1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE –PART 4 – ‘RIDERS, TI-CATS AND BOMBERS, OH MY!
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2022
1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE –PART 4 – ‘RIDERS, TI-CATS AND BOMBERS, OH MY!
The Rough Riders’ waterlogged victory over the B. C. Lions earned the players a three-day holiday over the Labour Day weekend. As much as it made a lot of people in the Riders’ camp feel a little bit better about themselves, the fact that it was the time of year that it was, meant that there would be another influx of fresh talent, courtesy of the NFL cuts, for the coaches to browse through.
Even though the men who played on Friday night had some time off, there were eight other players on 14-day trials and four more on the reserve list who were still working out all weekend at Lansdowne Park. Out of the bunch though, the most notable and the only ones to actually stick with the team for any appreciable time were Rudy Phillips and William Mitchell.
Once the team had finished enjoying their long weekend off, though, preparations began in earnest for their upcoming game against the Toronto Argonauts. Both Toronto and Ottawa had played nine games in the season to this point. Ottawa had won three. The Argos had lost all nine.
For the Boatmen, their issues had come mainly on offense. They had scored just 142 points over the course of those nine matches. They had given up 273. That’s more than thirty points per game against. All while they were scoring under 16 in each contest. Now, defensively, Ottawa was just slightly better, and while they had been having trouble at times moving the ball, the Riders had scored just under 20 points per game.
Toronto had just traveled to Calgary to take on the Stampeders on Labour Day. It did not go well. They fell 23-5 to their Western foes. After the loss, team president Ralph Sazio turned his guns on his high priced quarterback Condredge Holloway. Sazio was quite critical, basically saying that Holloway looked like he didn’t know what he was doing and that he was a poor play caller.
“When you have a poor selection of plays, someone has to take responsibility. I don’t see why people get so upset. You can’t kid anybody. Someone has to take responsibility and it’s either the quarterback or the coaches. I sure as hell don’t call the plays. Look, I’m not against Holloway. The team didn’t move the ball, so it’s got to be someone’s fault. I have no intention of getting rid of him. I’m trying to build a good, strong corps of quarterbacks and I think we have three young men who can do a job for us.”
Coach Willie Wood was non-committal as to which quarterback would start in the game against Ottawa. Holloway had been a punching bag behind the line of scrimmage and had not been playing at 100 percent either before, during or after the Calgary game. Wood addressed that with the media. That said, the Argos picked up quarterback Dan Manucci, a recent cut of the Buffalo Bills.
“With his experience and talent (speaking of Manucci), we have to look at him to help us out. I think Condredge is a very excellent quarterback. But he’s under a handicap because of the pressure to win here. Also, the injuries he’s had have taken away some of his effectiveness. He was labouring in throwing the ball against Calgary.”
“If we use Manucci, Condredge may back him up if he’s healthy. But, if he’s beat up like he was after our last game, it may be better to give him a break. Somewhere along the line, we have to put a combination together that can win a ball game. We need help in the receiving corps because we’re not getting people open.”
If Holloway was to sit out the game against Ottawa, Mike Williams would back up the former Bills’ QB, Manucci. Meanwhile, the Argos had also reached out to a couple of players that had just been cut by Ottawa. Richard Crump underwent a physical the day after Labour Day and was certain to join the team for a 14-day trial on the Wednesday. Also, Martin Cox was expected to join the Argos that week.
In a week in which the Montreal Expos had fired their manager, Dick Williams, in their quest to make baseball’s post-season for the first time and the 1981 Canada Cup saw Team Canada clinch the top spot in the round-robin, it was disclosed that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were possibly in talks to acquire superstar wide receiver John Jefferson, who had been holding out and skipped camp with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers.
Jefferson did not report to the team’s training camp and threatened to sit out the 1981 season unless his contract was restructured. Jefferson played his collegiate football at Arizona State, whose coach at the time was Frank Kush, now with the Ti-Cats. Jefferson said that Kush had been in contact with his brother and that playing in the CFL was quite possible.
