February 10, 2011
The Canadian Football Hall of Fame 2011 induction class will be announced early Friday morning (6 a.m. Eastern), and we'll have full coverage of the class both on the Yahoo! CFL page and here on 55-Yard Line. It's tough to predict exactly who's going to be in the class, although CFL director of communications Jamie Dykstra has said it will include five players and two builders, and National Post reporter Mark Masters added that an amateur player is expected to be inducted (thanks to the 2010 rules change that allowed CIS and CJFL players to be considered as well, with one inducted each year; that piece also includes a look at five amateur players who might be considered this year). However, there's one man who has a chance of making it this year, and one who already would have been inducted if it was up to me. His name? Don Matthews.
Matthews' coaching achievements are simply incredible. He joined the CFL ranks as the Edmonton Eskimos' linebackers coach in 1977, moved to defensive coordinator in 1978 and helped them promptly win an unbelievable five Grey Cups in a row. Matthews (pictured above right with the Grey Cup after his Baltimore Stallions won it in 1995) then took a job as the B.C. Lions' head coach in 1983, and helped them improve from a 9-7 1982 season that saw them miss the playoffs to an 11-5 year, the second-best in team history at the time. They went all the way to the Grey Cup, which was held at B.C. Place that year, but wound up losing 18-17 to Toronto. Still, it was an incredibly impressive turnaround for anyone, much less a rookie head coach.
Matthews wasn't satisfied with almost getting there, though. He and famed general manager Bob Ackles combined to pull off one of the CFL's most famous trades before the 1984 season, bringing in legendary defensive end James "Quick" Parker from Edmonton. Parker promptly rewarded the Lions' faith in him, recording 26.5 sacks in 1984 (still a league record, 3.5 better than another more recent Lion managed in 2008) and winning the Defensive Player of the Year award. The Lions put up an incredible 12-3-1 record, but were hurt by a late-season injury to quarterback Roy DeWalt and fell in the Western Final to Winnipeg. They were back and even better the next year, though, going 13-3 in the regular-season and claiming their first Grey Cup since 1964 with a 37-24 thumping of Hamilton. B.C. dominated the individual awards that season as well, with wide receiver "Swervin" Mervyn Fernandez claiming the league's Most Outstanding Player award, defensive tackle Mike Grey picking up the Rookie of the Year award and Matthews being selected as Coach of the Year.
It was the first such award for The Don, but it wouldn't be the last. The Lions finished 12-6 in 1986 and made it to the West Final, and they were still in pretty good shape in 1987 despite the departures of Ackles and Fernandez for the NFL. However, a three-game losing streak dropped them to 8-6, and new general manager Joe Galat decided to axe Matthews. The team rebounded under Larry Donovan and made it all the way to the Grey Cup before falling to Edmonton, and they'd get there again the next year, but things soon went south again for them. Meanwhile, Matthews moved on to Toronto in 1990, leading the Argonauts to a 10-8 record and second place in the CFL's East Division. He then coached the Orlando Thunder in the World League of American Football in the spring of 1991 before taking over the reeling 1-6 Saskatchewan Roughriders; they went a better 5-6 under his tenure, but still missed the playoffs. Matthews got the team back to .500 and a playoff berth with a 9-9 1992 campaign, and they improved to 11-7 in 1993, but still couldn't make it out of the divisional round.
Better times were on the horizon for Matthews, though. He headed to the expansion Baltimore franchise for the 1994 season and put together the most impressive of the American franchises. Matthews led Baltimore to a 12-6 record and a berth in the 1994 Grey Cup game, the "Battle of the Border" against the Lions in his old stomping grounds at B.C. Place, where they only came up short thanks to a last-second field goal by the legendary Lui Passaglia (who had been part of Matthews' Lions teams as well). Matthews was named the coach of the year that season, and he and the team came back even stronger in 1995. Led by the likes of Mike Pringle, Tracy Ham, Jerald Baylis and Elfrid Payton, they put up an incredible 15-3 regular-season record. They then made a run to the Grey Cup, and triumphed over the 15-3 Calgary Stampeders, led by Wally Buono and Doug Flutie, in the big game, becoming the first and only American team to ever raise the trophy.
The Stallions wound up moving to Montreal in 1996, but Matthews didn't go with them. Instead, he returned to Toronto and teamed up with Flutie and Mike "Pinball" Clemons to form one of the CFL's most famous teams. The 1996 Argonauts rolled to a 15-3 record and thumped Hamilton and Montreal to advance to the Grey Cup, where they beat Edmonton 43-37 for Matthews' second-straight title. The next year was arguably even more impressive, with Toronto going 15-3 again (Matthews' third-straight such season), finishing first in the East thanks to a tiebreaker against Montreal, knocking off the Alouettes in the East Final and then demolishing Saskatchewan 47-23 in the Grey Cup game (Matthews is pictured at right talking to the team during a practice that week). It was Matthews' third-straight Grey Cup victory, and the Argonauts' second; no CFL team would go back-to-back again until the Alouettes did it this season.
The Argonauts slipped back to 9-9 the next year, and Matthews left the CFL for a few years. He made his return with authority, though, taking over the disappointing Montreal Alouettes from Rod Rust in 2002 and teaming up with general manager Jim Popp to lead them to a 13-5 record and a Grey Cup. That team might be more famous these days for the shenanigans they got up to during Grey Cup week, but they got the job done, thumping the hometown Eskimos 25-16 and holding them off the board for the entire first half.
Things remained pretty rosy for the rest of Matthews' tenure in Montreal, too; the team went 13-5 again in 2003 and made it to the Grey Cup game before falling to Edmonton, and they put up a franchise-best 14-4 mark in 2004 before falling to Toronto in the playoffs thanks largely to an injury to star quarterback Anthony Calvillo. They stepped back a bit in 2005, finishing 10-8, but still made it to the Grey Cup, losing 38-35 in double overtime to Edmonton in one of the most memorable title games ever played. The team was 8-6 in 2006 when Matthews stepped down, citing health issues; Popp took over and led them to another Grey Cup appearance. Matthews would make one more CFL appearance in 2008, taking over the Argonauts from Rich Stubler; that one didn't end as well, though, as the team went 0-8 under him.
Still, Matthews' resume is incredibly impressive, and it's one that certainly merits the Hall of Fame distinction in my mind. He's tied for first in Grey Cup victories as a head coach with five (he has another five as a defensive coordinator), and his nine Grey Cup appearances are a league record. He remains second only to Wally Buono on the all-time career victories list with 231, and his 231-133-1 record (a .633 winning percentage) is only slightly behind Buono's 243-132-3 (.648) mark. Matthews earned the Coach of the Year award five times despite being famed for his at-times prickly personality. Perhaps most impressively, he found success everywhere he went; the 1991 Roughriders and 2008 Argonauts (both teams he took over mid-year) are the only two teams of his to ever miss the playoffs. In a league with so few teams and often a lot of parity, it's tough to produce sustained excellence, but Matthews did. His best teams are among the greatest the league has ever produced, and he remains one of the top coaches to ever roam the sidelines of the Canadian game. He's undoubtedly a Hall-of-Famer in my books, and hopefully he'll be one in the official books before too long.