1981 - MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 1 – THE TURBULENT PRE-SEASON
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Tuesday, August 9, 2022
1981 - MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 1 – THE TURBULENT PRE-SEASON
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the North American marketplace was a gold mine for toymakers. Saturday mornings, lunchtimes and after school, television screens were filled with cartoons and programming geared for kids under the age of 14. It was a time for laughs AND it was a time for toys!
One toy or tabletop game from that time was called Battling Tops. The game could accommodate up to four players and it consisted of a shallow plastic bowl or arena about 15-18 inches in diameter and each player would propel their spinning top into the area of play. Because of the concavity of the surface, the tops naturally would move toward the centre. The idea was that the tops would spin and collide and eventually only one top would be left standing – or spinning.
It provided hours of childish fun. On the television commercial, the narrator sounded like a boxing commentator while he was describing the action before us. One top looked like it was going down, but because it was spinning so furiously, it managed to right itself and spin smartly once again. The man amazedly intoned to us, the children watching, “Anything can happen in Battling Tops!”
And so, indeed, anything COULD happen in Battling Tops. In that same weathered vein, over the many years that we have been watching sports, listening to our parents or relatives as they watched sports or listened to the pundits on television or sports talk radio, we have heard over and over again, “Anything can happen in the Canadian Football League!”
Looking back at history, it all checks out as true.
In 1976, the Ottawa Rough Riders finished the Canadian Football League’s regular season atop the Eastern Division with a record of 9-6-1. There were two teams in the West – Saskatchewan and Winnipeg – who had better records than Ottawa. The fact that the Riders made it out of the East was probably no big surprise. Also, the fact that they would face the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Grey Cup game was not really shocking either.
The Green Riders finished with a record of 11-5 and went into the championship match as a five-point favourite. Ron Lancaster’s experience at quarterback and the fact that he had amazing numbers that year made Saskatchewan the betting choice among many of the football savants out there. Ottawa’s quarterback tandem of Tom Clements and Condredge Holloway was young and unproven.
Ottawa jumped to a 10-0 lead after the first fifteen minutes. Their touchdown came on a dramatic 79-yard punt return by rookie Bill Hatanaka. But by half-time, with the stiff wind at their backs, Saskatchewan gained a 17-10 lead. The Green Riders had the wind in the third quarter, but the Ottawa defense stiffened and only allowed them a field goal. Gerry Organ also added a field goal for the Eastern Riders, so after 45 minutes, it was Saskatchewan leading by a count of 20-13.
Organ also contributed a fake punt that resulted in a 52-yard scramble for an Ottawa first down late in the third quarter that shocked pretty much everyone in Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium. Even the Riders’ punter/kicker didn’t know he would run until the ball landed in his hands. At half-time, he told linebacker Mark Kosmos that Saskatchewan wasn’t rushing on any of his punts.
“It was in my mind all the time,” Organ told reporters after the game. “But I didn’t really know until I’d gone, that I was doing it.” When he got the snap, he took a step as if to punt, saw no rush and just took off. “I got blocks from Mark and halfback Wayne Tosh and there was lots of room.”
A little past the halfway mark of the fourth quarter, Organ connected for a 32-yard field goal to cut the Saskatchewan lead to 20-16. Ottawa moved the ball down to the Saskatchewan 1-yard line with 1:32 left in the fourth quarter. On third down, they could not get the ball into the end zone. All appeared lost.
But, with the Western Riders trying to drive into that headwind, they could not generate a first down and had to punt. Ottawa got the ball back and started at the Saskatchewan 35. After a one-yard Art Green plunge, Clements found Tony Gabriel for a ten-yard gain. As the Green Riders were tackling Gabriel, though, Bill Manchuk drove the big tight end’s head into the turf. Gabriel was seeing stars as he was heading back to the huddle.
“I catch it and bring it down and get smacked by Lorne Richardson and then I got this late hit and my head bounced off the turf and it’s Manchuk who got me with an elbow across the helmet and I’m seeing stars. I’m a little dazed from the hit but still run back into the huddle and then the play comes in from the sidelines and Tommy (Clements) goes ‘no, no’. So he calls another one and I’m thinking, oh my gawd, I’m the primary receiver.’”
Clements took the snap, faked to fullback John Palazeti and rolled right. Gabriel had approached safety Ted Provost and faked as if he were going to the post and instead went toward the corner. Provost bit and Gabriel was wide open. Clements found him and lofted the ball into the end zone.
“It hung up there for what seemed like a lifetime,” Gabriel remembered many years later. “I looked back and remember thinking the ball was taking forever to get to me. I’ve said before, my eyes were six feet wide when I hauled the ball in. There was no way I was going to drop that baby.”
That was it. There were 20 seconds remaining on the clock. Ottawa had taken a 23-20 lead. Saskatchewan had nothing left. The game ended. The underdogs had won. The players, the Ottawa fans, the coaches, were all elated with the outcome. The victory brought joy and prestige, but it also brought extra money. Each player on the winning team would take home $6,000. Members of the losing team got $3,000.
After making that game-winning catch, Gabriel put both his hands on the ball and slammed the ball over his head. It bounced away. “I should have held on to the ball,” Gabriel told the CBC in 2012. “But the only thing I saw back then was dollar signs. That’s all I cared about then for my teammates.”
