September 23, 2011
When legendary CFL teams are discussed, one group that's always in the conversation is the 1991 Toronto Argonauts. Under new owners Bruce McNall, John Candy and Wayne Gretzky (seen left to right above), general manager Mike McCarthy (no, not that one) and coach Adam Rita, the team put together an incredible roster, a terrific 13-5 season and a run to a spectacular Grey Cup victory. The Argonauts are celebrating the 20th anniversary of that team all this week, culminating with a reunion of many of the 1991 team members at Saturday night's game against Winnipeg (7:00 p.m. Eastern, TSN). It's an anniversary well worth remembering, as the 1991 Argonauts have plenty of lessons to offer today's CFL teams. Here are three of them:
—Engaged ownership is crucial: The 1991 Argonauts' owners were notable for much more than just their fame. McNall wasn't afraid to sink money into the team, working with McCarthy to outbid the NFL and sign Raghib "Rocket" Ismail to the richest deal ever recorded in North American football at the time. Gretzky's star power certainly helped, particularly in his own country and province, but the most crucial member of the group may well have been Candy. The star of SCTV and numerous great Hollywood flicks (Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The Great Outdoors, etc) proved to be one of the best ambassadors the CFL and the Argonauts ever had, pouring his heart and soul into the team and even recording some brilliant commercials for them, like the ones below.
The ownership was crucial to putting this team together, and perhaps even more important to getting Toronto excited about it. Obviously, not every CFL owner can be John Candy, but the kind of innovative team-building, engagement and marketing the 1991 owners demonstrated can serve as a great example for current teams.
—Success starts with a good quarterback: The Argonauts got their quarterback before 1991, dealing six players to B.C. in 1990 for Matt Dunigan. That deal worked out very well for them; Dunigan led the Argonauts' offence to a league-record 689 points (38.3 per game) that season and then took them all the way to the Grey Cup in 1991, where he had his separated shoulder frozen and threw passes in the hotel ballroom to demonstrate that he was ready to go. Dunigan finished the day just 12 for 29, but he threw two touchdowns and was a key part of the team's offence. Toronto gave up a lot to acquire him, but it was well worth it in the end. We'll see if their latest trade for a quarterback pays off similarly.
—Capitalize on the unconventional: Football is full of conventions, but the Argonauts demonstrated that it's sometimes profitable to ignore those. One of their most important players was Michael "Pinball" Clemons, who stood only 5'6'' and weighed 170 pounds, which many would say is too small for professional football. Then-Argonauts' GM Bob O'Billovich brought Clemons in after he was cut by the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1989, and the move paid off in spades; Clemons did a bit of everything from rushing to receiving to returning, accumulating a CFL-record 3,300 all-purpose yards and the league's Most Outstanding Player trophy in 1990. He was a crucial part of the 1991 team as well and went on to break his own all-purpose yards record in 1997 with the Argonauts, putting up 3,840. Here's Clemons himself on how people overlooked him, in a 1991 Reebok ad:
Clemons wasn't the only unconventional figure on that team. Many thought it was crazy to pay Ismail so much money, but his sparkling kick returns and often electric offensive performances made his price tag more than worth it. Many doubted Dunigan's ability to win the big one after he lost tough Grey Cup games with Edmonton and B.C. (and was injured early in Edmonton's 1987 win), but he came through when the chips were down. Very little about the 1991 Argonauts was anything close to your standard football team, but perhaps that's what made them so successful, and maybe that's something today's teams should look at. The 1991 Argonauts were certainly legendary, and that's why it's great to see them honoured this week.
For more information on the reunion, including contests that fans can get involved with, check out the Argonauts' page on it here.