The year was 1976.
A group of students, mainly from the school of Education, got together through the enthusiasm of Bruce Parkes and Harold Simpson, both mature age students from “down South”. With a set of old Mayne jerseys (black and gold) the Institute Eagles were ready to fly. Permission was obtained from another Southerner, Dr Lindsay Barker the director of the Institute to play on the cricket oval during winter, and the club gained affiliation with the then Student Union. In order to be permitted to field a side in the Darling Downs competition the Institute students had to prove their worth by being competitive in a pre-season game against a side from the other clubs in town.
Not only was that game won convincingly with the help of many Institute staff, whose talents at the game had remained hidden until they saw the posts being erected, but the first two fixture matches were also in the bag before holidays and injuries caused a major fade out in the rest of the first season. The requirement to field both A and Reserve teams every week or be expelled from the competition stretched our playing strength to the limit and the after match commiserations (bonding) became an expected part of the club. When the Aviation Club based in Oakey folded before the 1978 season and Bob Digance brought those players to Institute to get together with Aean Naismith and Ian “Snibbo” Hopkins all the number troubles vanished. The enormous playing talent and boundless enthusiasm saw an A Grade flag in just the third year with the Reserves falling just short of the prize.
Then followed some lean years, only one A Grade player remaining from 1978 to play in 1979, such is the nature of Tertiary graduations and Defense Force postings. It was difficult to rebuild with Army personnel filling most of the key positions and being subject to exercises and duties at critical times of each season, but the Eagles remained afloat. A highlight was the Reserve Grade made the Grand Final in 1980 at the old Toowoomba Showgrounds, only to go down by just two kicks. Phil Daly and Kim Thomas were very instrumental in getting us to this level again, and then Phil “Fish” Heron coached some encouraging wins by the seniors through to his departure to Brisbane mid decade.
When Don “Golden Boot” Mackay returned to town from his remote teaching duties he immediately took up the Presidency with his sweetheart Maureen Maben having kept the home fires burning. The Mackay family held the club together when there were few accolades, which deservedly saw them rewarded with the first two Life Memberships granted since the ’78 Premiership year. They continue their association to this day having sons who have played for the club through the ranks. Alan Town and Zack Briese were responsible for Institute finally having a junior affiliation, based on St Mary’s primary, beginning in this first half of the ‘80’s.
Bill & Dot Graham were on the scene by this stage, all four of their sons playing with great distinction for the Club. Bill & Dot worked tirelessly, holding every position imaginable over the years, including mum and dad to a number of extras from time to time. Dave Hacker took over the Presidency and a bloke named Paul Feltham, a former North Melbourne player who had come to study at the Institute, agreed to be coach. Players came from everywhere to be with the new Blue & Gold Eagles wiping away seven years of heartache and producing back-to-back Premierships in 1986 and 1987. The sides were near invincible and Bill could often be heard on the sideline commenting “another bloody non-event” as scores showing ever greater margins were etched on the side of the old club utility under the slain mascots of the other clubs. As they say “Winners are Grinners’!!!!
In 1988 we came back to earth, Paul having finished his course and departing along with a good number of senior players. Phil Pohlner ably assumed the coaching role and although struggling at times finals were still attained in Seniors, but the lack of depth saw Reserves win only the last game of the season to salvage some respect. That did prove to be a good springboard to 1989 where we once again finished on top. The club went back-to-back again in 1990 with “Jumpin’ Jimmy” Urquhart back in the picture. This is when the name change to University happened and it in no way altered the winning feeling with the Urquhart years proving the best the club has seen. Senior Premiers in 1990 & 1992, runners-up in 1991 & 1993, four Reserve Premierships straight 1991 to 1994. Don Turvey and Don Palmer (both ex Tigers) coached these successful feeder sides.
1994 saw Sam Pellegrino, as a mighty talent both on and off the field, lead his Eagles side to the undefeated top of the competition once again. Peter Merilaid lead the off field administration team as President. The new coaching panel in 1995 & 1996 was led by John “ Jack” Wright and his assistant Mark Sampson for Seniors and the Reserves were led by Daryl Griffiths. The Reserves were knocked out in the Preliminary final of ‘95 and the A Grade gave up the lead in the last seconds of the decider to Goondiwindi who had their own double success winning again narrowly in ’96. Reserve grade reclaimed the crown in this latter year where Dave Bradford was President.
Austin Evans stepped in to the Senior coaches role in 1997 with Chris Partington coming straight from the ranks to lead the Reserves. George Kreicbergs was always at the fore as President and the selection panel including Doug Gniel got the mix right pretty consistently because the Club went on to win not only the two Senior flags, but also the U16’s Premiership. There was sadness with the passing of Bill Graham just one week before the big games. The momentum carried on into 1998 with another Premiership.
