The Ryerson Rams have always been just average when it comes to intercollegiate sports in Ontario. Long-suffering alumni of the downtown Toronto institution are used to taking a back seat to the University of Toronto and York University when it comes to bragging rights in Canada's largest city.
Athletic director Ivan Joseph was hired three years ago to alter that perception and he believes the surprising performance of the Rams men's basketball team this season is evidence that the athletics programs at Ryerson University are on the upswing.
Unranked nationally all season until this past weekend, the Rams were the surprise finalist in Ontario University Athletics men's basketball, and that result is sending Ryerson to the national stage for just the second time in the school's history.
The Rams are returning to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men's basketball championship, which begins Friday in Halifax, for the first time since 1999, with an opening-round contest against the Alberta Golden Bears, champions from the Canada West conference.
Ryerson is seeded seventh, the Golden Bears second.
The defending national champion Carleton Ravens head into the 50th anniversary of the national championship as the overwhelming favourite. Carleton's No. 1 seeding is the byproduct of an unblemished 31-0 record against CIS opponents this season.
In those games, Carleton prevailed by an astonishing average of 37.6 points, and another title this weekend would be the school's eighth, which would tie the all-time record held by the Victoria Vikes.
"I would say [Carleton]is the best CIS team I've ever seen," said Ryerson coach Roy Rana, whose club was demolished 82-39 by Carleton in the OUA championship last Saturday in Waterloo, Ont. "It's going to take a great night from somebody to stop them, and a little bit of luck."
Joseph, the Ryerson athletics director, was born in Guyana and grew up in the hardscrabble Jane-Finch corridor in Toronto's northwest end before moving north to King City, Ont., where he went to high school and became a nationally ranked track and field athlete.
Recruited to Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, as a student athlete in 1993, Joseph would become the school's men's head soccer coach and an assistant professor in the faculty of health and physical education. In 2008 he came to Ryerson as athletics director with a mandate to implement change.
"I think all our sports should have been doing better," Joseph said this week. "I think we allowed ourselves to be content with good enough."
Rana was one of the first hires Joseph made, and it was a gamble because Rana had never coached at the university level. Rana forged his reputation at the high school level in Toronto at Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, where he won four Ontario championships in nine years.
"What we liked about him was his proven track record at the high school and his grassroots connections to the Greater Toronto Area," Joseph said.
Joseph's faith in Rana paid off this year when he directed the Rams to a 13-9 record during the regular season before upending defending OUA champion Lakehead 86-70 in last Friday's conference semi-final.
Joseph is also overseeing another big development at Ryerson – the remodelling of the former Maple Leaf Gardens, which will soon become the university's new athletic centre. The facility, expected to be ready for use in the spring, will include a gymnasium that will seat 1,000 and a hockey rink that will accommodate more than 2,000.
Joseph believes the new facility is already helping to attract athletes to the Ryerson campus, which can only lead to more athletic success down the road.
"I believe that successful sports teams complement the academic experience," Joseph said. "When a team wins, the complement is excitement, it invigorates the campus population."
The Rams are a young team, with a core of primarily freshmen and sophomores. The bench is only seven or eight deep with three rotation players sidelined because of injury.
Ryerson is not expected to get past a tough Alberta team on Friday. But they've been doing the unexpected all season.
At a glance
WHAT: Canadian Interuniversity Sport men's basketball championship
WHEN: Friday, Saturday, Sunday at the Metro Convention Centre in Halifax
11 a.m. – No. 5 University of the Fraser Valley vs. No. 4 Lakehead
1:15 p.m. – No. 8 Acadia vs. No. 1 Carleton
5 p.m. – No. 7 Ryerson vs. No. 2 Alberta
7:15 p.m. – No. 6 St. Francis Xavier vs. No. 3 Concordia
11 a.m. – Consolation 1
1:15 p.m. – Consolation 2
5 p.m. – Semi-final 1
7:15 p.m. – Semi-final 2
10 a.m. – Consolation final
12:15 p.m. – Bronze-medal game
3:30 p.m. – Championship final
All times Eastern