When Rob Poole, the mainstay of the women’s basketball team for six years, decided to move on from the program, it was unclear who would step up in the midst of MacEwan’s best years in its short Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) career.
The bond Poole shared with his team was thought to be unmatchable, and it was a legitimate concern that the team itself, despite mostly remaining intact for the upcoming season, may not perform as well under a new coach.
Then, Dave Oldham entered.
Oldham had previous experience as a basketball coach — he was the assistant coach for the Concordia Thunder of the ACAC for three years and a high school coach at Spruce Grove Composite High School for 15 — but at MacEwan, he had to combine all his experience as head coach of a newly-minted CIS team.
He remembers stepping into Poole’s giant shoes in the off-season. Expectations had never been higher for the women’s basketball team, arguably the most successful CIS team at MacEwan.
The team was one win away from making the CIS Final Eight, further than any other MacEwan team has gone in the CIS.
“The season was a bit of a dream, to be honest,” Oldham recalls. They had been more successful than any CIS MacEwan team prior, and were named the school’s Team of the Year, too.
And then, he left.
In early April, Oldham announced he was leaving as the head coach of the MacEwan Griffins to go back to teaching in Spruce Grove.
On the surface, the idea seems crazy. How could a coach, whose first CIS season was the most successful in the team’s history, leave?
The answer is simple: his kids.
His two kids were the main reason Oldham left coaching at the university level. His life wasn’t what he had envisioned it would be when deciding to start a family. Zoe is four and Neveah is six — and in the end, they were more important to Oldham than a new career opportunity.
His kids don’t seem to understand the magnitude of the decision their father recently made.
“My intention when I took this job was to do it for 20 years,” he says. But there were times where the job took too much time and energy out of him — which meant he had no time for his family.
“I would wake them up in the morning, have breakfast with them, ship (Neveah) off to school,” he says.
“But a lot of days, I wouldn’t see them until the next morning, when I’d wake them up again.”
Oldham and his family live in Spruce Grove, so travelling to MacEwan daily was a trek. Once Oldham was at the school in the morning, the distance from home meant he couldn’t see his wife Robyn or his kids until after night practice. By that time, they were sleeping.
Couple that with the incredible amount of work put on a university coach’s plate, and it was an increasingly difficult situation for a father of two young kids.
Oldham wasn’t prepared to pick his family up and move, either. He’s very active in the Spruce Grove community, and with his kids just starting school, he felt like it would be ill-timed.
Parkland School Division had given Oldham a one-year leave, which meant he had a guaranteed job should he decide to go back. It’s rare for a job to give you a one-year leave to take another job, and in the end, being able to go back to a guaranteed job as a teacher was one of the other deciding factors in moving on.
“The other reality I wasn’t willing to put myself in was being in my early 40s — which I will be in a couple years — and then deciding I need to leave for the benefit of my family and not having a teaching job to go back to,” he said.
“The decision made itself, to be honest.”
The choice sounds easy, but Oldham struggled to let this opportunity go. He recalls preparing to tell his team, shortly after the season ended.
“I was a mess for like a week leading up to it,” he says, reiterating how close the group became in such a short time.
“I broke down a couple times.”
He says Robyn supported him no matter what decision he made — having played five years of university basketball herself, she knew what they were getting themselves into. She also coached alongside Dave at Spruce Grove Composite High School, and took over the team when he left.
But in the end, the decision to head back to Spruce Grove had to be made. Parkland County School Division gave Oldham the opportunity to be a part of the opening of a new school, where he will teach and coach junior high basketball.
Now, save for the odd night practice or commitment with Basketball Alberta, Oldham can spend time with his kids daily, instead of seeing them only in the mornings at breakfast.
Maybe they don’t realize it quite yet, but Naveah and Zoe will be able to spend more time with their dad at night. For Oldham, that’s the most important thing.
“We’re all replaceable, except with our own kids,” he says.
“I can’t be replaced as a dad, but I can be replaceable as a coach, and that’s what it came down to.”
Cover photo by Matthew Jacula.