February 11, 2011
In one way, new Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductee Don Matthews (pictured at right above during his time with Baltimore, shaking hands with then-Calgary coach Wally Buono before the 1995 Grey Cup) may be one of the most unconventional coaches out there. After all, there aren't too many successful coaches who are also known for not cracking down on their team's off-field exploits and committing a few legendary ones of their own, even reportedly going as far as to tell the 2002 Alouettes during training camp, "There is one rule around here: Nobody, and I mean, nobody, gets more [women] than me."
Many of Matthews' teams played hard and lived hard, particularly those 2002 Alouettes. It's tough to think of too many other championship teams so heavily associated with parties, clubs, womanizing and other excess; the 1990s Dallas Cowboys' teams of Barry Switzer and Jimmy Johnson might be the exceptions, but even those coaches had their control-freak moments, and many of today's professional coaches want to keep their players as tightly under wraps as possible. That wasn't the case with the man they call "The Don", and it certainly didn't stop his teams from finding success; the five Grey Cups and 231 CFL victories he racked up as a head coach speak for themselves. On a media conference call today, Matthews said his approach to getting players on his side was one of the major keys to his success.
Players certainly understood Matthews' approach, and they appreciated it. Fellow 2011 Hall inductee Terry Vaughn, who played for Matthews with the 2005 Montreal Alouettes, said on a later conference call that Matthews was far from an absentee coach, but rather a man who knew what was really important and what moments to pick.
"He sort of let us govern ourselves, but he cracked the whip when needed," Vaughn said. "I know a lot of people don't think there was a lot of structure, but there was structure."
Vaughn said Matthews' top priority was winning, and he didn't object to players' other activities as long as they weren't detracting from their play.
"All he really cared about was showing up on game day," Vaughn said.
Another 2011 Hall inductee, long-time Hamilton defensive end Joe Montford, said he regrets never having the chance to play for Matthews.
"Coach Matthews and Coach Wally Buono were two coaches I would have loved to play for," Montford said. "[Matthews] had that grit, and the ability to get the most out of his players. He had an environment where everyone could be themselves."
Montford's teammate in Hamilton and fellow 2011 inductee Danny McManus echoed those sentiments.
"[Matthews] didn't care about what you did during the week," McManus said. "His job was to get his players ready for game days. He did things the right way."
The off-field incidents may be notable, but it's the on-field success that led Matthews to his induction this year. He's tied for first with five Grey Cups, and he's second all-time only to Buono in CFL coaching victories. Many of those victories came because he brought the same balls-to-the-wall, take-no-prisoners approach to football that he did to life at times. He mentioned today that one of his most memorable coaching moments came in his one of his first games as a head coach, when the Lions opened their new stadium at B.C. Place in 1983. In typical Matthews style, he started the first game there with an onside kick that caught everyone by surprise and was recovered by legendary Lions receiver "Swervin" Mervyn Fernandez.
"That was really fun, to open B.C. Place and my coaching career in that manner," Matthews said.
Matthews never looked back, either, claiming a Grey Cup with the Lions in 1985, then winning one with Baltimore ten years later and immediately following it with back-to-back Grey Cups in Toronto before capping off his career with the Alouettes. Matthews said his time in Toronto with legendary quarterback Doug Flutie remains one of his favourite experiences.
"Doug Flutie would be the special one who could control the outcome of a game," Matthews said. "There's a magic about Doug Flutie. If you're on his team, you believe you can come back from anything."
His time in Baltimore was also notable, as he became the first (and thus far, the only) coach to win a Grey Cup with an American team. Matthews said the way Baltimore embraced the CFL despite the franchise's helter-skelter beginnings was incredible.
"What a great city Baltimore was," he said. "Baltimore was an amazing experience. We went in there, carried tables, chairs and phones into a room and started calling players. You talk about building a team from scratch..."
Matthews said the CFL came to Baltimore at the perfect moment, as the city was still mourning the departure of the Colts for Indianapolis and hadn't yet picked up the Ravens.
"We hit it at a good time," he said. "Their team left in the middle of the night and they wanted some football ... It was an amazing time because we were doing something new. That was a very special time down there."
He said the 1995 Grey Cup victory (which he's pictured celebrating at right) remains one of his top moments, as it may be the only time an American franchise ever lifts the trophy.
"Bringing it out of Canada was special, because I don't know if it will ever be done again," Matthews said.
He said he thought the league's American expansion plans were a great idea, but the execution wasn't the best.
"I think it was a very brave thing to do, to get out of the comfort zone and take a shot," Matthews said. "I think some of the teams were put in places that were going to be a difficult sell, because they're so entrenched in the U.S. in college football and the NFL."
Matthews said the American expansion accomplished more than many give it credit for, though.
"It spread the word of the CFL," he said. "It didn't work, but you have to take that shot."
In Montreal, Matthews helped build the Alouettes' dynasty, but he doesn't want to take too much of the credit for that.
"I was just one of the factors in that success," he said. "Players win the games, and Jim Popp went out and found them. ... When you start a job and you have a quarterback in place like Anthony Calvillo, all you have to do is find out his comfort level and let him go."
One innovation Matthews will take credit for is moving Ben Cahoon from wide receiver to slotback, though. The switch proved essential to Cahoon's longevity and legendary career, which wrapped up this year after he broke Vaughn's receiving record. Matthews said the combination of Calvillo and Cahoon was incredible to watch.
"He and AC got to be so good at reading each other and realizing what each other was going to do," he said.
Matthews has been keeping up with the Alouettes' recent success. This year, they became the first team to repeat as Grey Cup champions since Matthews' Argonauts accomplished that feat in 1997. Marc Trestman's style is quite different from the way Matthews ran things, but he has plenty of admiration for what the younger man has done with the Alouettes.
"I just love his style of football and what he's done with the Montreal team," Matthews said.
That shouldn't be surprising, as Matthews was always famed for his ability to adapt. Each of his teams had a different identity, from the hard-hitting Eskimos (where he won five straight Grey Cups as the defensive coordinator) to the speedy Lions, to the ferocious defence in Baltimore and dual-threat ability of Tracy Ham at quarterback, to the pocket-passing driven offences built around Flutie and Calvillo in Toronto and Montreal. Matthews cited that adaptability as a key factor in his longevity.
"I think I had the ability to stay up with the times," he said. "I'm very proud to have been a part of teams that won the Grey Cup in the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s."
His low-key approach to discipline might have been a key factor in that sustained success, particularly in the CFL. Unlike the NFL, where coaches have gotten more and more military and regimented, many of the CFL's top minds have adopted Matthews' approach to greater or lesser degrees; they might not be out partying, but these days, most care more about what their players do on game day than controlling their lives for the rest of the time. The one recent attempt to bring NFL-style regimentation to Canada, Toronto's hire of Bart Andrus, was perhaps the worst coaching move in recent years. There may be only one Don, but plenty have followed in his footsteps to some extent.
Despite his sometimes-loose approach to off-field life, though, Matthews still felt plenty of pressure to perform and provide successful results.
"Coaching is a draining pressure pot," he said. "No one puts more pressure on you than you do on yourself. ... The anxiety that comes with coaching certainly takes its toll. It probably cut a few years off my coaching life."
That coaching life was long and remarkable enough, though. Few have come close to any of Matthews' individual accomplishments, such as 231 career victories, five Grey Cups or three consecutive Grey Cups; reaching all those milestones is incredibly impressive. Despite all those trophies, it's the Hall of Fame ring that will be the most special for Matthews.
"The CFL is the greatest football played anywhere," he said. "I've spent half my life in the CFL and this is the greatest honour ever."