“First and foremost, I want to play,” Jefferson told the media. “Frank and I have a good relationship and I respect him.” The CFL plot definitely thickens after Labour Day, doesn’t it.
So, what happened on the weekend of September 12-13, 1981 that we would be concerned about? Uh-oh. The Russians shocked Canada 8-1 to win the Canada Cup. Then they tried to sneak the trophy out of the building (and conceivably, the country) in a hockey bag, before being caught. The Montreal Expos won a pair of games to stay in the race for the post-season.
Oh ya, and the Ottawa Rough Riders looked good for the second straight week in trouncing the Toronto Argonauts by a score of 23-6 at Exhibition Stadium (or as Global Television’s Mark Hebscher used to refer to it on his groundbreaking Sportsline show, that he co-hosted nightly with Jim Tatti, ‘Excruciation Stadium’) on Sunday afternoon in Toronto!
The problem with assessing a game like this was that it was difficult to tell if the Argos were really that bad or if, emotionally, they just really didn’t care anymore. 30,340 fans showed up for this game and they had to head home disappointed at the outcome. There was a series midway through the second quarter that kind of told the tale as to where the Argos might have been in this game and at this point in the season.
Ottawa had the ball deep on their own side of the field. There was a fumble and it was recovered by the Argos’ Ben Apuma, giving Toronto the ball, first-and-goal on Ottawa’s seven-yard-line. Cedric Minter ran the ball down to just shy of the goal line. So, as per Canadian Football rules, the ball was moved back to the one-yard-line. No one told Dan Manucci.
He assumed that the ball was less than a foot away from the goal line as it would have been in the NFL. He just did a kind of a hop and extended the ball out over the line of scrimmage, thinking he had put the ball over the goal line. But he was short. Then, on third down, he was stifled again. No points. Ottawa ball.
After that, all the wind had been taken out of the Argonaut sails.
Ottawa defensive back Jerome Stanton had two interceptions on the day. He noticed that his opponents just didn’t have much spring in their step at all. “A lot of those guys just showed up. They didn’t come to play,” he told the scrum of media around his locker after the game. However, for their part, the Ottawa offense wasn’t necessarily on their game either.
Offensive backfield coach Jerry Keeling admitted as much after the game. “We weren’t sharp, not at all. Sometimes, when you play against a team that lacks intensity, you tend to relax and lose your concentration. That’s what may have happened to us.” Toronto actually held a lead after the first quarter. Their kicker, Zenon Andrusyshyn, provided the only scoring in the first fifteen minutes with a field goal at 8:54.
Ottawa got a Jordan Case to Bruce Walker touchdown and a Gerry Organ field goal in the second quarter to take a 10-3 lead into the intermission. Walker made a great catch while being covered by Toronto defender Don Rose for the major score. Organ and Andrusyshyn traded field goals in the third quarter. Just short of the halfway mark of the fourth quarter, Organ added another three-pointer.
But early in that final quarter, Jordan Case was hit by Apuma and Jim Corrigall on a screen pass that appeared to leave him with a broken left arm. But later on Sunday night, Case was at the Riverside Hospital in Ottawa getting x-rays that came back negative. Case was still in a lot of pain though.
“The arm feels as if it’s broken,” Case said late on the Sunday night. “But it’s only a pinched nerve above the elbow. The doctors can’t say how long I will be out. It could be a day-to-day thing.”
That meant that J. C. Watts took over and the difference between the way he looked in this game against Toronto and the way he looked his first week in practice when he returned from Oklahoma was very evident. His obvious preference was to run with the ball and he did that very wall. But when it came to navigating the pocket and locating receivers, he exhibited composure and was able to fire the ball when on the roll out.
On their last drive of the game, Watts moved the Rough Riders 52 yards in seven plays. Six of those plays were runs. The final play was a one-yard plunge by Sam Platt. Platt looked strong for the second consecutive game in rushing for 84 yards on 19 carries.
On the Saturday, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats headed to Montreal and trounced the Montreal Alouettes 26-10. That left the Als with a record of 1-9. Nelson Skalbania had spent a lot of money on the personnel on this team and for him to see this group play this poorly was just too much for him. Following the game, he fired his coach, Joe Scannella.