In 1999 the players of the club were ready for a greater challenge. Discussions were held with the Brisbane AFL executive about entering teams in that competition and the QAFL agreed to allow a system of dual registrations to play in either competition if the DDAFL agreed. This would have allowed anyone on the Downs who wanted to gain wider exposure to do so whilst remaining a part of the local competition. The DDAFL executive at the time saw this as a threat to their prestige and outright outlawed anyone who registered to play in Brisbane. Reserve and A Grade sides of the newly formed Toowoomba Cougars entered the 1999 BAFL season with the existing RAAF Eagles in that Division 2 competition meaning a total rebranding had to occur. The road proved harder than anticipated with the seniors registering 4 wins from 22 games in their debut season, followed by 4 more in 2000, 2 and a wooden spoon in 2001, 4 in 2002 and 5 in the final year of 2003 where at least the team was reasonably competitive with a percentage in the 70s. Club coaches for these years were Craig Distant & Craig Brownlow in 1999, Tony Bullen in 2000 & 2001, Gavin Duce in 2002 and Charlie Bennett in 2003. The reserves were more than a handful at home, making the finals in 2001 and finishing mid table in 1999, 2000 and 2002 with evergreen Norm Dempsey even taking out the league Best & Fairest in this grade. However, particularly on the road, the club's depth was tested with sometimes as few as 25 to 28 players expected to fill the void of two grades. By 2003 the AFLSQ Division 2 as it was by then known accepted only the A Grade Cougars side with the reserves to field a side in the AFLDD. Unfortunately this side had limited success due to player numbers and the splitting of the club to 2 different destinations each week. It was acknowledged by most of the Brisbane based clubs that the trips to Toowoomba were a highlight of their rounds, with many staying on for the after match barbeques and often an evening at the twilight races.
The QAFL decided to completely change direction in 2004, decreeing that the Cougars could only register a team in the AFLDD competition, which had been dominated since their departure by Coolaroo. This first year back in the lesser 16-a-side local competition saw the club in a rebuilding phase and they finished 5 out of the 6 teams with 5 wins and 10 losses, although they often pushed the top teams. Troy Evans, Mat Croft, Keiron Behan and Paul Simpson were amongst the guys who were responsible for pulling the reins on the coaching front on game day and training nights. Scott Sowerby was cajoled into the presidential role alongside his on field captaincy after Cain Bennett abdicated early in the year and 2004 was a somewhat fractured year where a lot of club debts incurred from the Brisbane venture were tackled in earnest. In 2005 the club was taken back into the finals after Tony Bullen assumed the presidency and Craig Distant returned to lead the side in a captain-coach role and instilled belief in his troops. After narrowly missing the double chance University were in a position to win the preliminary final when some over zealous umpiring reduced their numbers to 14 against 18 and consigned them to the scrapheap. In 2006 with the arrival of Glenn Tracey to the coaching role it was full steam ahead again to the flag for that year. Fifteen undefeated rounds to start the year followed by two shock losses to round out the regular season were righted with consecutive 11 goal annihilations of Coolaroo and Tigers. An influx of some class players throughout this period, particularly from the defence forces was a catalyst, along with the atute methods of the Glenn Treacy, the man harder to read than hieroglyphics. A repeat performance in 2007, with some of our long associated juniors that had not gone to South Bombers entering the senior ranks, was a just reward for the professionalism and hard work that had happened under the hand of Trevor Green. After Coolaroo had gone undefeated for the regular season they were handed successive defeats in the second semi final and grand final.
A bit of a premiership drought has been operating for the balance of the decade, which showed so much promise, and still saw the Cougars making finals, but just lacking that final something that had allowed us to overcome the other improving sides in the past. Tony Bullen retook the coaches seat in 2008 and the club finished 4th in what was a desperately close season. Some losses at various parts of season and some poor kicking in the first semi final ultimately cost the team both the double chance and the first semi final. Various statistics may well show that this side was the best in the competition over the year. On a personal level, Paul Kupke was crowned Holman Medalist in a rare success for the club in umpires voting processes. Heather Symons (soon to be Heather Green) took over the presidency this year. In 2009 Shane Rawlins was appointed coach. After a slow start to the year the club bottomed out and a wooden spoon seemed imminent. However only a surprise defeat in the penultimate round to Tigers stopped the club from playing finals. In 2010 former player Geoff Bolton assumed the coaching mantle. His 3 years in charge were quite successful and the team finished third in 2010 and 2011 and fourth in 2012 but were just unable to win the close finals matches when it counted. Mat Croft presided over the club in 2010 and 2011 before Geoff's wife Kelli assumed this position in 2012. Shane Melrose's hard work with the funds raised in the annual Cancer Challenge game was a highlight of this period.
A terrific achievement of the last couple of years of club development has been the joining in 2011 of seniors and juniors under the one club banner. With our phenomenal support staff, like Mike Nicholas who has been with us for a generation now, and a solid team of coaching staff right through the ranks, and many more people stepping forward to help every week, the future is bright for our club.
We all look forward to many more highlights in the club annuls, and seeing an even longer list of players and supporters names who have achieved their football goals and life-long friendships through association with the University Cougars.