Don Sutherin, Grey Cup champ and Canadian Football Hall of Famer, dead at 85

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  • Rob Hitchcock
    Player of American and Canadian football
  • Don Sutherin
    American football player

It didn't take Rob Hitchcock long to endear himself to Don Sutherin.

Hitchcock was a rookie safety in 1995 attending his first Hamilton Tiger-Cats training camp after being selected in the second round of the CFL draft. On the fourth day of workouts, Sutherin, the club's head coach, told Hitchcock to replace a veteran player at the position.

Trouble was, the veteran wouldn't budge, even after Hitchcock told him that Sutherin had instructed him to take over. But neither did Hitchcock.

"He said, 'Hey rookie get out of here,'" Hitchcock said. "I don't know why I did this but I grabbed his face mask and head-butted him. … The guy just kind of went off and I think that was Sudsy's way of saying, 'Let's just see if this young kid is going to put his tail between his legs and take off because the veteran guy told him to get out of the huddle.'

"I reacted the opposite way and I think that was the point where he understood who I was as a player and that I wanted to be on this team being from Hamilton. … I think it was kind of the stepping stone of my career and how I made that team."

Sutherin, who led Ohio State to a U.S. college football championship before winning seven Grey Cup titles over a Hall of Fame career as a CFL player and coach, died Tuesday. He was 85.

The cause of death wasn't immediately known. Sutherin passed away in hospital in Canton, Ohio.

Sutherin's daughter, Rebecca, confirmed her father's death.

"I was actually in the hospital with him Sunday and an ad appeared on TV and he said, 'I know that guy,'" Rebecca said. "I looked up and he said, 'That's Doug Flutie.'

"Of course, Dad coached in Calgary when Doug was there and then in Hamilton when Darren (Flutie's younger brother, who was a receiver) was there. We have some wonderful memories. I watched the Grey Cup with him (last month) and Mike O'Shea and Orlondo Steinauer were two guys he coached in Hamilton."

O'Shea and Steinauer are both now CFL head coaches with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, respectively. Winnipeg won a second straight Grey Cup title with a 33-24 win over the Ticats at Tim Hortons Field on Dec. 12.

"Don Sutherin was a #CFL legend," tweeted CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie. "A @CFHOF member, he won the #GreyCup on multiple occasions as a player and as a coach, and made countless friends along the way.

"He will be missed."

Hitchcock, 51, played 12 seasons with Hamilton (1995-06), winning a Grey Cup in 1999. The six-foot-two, 210 pounder amassed 606 combined tackles, 484 defensive tackles, 36 interceptions with 11 sacks and seven fumble recoveries.

In 2019, Hitchcock was added to the Ticats' Wall of Honour at Tim Hortons Field. And for the bulk of Hitchcock's time in Hamilton, Sutherin was either his head coach or defensive coach.

"You're going to hear this a lot but he was an old-school coach," Hitchcock said. "Smash-mouth football, if you're going to take a penalty make sure it's a good one, that mentality back when he played with (legendary Hamilton defensive lineman) Angelo Mosca.

"That's the way football was played. Of course, it's evolved over the last 30, 40, 50 years and it's changed a lot. But when I came in '95, it was still the smash-mouth, knock a guy out mentality. But he always treated us with respect, players first. Just those little life lessons that you learn when you're a young guy and I'm glad he taught us all that."

It's been a tough couple of months for Ticats fans. In November, Mosca passed away at the age of 84 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's.

"We're deeply saddened to learn of the passing of legendary Tiger-Cats player & coach, Don Sutherin," the Ticats tweeted. "His impact on our football club was immeasurable.

"Our thoughts are with his family."

Less than two weeks after Sutherin tested Hitchcock during camp, the coach had his own unique way of telling the rookie he'd made the team. Hitchcock vividly remembers the day when Sutherin asked him on three separate occasions if he was going to cut his hair, each time drawing an emphatic "no" from Hitchcock.

"I had long hair coming out of university (Weber State) in the U.S., and I said, 'Coach, with all due respect I've been growing this hair for four years, I'm not going to cut it,'" Hitchcock said. "It took him three times to tell me in a nice way that I'd made the team but I needed to cut my hair because this was a business that's the way it went.

"The next day, the veterans got me to break down the group after practice and (Ticats veterans) Mike Campbell, Mike Philbrick, Wally Zatylny, all the guys actually pinned me down and cut my hair on the field. My dad was at that practice and he looked at Don, went up to him and gave him a hug and said, 'Thanks, I never did like his hair.'"

Sutherin played collegiately at Ohio State and kicked the game-winning, 34-yard field goal in the 1958 Rose Bowl that gave the Buckeyes a 10-7 victory over Oregon.

Ohio State (8-1) finished ranked No. 1 in the UPI coaches poll while Auburn, which was ineligible for a bowl because it was on probation, finished atop the The Associated Press media poll.

Sutherin, a five-foot-10, 193-pound defensive back and kicker, returned to Canada, playing for Hamilton (1960-1966), Ottawa (1967-69) and Toronto (1970). He appeared in eight Grey Cup games, winning four.

Sutherin accumulated 714 career points and 58 interceptions. He also appeared in 22 playoff games, scoring 123 points and 12 interceptions for 147 yards.

He was the East Division's scoring leader in 1961 (69 points), 1964 (94 points), 1965 (82 points) and 1968 (112 points).

After retiring as a player, Sutherin went on to serve as a CFL assistant coach with Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Hamilton. He served as Ticats head coach from 1994 until 1997 and remained with the club as an assistant until 2002. He added three more Grey Cup titles as a coach, including with the Stampeders in 1992 as an assistant on head coach Wally Buono's staff.

"Sudsy was a great person and coach who was a lot of fun to work with," Calgary president/GM John Hufnagel, who was also part of the Stamps coaching staff in 1992, said in a statement. "He contributed so much to the CFL over the years and he will be sadly missed.

"On behalf of the entire Stampeders organization, I offer my heartfelt condolences to his family and friends."

Sutherin was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1992 and added to the Ticats Wall of Honour on Oct. 24, 2008.

"My dad loved being in Canada, it was a wonderful experience for him," Rebecca said. "He got to play and coach with a lot of wonderful people.

"One thing I think people don't recognize about my dad is not only was he a wonderful football player and coach but he was a wonderful father and husband and a very good friend and very caring."

Sutherin is survived by his wife, Nancy, and their four daughters.

"My dad did not want to have a funeral," Rebecca said. "We're going to have a very small funeral as a family sometime."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2022.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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