Skalbania seemed to be questioning his own spending in his post-firing comments. “After the opening game that I saw against British Columbia, I thought there would be an improvement. Obviously, there hasn’t. The high-priced players just aren’t working, you can see that. As an afterthought, hiring them was obviously a mistake. Maybe $200,000 players get injured just like $50,000 players.”
Assistant coach Jim Eddy would take over the reins in Montreal. Over in Toronto, Ralph Sazio had made the same decision about his coach, Willie Wood, as Skalbania made about Scannella. Wood was out. His replacement was to be the team’s general manager, Tommy Hudspeth. Hudspeth became the team’s eighth coach in nine years.
The decision came from Sazio but it was implemented by Hudspeth. “This isn’t a pleasant situation because I liked Willie,” Hudspeth told the press. “But like I told him after the Ottawa game, the buck stops here.”
At this point in the season, Hamilton was at the top of the East with a record of 7-2-1. Ottawa was next at 4-6. Montreal had one win in ten games and the Argos had yet to win after ten starts. Each team had six games remaining. The top three made the playoffs. The big question was, would any of Ottawa, Montreal or (ahem) Toronto be able to compete against the Ti-Cats in any kind of playoff game?
After making the major lineup changes a couple of weeks before, George Brancato had seen his team come out with two wins over the B. C. Lions and the Toronto Argos. Their next four games were to be against Saskatchewan, Hamilton, Winnipeg and Edmonton.
They had not beaten any of these four teams in their first meetings with them. In fact, in those four games, the Riders were outscored 157-55. In games to this point pitting Western teams against Eastern clubs, the West had beaten the East in 21 out of 25 of the matches. As Steve Martin’s character, Navin R. Johnson, said in the 1979 movie, The Jerk, “Roll the ugliness.”
The game against Saskatchewan was in Regina at Taylor Field. It started well for the visitors. Ottawa took a 14-0 lead on a couple of Kelvin Kirk pass receptions for touchdowns on passes from Jordan Case. When it came to scoring on the team in 1981, Gerry Organ was the leader, but, when it came to other players, Kirk was the man with the most scoring points.
For the Rough Riders, Kelvin Kirk was like found money. He was like the proverbial 20-dollar bill found in an old coat. Kirk had been All-City at Dunbar High School in Dayton, Ohio in the early 1970s. He went to the University of Dayton and was their top receiver for three years, earning the title of team Most Valuable Player in 1975.
He started his CFL career with the Toronto Argonauts in 1977. He played with the Stampeders in 1978. In 1979, he started the season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and played three games with them before going back to Calgary. 1980 saw him play in Cowtown as well.
For whatever reason, right before the end of training camp in 1981, the Stamps cut him. Ottawa claimed him right away. George Brancato couldn’t believe that Calgary had let Kirk go. Pat Stoqua said the same thing when I spoke to him in a conversation on the Sports Lunatics Show on the FiredUp Network in September of 2022.
“Kelvin was a hard worker. When Calgary cut him, we couldn’t believe it and we snapped him up right away. He was a heck of a teammate. Always eager to spend more time out after practice running routes, helping in any way he could. He was not just a great receiver, he was a great punt returner as well. We returned punts together for a couple of years.” Stoqua was the dependable possession returner who could gain positive yardage, but Kirk could break one for a touchdown here or there.
He would later settle in Ottawa and work at the Ottawa Citizen as a graphic artist. Everything that everyone tells me says that he was beloved by all he met and knew. He passed away on July 2, 2003 while playing pickup basketball in the driveway with his son, Jonathan, outside their Aylmer home. He was 49. But the story of Kelvin Kirk, the football player, is not that simple. It goes back to when he had finished playing college football at Dayton in 1976.
Back in 1976, someone had the idea of celebrating the very last player drafted in the NFL draft. The notion of calling that player ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ was part of the whole idea. The last player selected in that draft was Kelvin Kirk. It was a way of giving publicity to the player selected last in the draft.
