Salt of the turf

Coach Tanner and his team celebrate the 2008 championship against Truro. Photo: Cathy Connell

Mike Tanner is Canada’s most successful high-school football coach. He has coached Halifax teams to 21 provincial championships. No other coach in the country has more than 10. His current team, Citadel High, has won the last five provincial titles. This year they are vying for their sixth straight.
Over the years, Tanner’s approach has been fair and consistent, and like his grandfather Guy Tanner, the successful sea captain, people are keen to get on board with him, despite his demanding reputation.
Coach Tanner was born in Blue Rocks, Lunenburg, the village where his grandfather gained the “High Liner” title for the largest fish catches in 1946, 1947, and 1949. Guy also crewed the Bluenose when it raced, contributing to a span of 17 years when no challenger, could wrest away the International Fishermen’s Trophy.
The success of a fishing crew and football team require chemistry. Anything that hurts chemistry can be costly. Once, Coach Tanner kicked a player off the team for mocking a volunteer cafeteria worker. Another player was removed for rude behaviour at a Friday night hockey game. Disrupting classes, skipping practice, bullying—bye.
Mike Tanner was three when his grandfather died, but he remained close to his grandmother, who was “sharp as a tack” and lived to 93. He spent summers at her Lunenburg home, behind the Smith and Rhuland shipyard, where the Bluenose was built. One summer he told his grandmother that he was moving to New Brunswick to go to university.
Mount Allison had recruited him to football, as a defensive back. They invited his whole family up, toured them around campus, and dined them at a fancy restaurant.
One game stands out for Tanner. It was against St. FX, a team stacked with Americans. During warm-ups, X’s “big men” ran onto the field hollering and pointing at the Mount. Allison team. The taunts were so deadly three Mt. A. players got “hurt” in warm-ups. During the game, Tanner actually broke his wrist, but tried to stay in. He didn’t want teammates to think he was feigning an injury. The compound fracture had to be fixed in Halifax, the city where he eventually transferred to Dalhousie University, to study education and continue playing football.
His most memorable game at Dal was a loss that cost them a playoff berth. He blames himself. He blew a coverage assignment on the goal line, and the winning touchdown was scored by his man. “I was just devastated, because I had let everybody down.”
With his football career behind him Tanner began to focus on teaching and coaching but a chance encounter one afternoon with a man walking his bulldog on the field poked some life into a few old cinders of regret. “Hey Tanner!” the man yelled. “You’re the only guy I ever drafted that never showed up.” It was J.I. Albrecht, the former Montreal Allouettes’ coach who had picked him in the 1972 CFL draft.
In 1973 Tanner began coaching at Queen Elizabeth High as an assistant to the legendary coach Bob Douglas. “What I learned most from Bob, more than anything else, was how to treat people,” Tanner says.
For Al Wetmore, the fifth overall pick in the 1993 CFL draft, life could have been a lot different without Coach Tanner. “In my Grade 10 year, Tanner changed my life completely with one look,” Wetmore recalls. “Can you believe that?” Al had been smoking with a friend on the school steps when he saw Tanner walking by the front windows, shaking his head.
“It was a devastating look. It kept me up all night. But the next day,” Wetmore says, “I quit smoking, got my hair cut, got rid of designer jeans and got into hoodies and shorts . . . and I asked him where the weight room was. I got to work, and I never looked back.” Al went on to have a pro football career, and to this day his #33 is worn by Tanner’s best defensive player, in homage to “the best player I ever coached.” Al’s brother Paul, who also had a pro career, goes down in QEH football lore for a misunderstanding on Citadel Hill.
On the Hill the team runs its grueling conditioning drills. Their seasonal path is worn down by cleats. “We run The Hill the first day,” says Tanner. “They might be able to get up five, six times. But by mid-season, these guys do the first 10 standing on their heads. And they say, ‘Coach, how many more?’”
One evening, Paul Wetmore was running hills, long after practice ended. Tanner was heading home, and noticed him still running. Paul had been sent to run a few hills, and everyone had forgotten about him. He thought they were testing his resolve. “There he was, still running hills almost in the dark. I never felt so bad in my entire life. That’s the kind of commitment or fear that he had.”
Tanner now coaches at Citadel High, whose championship team photo hangs on the wall of Fitness FX on Quinpool Road, where they train and do yoga. There are 61 players and 17 coaches in the photo, a testament to the sacrifice and commitment required by a coach who has guided his teams to victory more than 300 times. In the middle stands Coach Tanner, the hub that has connected a community of friendship between coaches, players, and parents for over 40 years.
“Anybody can do what I’ve done,” Tanner says. “If you were in my position, and you coached with the same players and coaches I’ve coached with for 40 years, you’d be just as successful as I was.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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