In the immediate moments after the Guelph Gryphons won the 2015 Yates Cup over the rival Western Mustangs in London, there was understandable jubilation from the players, staff, and traveling fans wearing the red, black, and gold. Emotions were high after a last-ditch defensive stand clinched the school’s fourth provincial championship, a 23-17 thriller.
Head coach Stu Lang played a massive role in getting the Gryphons to the summit. Coach Lang understood the big picture but was always hyper-aware of the details that would help the team reach its goals. Sometimes, that extended beyond the Xs and Os of football. Amidst the celebration on the TD Stadium turf, Coach Lang turned to Sarah Garrett and asked if she could order more champagne for a post-game celebration scheduled back at Frankenstein’s in Guelph.
“There was all this craziness going on around me and I called Frankenstein’s saying, ‘We just won the Yates Cup…can we please have another case of champagne?’” Garrett, the current Chief Operating Officer of the Lang Innovation Team, recalls. “It was an example of the mentality that Stu brought to the Gryphons – How do we make this better?”
Continuous improvement has been Lang’s mantra since his arrival to the Gryphon Football program over a decade ago. By 2017, the arm of Gryphon Football responsible for raising the bar was officially given its own title – Gryphon Football Advancement. The idea was to literally advance the program in every potential way, addressing improvement in all critical areas: facilities, equipment, coaching, training, recruiting, promotion, social media, alumni relations, and access to resources for players like academic assistance. Every foreseeable aspect of the program was considered by the Advancement team.
Bill Brown, a 1996 Yates Cup champion and former Gryphon special forces coordinator, transitioned from the sideline to the office, working with Garrett and Lang to accomplish those lofty goals. But as the pieces have been put in place to solidify Gryphon Football over the recent years, the Advancement Team’s scope has widened to include the local community and beyond. And a new name was required.
Gryphon Football Advancement has evolved to be called the Lang Innovation Team (LIT). The goal of LIT is to help wherever there is a current societal need.
“I look forward to our meetings,” Brown says of the regular gatherings with Lang and Garrett. “Stu has dreams. He has a long list of ideas. And Sarah is a bulldog, who brings organization and structure to our group.
“Our mission has always been to help the football program any way we can. But now that we have helped put many self-sustaining structures in place within the football program, our involvement is starting to take a different shape. We’ve considered what else we can do, and we have been approached by a number of different organizations that have recognized what we were able to accomplish on the football side, and are interested in how we can help them improve.
“The innovation component is what we really hang our hat on. The tagline on our business cards is, ‘Creating extraordinary from the ordinary.’”
This core principle of continuous improvement has always been at the roots of Gryphon Football. Brown, a math teacher at John Galt Public School by day, recalls the approach of one of his main mentors, former coach Pat Tracey. Like Lang, Coach Tracey preached the growth of the player, not just the team. Gryphon football is fortunate to have had a number of individuals who have put in endless hours in order to leave the program in a better position than when they joined it. Gryphon Football Advancement and now LIT is an extension of this belief.
Garrett’s first exposure to Gryphon Football came back in the summer of 2013. She and Brown had taught together at King George Public School so there was a familiar face on the Gryphon staff. But Garrett admits she knew nothing about football. As a standout soccer player, she was immersed in the “other” football. Garrett ultimately met Lang in his office to discuss the idea of taking over some organizational duties and she was struck by the piles of paper stacked in the room, suggesting how busy things were. Garrett was hired on the spot and soon after, was on her own in Guelph to get some work done while the team traveled out East for the Canada Cup.
“They left me alone and I had to figure things out,” Garrett, a mother of four-year-old Alexis and current Vice-Principal at Mitchell Woods Public School, says with a laugh when describing her first days on the job. “I started as an organizational assistant but it grew into more of a managerial role. My responsibilities included everything from arranging travel, planning pre-and post-game meals, working with parents, connecting with alumni, and being on the field on game days. I’d have my phone out to check wind speeds for a kickoff and I would let everyone know about media timeouts.
“In everything I did, there had to be attention to detail.”
Lang, who is known to have a very specific push-pin system when posting material on the walls, certainly appreciated that trait. Garrett says that all of the work was done through the lens of making things better. By 2017, the idea was brought forward that a dedicated team was needed to keep advancing the program. And the trio of Garrett, Lang, and Brown formally took the challenge on.
“Stu’s idea of Advancement was important, as was his rationale that, through advancement, you could create a well-rounded athlete and contributing member of society,” says Garrett. “You have to know how to be respectful, how to act in public, how to be kind. Being an athlete alone isn’t the end-all and be-all. It's also about experiences.”
Experiences are a foundational aspect of Gryphon Football and LIT. Garrett recalls a team trip to Antigonish, Nova Scotia in the 2017 preseason. Lang wanted the team to enjoy something unique so Garrett used her research skills to find a family-run restaurant that was willing to feed the 70-plus Gryphon players and staff a full lobster dinner. One of the players was from the East coast and stood up to do a quick primer on how to handle the lobster. It was a special bonding moment for a massive group of young men, made possible by the Advancement Team.
Now LIT is focusing on creating change in the community. And for causes important to the players, as well. Last summer, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd, LIT donated $5,000 to the Black Legal Action Centre, a non-profit community legal clinic providing support to low- to no-income black residents in Ontario. LIT has provided input into the planning and development of a massive renovation to Temple Baptist Church in Cambridge. The team has given support to the Guelph Union, the new women’s soccer team in Guelph, which happens to have several former Gryphon varsity players on the roster.
Before COVID, the LIT team went down to Utah to observe the Huntsman World Senior Games. They gathered information on how the event was run and made a presentation to the Guelph Games committee so they could implement what was learned, with the goal being to improve the experience.
The Lang Innovation Team is now constantly looking outside of the Gryphon Football program to see how their expertise might benefit a local organization.
“We are not pulling away from football,” Garrett clarifies. “We are really excited about the upcoming season and are looking forward to tweaking some of our planned events in the spirit of COVID restrictions and safety. However, if there’s an opportunity for us to help somewhere outside of football, we will embrace that opportunity.”
To further highlight the commitment of the LIT team, both Garrett and Brown decided to expand their education in order to directly impact the organization’s work. They recently started the two-year MBA program in Sustainable Commerce at the Lang School of Business, while Garrett is also in the examination phase of her Doctorate of Education through Western University.
“This work with the MBA has us thinking differently than we ever have before,” says Brown. “If we want to communicate with businesses and organizations, we need to be more involved and understand the concepts used day-to-day.”
Garrett and Brown, like Lang’s vision and LIT’s mission, are about making things better. Not just for Gryphon Football, but wherever there is a need.
“We looked at it and said we’re not just about football Advancement anymore,” Garrett explains of the shift to the name Lang Innovation Team.”
“We see ourselves as having a bigger influence across a bigger area.”
“One of the most important things is the community,” adds Brown. “We spend a lot of time talking about this and how we can get our players into the community.
“What causes can we get behind and support? That’s what drives us.”
And like that victorious day in London back in 2015, there will be many opportunities to celebrate.
Written by: david dicenzo
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