He had been selected in the seventeenth round (number 487) by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but had been given little chance to make the still very strong ‘dynasty’ Steelers. After he was cut, he came north and found a new place to play, live and thrive. His last season as a Rough Rider, 1983, was his last in the CFL. Ottawa remained his home after that.
“Kelvin was a delight to be around,”Bruce Walker told the Ottawa Citizen. “You couldn’t say a negative thing about him. I remember arriving at practice every day and Kelvin would have drawn all sorts of caricatures on the chalkboard. When George Brancato would come in, he would have to erase the pictures or draw the plays around the pictures.”
Jeff Avery chimed in immediately after his former teammate’s passing, “He would make us laugh, drawing little scenes of what went on in practice. I’m just in shock about this right now.”
Don Holtby was the Riders’ one-time general manager and long-time colour voice on Rough Riders’ radio broadcasts alongside the legendary Ernie Calcutt. He remembered a moment in the 1981 Grey Cup.
“He was a great athlete. He had such great speed, and I remember in the Grey Cup Game when he broke open and J. C. Watts overthrew him by maybe six inches. It would have been a different game. It sits in my mind. I still remember it like it was yesterday. He was such a gentleman. He had such a great personality. He was a good, good person, well-liked by everybody.”
Kirk left his stamp on every person that he met in that same way.
Just before the end of that first quarter, the Green ‘Riders saw John Hufnagel fire a touchdown pass to Joey Walters from ten yards out to make it 14-7. The first half ended 17-7 for the Eastern Riders. Late in the third quarter, the score was 20-16 for Ottawa. Saskatchewan running back Greg Fieger appeared to fumble the ball after catching a Hufnagel pass and running a few yards with it. Ottawa’s Larry Brune recovered it.
But referee Neil Payne consulted with the other officials and they decided that what had looked like a fumble had actually been an incomplete pass. They ruled that Fieger never had control of the ball. George Brancato said it simply. “That play killed us.” Brune spoke as a player who saw it first-hand and actually fell on the football. “You can’t tell me that wasn’t a fumble. He ran four yards with the ball.”
All that mattered to the Eastern team was that they felt it should have been called a fumble. It wasn’t. Saskatchewan had momentum and the ball. That call allowed the Western ‘Riders to march downfield and eventually, Joey Walters would take the ball into the Ottawa end zone to give his team the lead at 23-20.
Saskatchewan continued to play the wind and play the game of field position, pinning the Rough Riders deep in their own zone often in the second half. Halfway through the final quarter, Ottawa scrimmaged in the shadow of their own goal posts when Sam Platt lost control of the ball. Tony Gabriel recovered it in the end zone, surrendering a safety. Those crucial two points made it 25-20.
The next Ottawa drive stalled on the Saskatchewan 9-yard-line and a Gerry Organ field goal made it a two-point game with less than three minutes remaining. But that was as close as they would get. Their second half strategy of throwing short passes underneath the Ottawa coverage worked and the Green ‘Riders came out on top by a score of 26-23.
Football games always come down to a handful of plays in each game and the key play in this game was that Fieger bobble that may or may not have been a fumble. But adjustments by the Saskatchewan coaching staff made a difference as well. In the second quarter, Ottawa had been running the ball at will against their Western cousins. That stopped in the third though.
Ottawa ran 29 plays from scrimmage in the second quarter as opposed to nine for Saskatchewan. “Everything was clicking (in that second frame),” said Rough Riders quarterback Jordan Case. “I had confidence in every play I called. In the second half, Saskatchewan forced us out of the run. They had their linebackers play tighter on the outside and took away some of the room we had.”
One of Saskatchewan’s linebackers, Bernard West, had been cut from Ottawa’s training camp in June. He played a big role in his new team’s second half defensive resurgence. “The changes helped but we had to bear down and play with more intensity. We had to do something to swing the momentum back our way,” West said. They clearly acted on their plan.
Rudy Phillips had made his debut in a Rough Rider uniform in the game against Saskatchewan. He was a force. His aggressive blocking allowed the members of the Ottawa backfield have a productive day. Sam Platt ran for 85 yards on 16 carries. Fullback Jim Reid got the ball five times and picked up 44 yards. Pat Stoqua used to love blocking with Phillips on the line.
