The Don of Canadian Football: Another Tribute to Don Matthews

We all have warts. Don Matthews just didn’t try to hide his.

His rough-around-the-edges personality rubbed more than his share of media and other football types the wrong way and left many at the time wondering if the CFL would be better off without his confidence – or arrogance. They were wrong.

Teams Better with Him than Without Him

Sure, B.C. Lions general manager Joe Galat didn’t like his sarcasm when Galat dumped “the Don” in a power struggle over the Leos in 1987 after Matthews had won them their first Grey Cup in more than two decades. But it took the team seven years and a few more regime changes to win another.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders reign of error – credit the late Bob Hughes of the Regina Leader Post for that line – generated twelve head coaches between 1977 and 2006. Only one had a winning record during that miserable spell. Anybody want to guess who it was?

Helped League When it Needed it Most

Somebody had to grab hold of the league’s ill-fated U.S. expansion experiment and see if a Grey Cup championship could make three down football work in America. The Don took it on and pulled it off. Two years in Baltimore, two Grey Cup appearances and a ring. Nobody else could sell CFL football to Americans but Don Matthews did it. His reward: the NFL took the city back and booted the Don back to Canada.

The league needed the Toronto Argonauts to win again to get corporate Canada back on board. Who did they call? You guessed it, the Don. Two years with Doug Flutie and – as if there was ever any doubt – two more championship rings for both men and an NFL comeback for the star quarterback, complete with Flutie Flakes.

The coach was so good at it he got excited about having to build an offense without Flutie. He made Nealon freaking Greene look good, for crying out loud! He even got into the playoffs with Kerwin Bell as his quarterback.

Unforgettable Personality

Maybe the league didn’t need his whining about the new replay system when it was first introduced in 2006. But it sure gets boring to listen to conference calls when all these coaches today toe the company line about everything the league does. And sure he hated the Montreal media but I‘ll guarantee you that more than a few Habs, Expos and Alouettes players and coaches from years gone by watched in envy when Matthews told his share of reporters off.

He once told the CFL on CBC that his failed relationships were a result of his family taking a backseat to his football. He had at least four marriages that we know of and few other younger “partners”. Some people found this appalling. The majority found it refreshingly honest. The guy was real. He never pretended to be somebody he wasn’t.

And that’s really what his true legacy left behind is today. For years we had it all wrong. We thought Don Matthews was nothing more than a bully who cared nothing about people and everything about wins, losses, and dollar bills. Not true. He gave one of his ten Grey Cup rings to a terminally ill friend and raised copious amounts of money for the Chili for Children school lunch program in Regina.

Who Was the Don?

Don Matthews wasn’t who we thought he was. He was who said he was. A renegade who lived on the edge and did it his way. It made him the winningest coach in CFL history for a while and created an identity for the Canadian Football League that still endures.

Legendary New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was often described as somebody who had a really big heart for others, but didn’t want anyone to know it. The same could said for this guy.

Someone always has to wear the black hat and be the villain. And nobody ever did it better than Don Matthews.

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