basketball, being the head of the woman's program at the University of Toronto is sometimes viewed as one of the most thankless jobs in Canada.
The university's strict adherence to its gold-standard admission policies, and the fact that top recruits are often given scholarships to U.S. NCAA Division 1 schools, make it almost impossible for U of T to attract top student athletes.
That matters little to Michèle Bélanger, who happily remains at the helm as the women's basketball coach at Canada's largest university. She insists her competitive fires burn as intensely today as they did when she first coached the Varsity Blues.
And that was 40 years ago.
"There were times when it was really frustrating," Bélanger said of coaching a U of T program that often struggles to achieve consistent success in Ontario University Athletics. "Then I realized, it's not going away so learn to deal with it and find a way to survive.
"You can't lower your standards, find a way to get it going."
Although she is too modest to acknowledge it, Bélanger, 63, is the dean of coaches in Canadian women's university basketball, having just wrapped up her 40th campaign at Toronto. The only person to rival her longevity is Dave Wilson, who has been guiding the women's program at Queen's University in Kingston for 37 years.
It has been a remarkable run.
Only Steve Konchalski, who just completed his 44th year as coach of the men's team at St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, N.S., has a longer Canadian university coaching tenure than Bélanger.
The U Sports women's basketball Final 8 championship is continuing this weekend in Toronto at Ryerson's Mattamy Athletic Centre. During the halftime of Sunday's final, Bélanger's coaching milestone will be recognized and there will be a video tribute commemorating her long career.
"It's incredible, I sent her a little note," said Carly Clarke, the 35year-old coach of the Ryerson Rams, who just completed her seventh year at the school. "It's hard to put into words. She's been doing something longer than I've been alive.
"To coach against her and to watch her coach - her energy level is always the same, her teams are always incredibly competitive and prepared. That always impresses me. You can see that her passion and love for the game has not changed.
"She's done so much for women in coaching, helped to pave a path for all of us and doing it the right way. She's of incredibly high character."
Bélanger said she expected to be coaching for only a year or two before moving on to something else, although she didn't know what. More than 1,300 games later and eight Ontario coach-ofthe-year honours, she's still directing basketball traffic.
"Coaching became a huge passion I think in about my third year, realizing that I could maybe make a little bit of a difference here," she said. "And I enjoy this and I think I could have an effect once we started to get the athletes. Back then, recruiting was different and scouting was different.
"I look back and I can't believe it's been 40 years. It's gone by really, really quickly. And it's because I love every day of it, I don't ever feel like I'm working."
Bélanger is a basketball lifer who began playing the game while growing up in the Northern Ontario city of Timmins before being recruited to play at Laurentian University in Sudbury. Her arrival for the 1974-75 school season coincided with the start of four consecutive Canadian titles for the Lady Vees and Norm Vickery, their head coach.
Bélanger was a starter throughout and, following the fourth championship season, she moved to the University of Victoria where she once again helped lead her team into the national playdown. Victoria played Bélanger's former team in the final, which Laurentian won 61-53 in double overtime to capture its fifth consecutive national crown.
While she was out west, Bélanger learned that the U of T was in the hunt for a women's basketball coach to take over from Sharon Bradley, who had resigned.
And although Bélanger did not have a lick of coaching experience on her résumé she decided to apply and, to her surprise, the U of T took her on. She was 22. She's never left.
"It was a huge, huge risk that they took," Bélanger said. "No way that would ever happen now."
There were some growing pains as Bélanger learned how to build a program and run a team.
Her first season at Varsity, 197980, the Blues went 5-7 in conference play.
Under her guidance, the Blues earned nine Ontario titles and played at the nationals on 17 occasions, winning the Canadian crown for the only time in 1986.
The Blues were also Canadian finalists in 1994 and 1996.
Wilson has become good friends with Bélanger over the years as coaching competitors in OUA. He said what sets Bélanger apart is her support of her players, win or lose.
"Probably what I respect the most is just that she cares so much about the players," he said.
"I think that's the bottom line to everything she does. To her, the goal has always been helping her players grow into young adults and really good people."
But, Wilson said, Bélanger's fiery side can become evident during games, especially when calls don't go her way. When she gets animated, Wilson said, the U of T coach had a habit of jumping up and landing heavily on both feet, like a petulant child. It was a manoeuvre he dubbed the "Bélanger double-foot stomp." Once, her feet slipped when she landed and she fell unceremoniously onto her backside.
On-court success has been rare for Bélanger since the Blues won their last Ontario championship in 2002. Toronto has not advanced into the nationals since 2011 and this year did not even make it into the conference playoffs after posting a 6-17 record in the regular season.
The U of T's tough admission standards, she said, is one reason the program has stalled.
"Academically, the gradepoint average to get kids in is getting harder," she said. "We pride ourselves at the U of T on our academic ranking, which is great.
We're never going to compromise that, so we can't allow an athlete in with a lower gradepoint average.
"That's not happening here, we follow the rules."
While admitting candidly that winning another national championship at Toronto might be out of reach as long as the current guidelines for recruiting and student admission exist, Bélanger said she is not giving up hope.
"We can have success here, but again we have to redefine success," she said. "Redefining it in my eyes is being in the top three or four programs in Ontario and hopefully qualify for the nationals."
As far as retiring, Bélanger said it is something she is not considering. She still loves getting up each morning and going to the gym.
"I love the smell of the basketball, the sound in the court," she said. "It never gets old."
Michèle Bélanger has been the head coach of the women's basketball team at the the University of Toronto for 40 years, leading the team to nine Ontario titles.
MARK BLINCH/THE GLOBE AND MAIL