When Stoqua appeared on the Sports Lunatics Show with me on the FiredUp Network, he talked about how Joe Moss loved seeing Stoqua tie up either a linebacker or the defensive end because that allowed Phillips and Val Belcher to isolate on a couple of the defensive backs on the running plays.
For Ottawa, if there was a silver lining, they could console themselves with the thought that they had played this supposedly superior team close. They had controlled wide swaths of the game and they had a couple of games coming up at home, at the friendly confines of Lansdowne Park. In six days, they would face the first place 8-2-1 Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
On the Tuesday before the Hamilton game, Brancato revealed that the Rough Riders had acquired a player he had been trying to get since the opening of training camp. Before the preseason started, the Montreal Alouettes had improperly signed Ottawa fullback Mike Murphy. He was a free agent but the signing had to take place within a certain time window. Because the Als had signed Murphy outside that window, Ottawa would be due compensation.
One of the players Brancato had wanted was defensive back Carl Brazley. The second year player was not just a very good defensive addition, but he was also an excellent punt and kickoff returner. Having Brazley return kicks with Randy Rhino gave the coach some big decisions to make. Because CFL teams had a limit on the number of imports they could play, activating Brazley meant that someone would have to be released.
Brancato didn’t have answers ready when asked who the odd man out would be. But he did feel a lot more comfortable about the situation he was in at this point of the season than he had been before the NFL cuts were made.
“Our big problem has been the quality of our imports. The last month, I feel we’ve upgraded our imports tremendously. Now in making any decisions, I’m dealing with quality players. We’ve got some tough decisions to make, but the kind of decisions a coach doesn’t mind having.”
Ultimately, Greg Grimes would be the man who drew the Nine of Hearts. He would be gone. But then, the question would be, ‘Where would Brazley play in the secondary?’ He could play the corner or at safety. Brazley had played corner at Western Kentucky. But Randy Rhino was the team’s safety – and he was very good at it. At least Brancato felt confident in his ability to be working with quality players.
The Ottawa coach was somewhat hamstrung by the import rules, but then again, every other team was as well. But with Ottawa being a budget team, he was also working with a handicap monetarily. Coming out of training camp, the Rough Riders were a team with a number of weak links. But as the season had been rolling along, Brancato had been working, bringing players in and filling holes.
The wins hadn’t come the way he had hoped, but, fortunately for the Riders, the Alouettes, with their bloated payroll, and the Argonauts, with former Rough Rider Condredge Holloway at quarterback, weren’t able to win much, if at all, either. As a result, Brancato’s team was in second place with a record of 4-7. As we noted earlier, the top three teams in the East made the playoffs.
The work that Brancato had been doing had been noticed by people around the league. On the television broadcast, before Ottawa’s game against Saskatchewan, former quarterback Ron Lancaster, now doing commentary for the games, made reference to the Riders’ coach saying, “There is one of the best in the Canadian Football League. Every year, Ottawa is called to be at the bottom and every year, he does what he has to do.”
The team’s first goal was to make the post-season. Then, they wanted to win a game. But could they beat Hamilton in the playoffs? They wouldn’t know the answer to that question until and unless they actually met the Ti-Cats in November. Their first task was to try to defeat them in their next regular season game. That contest would happen soon enough – the approaching Saturday afternoon at Lansdowne Park, to be exact.
George Brancato set out to test his team. The test had one question. Can you beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats? In the end, the answer was ‘no’. The Riders’ defense showed up – especially the linebackers. The offense? Not so much. Ottawa’s only touchdown came on a third quarter 92-yard punt return by Kelvin Kirk. That score gave the Riders a 16-13 lead that held through the first 45 minutes.
But the fourth quarter opened with Ottawa driving the ball. They moved down to the Hamilton 40-yard-line but stalled. Gerry Organ attempted a 48-yard field goal. It went wide. The David Shaw return brought the ball back 109 yards to the Riders’ 10-yard-line. Two plays later, Tom Clements hit Keith Baker with an 8-yard pass for a touchdown that gave the Tabbies the lead for good. The Bernie Ruoff point after made it 20-16.
