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From the beginning, Simon Fraser University harboured big athletic dreams.

When the school was founded in 1965, chancellor Gordon Shrum predicted that the B.C. university would eventually reach the biggest stage of U.S. college football, and play in the granddaddy of bowl games.

"One day, the Clansmen will play in the Rose Bowl," he said in reference to the traditional New Year's Day game in Pasadena, Calif.

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SFU can't yet smell the roses, but former students such as Terry Fox and Jay Triano, the first Canadian head coach in the NBA, have made the impossible seem a little more attainable atop Burnaby Mountain.

On Saturday, the school will inch closer to Shrum's vision, and become the first Canadian institution in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. SFU's football team plays host to the Western Oregon Wolves in a Division II game, and in the coming months, 18 varsity teams will follow suit into the NCAA.

Athletics director David Murphy says SFU is fulfilling its destiny, having competed in the U.S.-based National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics until 2001, when it began sending programs to Canadian Interuniversity Sport and participating in university athletics on both sides of the border. Last year, SFU was approved by the NCAA and the Clan joined the 10-member Great Northwest Athletic Conference, which includes schools familiar to SFU athletes of yesteryear, if not the Canadian public.

"We're being re-united with our traditional rivals," Murphy said. "This is the way the founding father always saw SFU athletics going."

The move was not well received by SFU's Canadian partners. The Canada West University Athletic Association punted SFU from its conference, forcing it to join the NCAA one season earlier than planned, and causing an exodus of roughly 30 student-athletes who suddenly had only four years of playing eligibility, as opposed to five in the CIS.

In the process, a women's basketball dynasty was ripped apart, and former SFU athletes, most of them in third- and fourth-year, went scrambling for new schools and teams. Six elite players on the women's hoops team transferred, and head coach Bruce Langford, who expected to have his best ever team in 2010-11 and chase a third consecutive national championship, was sent back to the drawing board.

"If I had one regret, that's it," Murphy said. "That these women lost the opportunity to compete again for another national championship."

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For Canada West schools with strong athletic programs, SFU's departure represented the loss of a brother-in-arms, and caused worry that the University of British Columbia might follow in its footsteps. UBC will make a decision on whether to apply for NCAA membership next year.

"Anytime a university that's located in Canada chooses to take their game to another place, that's sad," said Basil Hughton, athletics director at the University of Saskatchewan. "I'm disappointed they chose to leave, but they have their reasons. I can't sit here in Saskatchewan and pass judgment."

Hughton said CWUAA schools need to make reforms to keep UBC, including expanding their scholarship programs, and drafting schedules that account for traditional rivalries. SFU will continue to play UBC in the annual Shrum Bowl, but it is now an exhibition that will be played under Canadian and U.S. rules in alternating years.

SFU may have been lured to the NCAA by their founders' decree, but there are other benefits as well.

The school expects to save $400,000 by the summer of 2012 in playoff travel costs, because the NCAA foots those bills.

Some varsity teams, such as football, will be cheaper to operate because they are no longer completing three fly-away road trips, and instead are riding buses through the U.S. west.

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Murphy said he will save $19,000 on football travel, but that basketball will be more expensive because the GNAC includes two Alaska schools. He also said he has spent more than $40,000 converting the football field and basketball court to U.S. dimensions.

But SFU can now provide greater financial rewards to scholarship athletes, and can sell itself as a unique athletic stop in Canada.

It will need to step-up recruiting in football and men's basketball - the two big-money sports in the NCAA, and the two sports where a distinct jump in competition is apparent.

"We've got to get the best players in Canada," head football coach Dave Johnson said. "That's the only way this works."

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About the Author
B.C. sports correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Matthew spearheads the Globe's sports coverage in B.C., and spends most of his time with the NHL Canucks and CFL Lions. He has worked for four dailies and TSN since graduating from Carleton University's School of Journalism a decade ago, and has covered the Olympic Games, Super Bowls, Grey Cups, the Stanley Cup playoffs and the NBA Finals. More

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