No one better appreciates the changing landscape of CIS football than veteran coach Jeff Cummins.

This dean of AUFC football bosses has a decade of head coaching at Acadia under his belt and has experienced first-hand the growth of CIS super-programs.

He would have witnessed hints of those changes years ago when Blake Nill’s national contenders from Saint Mary’s recruited players as though the nation was their personal talent pool.

More recently, he stood on the sidelines as his Axemen encountered modern powerhouse clubs such as McMaster and Laval in national semifinal games.

In fact, Saturday’s 42-7 loss to Laval in the Uteck Bowl was the fourth time a Cummins team has advanced to the semifinals only to be slapped down hard by a mightier contender.

Yet Cummins isn’t deterred by the lack of national playoff success. He believes those strong programs offer a blueprint he can emulate for Acadia football success, while retaining the strong emphasis on academics.

This week, just minutes before he and his coaches were to hold their first off-season recruitment brainstorming session, he talked about the challenges of an incredibly competitive CIS.

“There’s no secret, great players win you championships,” Cummins said.

And those best players are often attracted to programs that already win nationally, offer plenty of scholarships, feature top football infrastructure and provide the perks of a big-budget program.

Here are a few hurdles Acadia faces in attracting these players:

Like its AUFC counterparts, Acadia doesn’t spend like the top schools. For example, Cummins estimates the Laval football budget is at least six times
Acadia’s. Such a program has better facilities, many more full-time assistant coaches and an overall operation that impresses potential recruits.

The growing popularity of football in Quebec and lower education costs there mean many of those players are playing at home. Also, the Quebec player eligibility system means players are often older and more football experienced by the time they join the CIS.

Like schools in the rest of the country, Ontario schools now offer financial aid to their players. This removes an attractive advantage that AUFC recruiters formerly enjoyed.

Many of the top Western Canadian players remain loyal to their home region when choosing a football school.

Cummins said the AUFC schools can struggle in a CIS where the highest-profile programs can raise more money from a well-attended fundraising breakfast than his program will raise in an entire off-season of events.

He said Acadia’s administration recognizes this. He accepts that the school is supportive but also has many other funding priorities.

“Do we have to get better? Yes. I believe our administration and our athletic director (Kevin Dickie), they see it, they get it. The support I get here is phenomenal.

“We need to try to bring in as much money as we can and get our fundraisers and alumni to see where the bar is set and try to get to that level.”

Whatever reaching that goal requires — be it a more innovative pitch to alumni for funding, better general fundraising plans, or a stronger sales pitch to potential recruits on the benefits of the unique academic and social life at Acadia — Cummins sounds willing to investigate it.

The bottom line is that he eventually wants Acadia to be able to compete with the big boys.

“I want to continue to play the best, continue to compete against the best. So, in order to get there, we have to make sure we raise our game and set our bar even higher.”

Chris Cochrane is a sports columnist with The Chronicle Herald and the author of Inside the Game.

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