Ruoff added a late field goal. Then, to rub salt into the Ottawa wound, as time was running out, David Green ran a ball into the Rough Riders’ end zone to complete the scoring. The game ended with Hamilton winning 30-16. Immediately after the game, Brancato thought that his team had been competitive. After watching the film, he and the coaches realized otherwise.
When the coaches went over the video the next day, they saw a few positives but some glaring negatives.
“Immediately after the game, I thought we could have beaten Hamilton, but after watching the film – we didn’t have a chance,” Brancato told the Citizen’s Tom Casey. “Our offense was just terrible. It might have been our worst offensive performance of the season. Jordan Case had a real tough day. I don’t know where his head was. It may have been his worst game since he got here.”
“Offensively, we flunked miserably. Defensively, we passed – we played well, but the loss of Bill Mitchell is going to hurt. His loss will be a devastating blow. He’s so tough and strong. I saw one play when Steve Stapler got out of his way instead of trying to take him on. He’ll be a tough guy to replace.”
Mitchell fractured one of his cheekbones late in the fourth quarter on a Hamilton punt return. He was done for the season.
The linebacking trio of Eric Manns in the middle and Mitchell and Rick Sowieta on either side of him had a fantastic game. They combined for 28 tackles and the defense as a unit limited Hamilton’s offense to just 244 total yards. Ottawa’s defense gave their offense great field position throughout the game as well.
The only problem was that Case and his offensive unit couldn’t turn that field position into points. They had drives die on the Ti-Cats’ 10, 12, 26 and 29 yard-lines. Out of all that, they got three Gerry Organ field goals. But their offensive line couldn’t contain Hamilton’s Grover Covington.
Ottawa’s offensive line was overpowered by the Tiger-Cats’ defensive rush. Covington and company sacked Jordan Case seven times. But Brancato took note of Case’s passes being off target, his drop backs not being deep enough and his failure to check down to his running backs when his downfield receivers were covered and his backs were wide open.
J. C. Watts got playing time and his running served to give a jolt to the Riders’ offense. But Hamilton linebacker Ben Zambiasi was torn about which of Ottawa’s quarterbacks was better. “Case is a good scrambler but Watts is better. Another factor was that Watts came in with fresh legs and he’s fast, but he can’t read defenses nearly as well as Case.”
Zambiasi’s sentiments were echoed by the Ottawa coach. “Neither one of them was doing much. Watts looked alright when he was running, but when he gets back in the pocket....well, he’s never been there before. And with Case, he is still inexperienced. There are receivers open and he doesn’t see them. It takes time. There is only one way for them to get that experience, and they’re getting it. We have to be patient now. We’re in the playoffs, and we have to see what we can do then.”
Brancato was correct -- mathematically, at least. But after Ottawa lost to Hamilton, Edmonton destroyed Montreal 62-11. Then, on Sunday, Winnipeg pretty much did the same to the B. C. Lions by a score of 46-10. The upset of the weekend occurred at CNE Stadium in Toronto when the Argos secured their first win of the year. Cedric Minter scored a touchdown with fourteen seconds left in the game to give the Boatmen a 29-26 victory over the Calgary Stampeders.
Ottawa was three wins ahead of both Montreal and Toronto. If George Brancato was to be believed, his Rough Riders were ensconced in second place in the East. In the short term, that would be sheer speculation. It would eventually be borne out in fact though, but at the end of September, with another month remaining in the schedule, anything could still happen.
In the week before the Hamilton game, Brancato and the Riders got the player they had been waiting for, for a long time, in Carl Brazley. On the Monday after the Hamilton game, Brazley walked into the coach’s office and informed him that he was leaving the team and quitting football. He claimed he was tired of moving from team to team but when pressed, he said it was about money.
When he reported to Ottawa, he was still working under the terms of his original contract. It paid him $25,000 per year. “I thought when Montreal cut me, I would be a free agent and I could be in a position to negotiate a new contract. I didn’t find out that I had been traded until I arrived in Ottawa and that the terms of my old contract prevailed.”
“On the other hand, I can understand Ottawa’s point of view. They want to get a player as cheaply as possible and I can’t blame them. The only reason I didn’t walk out on Ottawa was because I was well treated by coaching staff and players.”
It turned out that upon arriving in Ottawa and learning about his contract status, he wanted to leave then. The coaches were put into an awkward position and immediately approached him. “We had to coax him into playing against Hamilton,” Brancato said. “I get the feeling the only reason he played against Hamilton was to get us out of a bind.”
With all this though, the sense was that L’Affaire Brazley was not over.
In the meantime, in order to replace Brazley, Brancato was thinking of using the duo of Gary and Glenn Cook. Obviously that was not his optimal plan because on the Wednesday, he made a deal with the Toronto Argonauts to send ailing Canadian linebacker Tim Berryman to Hogtown in exchange for two-time Eastern All-Star defensive back Billy Hardee.
Over in Hamilton, there was a tempest brewing over the team’s coach, Frank Kush. On Monday after their win over the Rough Riders, Ti-Cats’ owner Harold Ballard told media members that Kush had been offered a coaching position with the Dallas Cowboys. Ballard said that his sources told him that the Cowboys were planning to move Tom Landry into an administrative role with Kush moving into the top spot.
Kush denied ever communicating with the Cowboys. He was said to be angered and embarrassed over the rumours. “I have never talked with anyone from Dallas. My chances of becoming a coach at Dallas are as good as my becoming Pope. The only similarity is I’m Polish and so is the Pope and I’m with a football organization and so are the Cowboys.”
But Cowboys’ vice-president Gil Brandt didn’t throw any water on the fire created by these rumours. “We are a Frank Kush fan. We think of him very highly. We have a lot of contact with him now and I think he would come to the NFL as a head coach, even though I know he is happy in Hamilton.”
Not to provide any kind of spoiler or anything, but.... Kush would coach the Tiger-Cats until the end of the 1981 season, but would be hired in the off-season by the NFL’s Baltimore Colts. He would coach the team in Baltimore for the following two seasons and stay with the team for the 1984 season when they moved to Indianapolis. In 1985, he found himself with the Arizona Outlaws of the USFL.
Meanwhile, in Montreal trouble was beginning to boil over a simmering feud between Alouettes’ quarterback Vince Ferragamo and Pittsburgh Steelers’ pivot Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw questioned Ferragamo’s decision to leave the Los Angeles Rams for the Canadian Football League for a few extra dollars. Bradshaw posited that Ferragamo lacked the will to compete against the best and looked like a quitter.
In Montreal, questions were being asked about the team’s record (1-10) and whether or not the former Ram was the right man to lead the Als to wherever it was that they wanted to go. At least one media source, in this case, a Montreal radio station reported that Ferragamo was going to ask out of his deal in Montreal in order to return to the NFL.
“I have no idea where that rumour got started,” Ferragamo told Dick Bacon of the Montreal Gazette, “but it’s absolutely untrue. I called the law firm that represents me and they said they had no idea how it started. I’ve got a commitment here. I’m under contract to the Alouettes and I’m going to fulfill it. I have no intention of leaving.”
Ferragamo signed a two-year contract with the Alouettes and Nelson Skalbania worth $400,000 per year before the 1981 season. He had been offered $250,000 per year by the Rams, hence the criticism from Bradshaw. Als’ general manager Bob Geary denied being asked by his quarterback to duck out of the contract.
Montreal coach Jim Eddy told Bacon, “No one from the Alouettes has even talked to Vince about this. All I can say is that if anything is to be discussed, it will be at the end of the season.”
As it would turn out, Ferragamo’s first year with the Alouettes would also be his last. He would be back with the Rams in 1982 and stay with them until the end of 1984. He would finish his career out with the Buffalo Bills and the Green Bay Packers.
On the same day that the Montreal Expos clinched a spot in the 1981 postseason, the Ottawa Rough Riders hosted the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Lansdowne Park. That was about as pleasant as the day was for the Riders and their fans. In the first meeting between the two teams, Dieter Brock had been much less than 100% healthy, and he dished the ball off to his running backs Obie Graves and William Miller. They ran wild over Ottawa in a 31-8 Bomber win.
This time, Brock was healthy and he showed it. He exploited Ottawa’s zone defense and set a league record for completions in a game (41 for 47 - 449 yards) as Winnipeg defeated the Riders 44-24. Brock wasn’t the only Bomber that was producing. Running back William Miller carried the ball 22 times for 113 yards. On special teams, Paul Bennett returned six punts for 151 yards and put his team in decent field position all game long.
“Statistically, it was my best day, but it didn't feel that way. I didn’t think I threw that much,” Brock told the Canadian Press, “although, with Ottawa playing in a zone defense, it was the only way to move the ball.” Winnipeg coach Ray Jauch said, after the game, that the plan was to go against Ottawa’s zone defense with a short passing attack. But he stressed that it was Miller’s running that froze Ottawa’s linebackers, allowing Brock time in the pocket to pass.
Ottawa's Mike Raines broke it down quite succinctly. "Winnipeg kept seven guys to block our four man front and Brock was taking only three steps back to set up. He released the ball before we could get at him. To get at him, we would have to play man-to-man and blitz."
Jordan Case started the game well but lost his momentum as the game wore on. Ottawa led 10-7 at one point, but found themselves trailing 28-10 when Case was lifted in favour of J. C. Watts. Watts went 10 for 22 with a couple of touchdown passes but he was still learning the nuances of the Canadian game.
"My scrambling defeated its purpose," Watts told reporters after the game. "I have to learn to eat the ball and take a loss but I never realized you could control the ball as well by passing. Brock's 41 completions and 41 first downs were phenomenal. I threw 22 passes today and that's the most I've ever thrown in a game. The next highest was 19 and that was as a sophomore in high school."
For his performance, Brock would be named the CFL’s player of the week. It would be the second consecutive week he would achieve that honour.
The game was played before 15,523 fans – the smallest crowd at Lansdowne Park all season long. The team’s record through the season was the big reason for the fans’ disenchantment. The team’s last game against the Ti-Cats had their highest attendance of the season and would be the only contest of the year in which the Riders drew more than 20,000.
Ottawa got a pair of touchdowns from rookie running back Calvin Fance. They also got a third quarter touchdown from Tony Gabriel, who scored on a 20-yard pass from J. C. Watts. During the week, Brancato had intimated that he was going to make Kevin Starkey the backup quarterback, but when push came to shove, it always seemed as if it was Watts who got that position.
In this game, Jordan Case went 7 for 13 for 127 yards without a touchdown or any interceptions. Watts went 10 out of 22 for 151 yards. The knock on Watts was that he was not a great pocket passer but that he could roll out. Riders’ slotback Pat Stoqua told me many years later that Watts had a stronger arm than people gave him credit for. Stoqua would know.
Just some food for thought.
The Rough Riders were now 4-9 and looking at travelling to Commonwealth Stadium to face those dreaded Edmonton Eskimos once again. Back in their first regular season game, Warren Moon and the Esks had completely dismantled Ottawa 47-21. At this point in the season, Ottawa was far from perfect, but George Brancato felt better about his lineup than at any earlier time.
That may have been true, but the Rough Riders went into that game in Edmonton on Thanksgiving weekend as 14 ½ point underdogs to the Eskimos. They had lost three games in a row to superior competition after winning two straight games against the B. C. Lions and the (ahem) Toronto Argos.
Ottawa followed the game in Alberta with a home game against the Calgary Stampeders at Lansdowne and a game at Olympic Stadium with the Alouettes to close out the regular season. The Stampeders had fired their coach, Ardell Wiegant, after their loss to Toronto. An apparently ‘more relaxed’ Jerry Williams took over there. The final game against Montreal could have significant playoff implications.....or it might not.
We would have to play the games in order to see, wouldn’t we?
* * *
You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa. Howie also hosts Like Father, Like Son with his son, Reese, here on the FiredUp Network and those same platforms as well.