When you consider that, back then, it wasn’t unheard of for a CFL team’s payroll to total about $1 million for a season, and possibly less, you can see where Gabriel was coming from. Tom Clements was chosen as the game’s top offensive player and for his work, he was awarded a new car. That car would come in handy. “That’s nice,” Clements told the Ottawa Citizen’s Bob Mellor. “The one I’ve been driving is kind of a team joke.”
In each of the next four playoff years, the Rough Riders would lose out to the Montreal Alouettes. In the first of those three, the Als would get to the Grey Cup, defeating the Edmonton Eskimos to win it in 1977. Edmonton would win the national title game in 1978, 1979 and 1980.
1981, though, would be another one of those years in which the laws of probability held no sway.
Ottawa was coming off a 7-9 season in 1980. They had lost in the East semi to Montreal 25-21 and were looking to improve. In 1981, Nelson Skalbania bought the Alouettes and wanted to make a big splash. The real estate magnate went after Los Angeles Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo and eventually signed him. He signed receiver James Scott as well. The Als already had linebacker Tom Cousineau on the team and were looking to unseat the Eskimos at the top of the league.
Their team payroll budget would eventually top about $4 million. Over in the nation’s capital, Rough Riders’ general manager Jake Dunlap was looking at a payroll budget of about $1.2 million. That didn’t stop him from trying to make an impression on the rest of the league though.
Julius Caesar Watts had been THE quarterback at the University of Oklahoma for the previous four football seasons. In the last two years of his college tenure at Norman, Oklahoma, he led the Sooners to consecutive Orange Bowl victories. He was drafted by the National Football League’s New York Jets, but, because Watts primarily ran the option in college, they could not guarantee him a spot at quarterback.
Enter Dunlap and the Rough Riders. In early May, they began talking to Watts and his people. On May 11, the Riders flew Watts and his better half up to Ottawa to show them the town and talk about possible plans for him with the team. He said and did all the right things. “Ottawa is a clean and beautiful city,” Watts told the Citizen’s Tom Casey. “It reminds me of Tulsa.”
He also talked about how he enjoyed the style of football played north of the border. “The Canadian game suits my style of playing quarterback. Coach (George) Brancato seems to be very straight forward, the kind of guy I would like to play for.”
Keep in mind, any discussions between the two parties were still in very preliminary stages but it looked good to have a picture of Watts and his wife on the front page of the sports section with the Peace Tower as a backdrop. A couple of days later, it was reported that the Alouettes were trying to lure Herschel Walker north.
Oh, but the Als did sign Mike Murphy away from Ottawa as a free agent. According to the rules, as they existed at the time, Teams could not sign any free agents until both sides agreed upon compensation first. Dunlap contended that no compensation had been agreed to and that Murphy should remain property of the Riders until that had been completed. It didn’t appear that it ever would be completed.
On May 19, the Alouettes signed wide receiver Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. The former Houston Oiler was another big name in Skalbania’s football player collection. That same day, Watts’ camp publicly scoffed at the offers from the Riders. Ottawa did not have deep pockets, that was certain. The offer was said to be for about $50,000 per year with a $10,000 signing bonus.
Eight days later, the Rough Riders would open their training camp at Trent University in Peterborough. Ottawa had several unsigned players who were entering their option year including linebackers Rick Sowieta (2 seasons with Toronto, 2 with Ottawa, started 16 games in 1980) and Bill Banks (1 season with Hamilton, 1 with Ottawa, started 16 games in 1980), defensive tackle Mike Raines (1 season with San Francisco, 1 with Montreal, 6 with Ottawa, started 16 games in 1980), wide receiver Bruce Walker (2 seasons with Ottawa, started 16 games in 1980) and defensive back Maurice Tyler (7 years in NFL, 1 with Ottawa, started 8 games in 1980).
For George Brancato, this would be his eighth season as head coach of the Rough Riders. He played for the Riders from 1957 until 1962. He was an assistant coach under Jack Gotta starting in 1970. He took over the head coaching duties in 1974 and he was the coach when the team won the Grey Cup in 1976. He would remain in that position until 1984.
By 1981, his title was ‘Coach’. Jake Dunlap was the general manager. He looked after the business side and the money. But when it came to player personnel decisions and dealing with other teams’ GMs, it was generally Brancato who did that for the Riders.
Brancato was a quiet man. He was a delegator. He let his assistants look after their particular groups. After Brancato passed away in 2020, former Ottawa receiver Jeff Avery spoke to Ottawa Sun reporter Tim Baines about his former coach. Football may have been his career, but his life and his passion was his family.
“As a player, you only knew him as the coach,” Avery told Baines. “He and Barb just loved their family, the grandkids. They live in the same house (built in 1976) they did when he was coaching us, with a pool in the backyard. He said to me many times that he just loved the grandchildren coming over, laying in the backyard in the pool. He had that family attachment.”
Just to let you know how small the sporting community is in Ottawa, I played on a hockey team in the 1980s with Brancato’s boy, George, Jr. Brancato’s son talked to Baines about the role that the pool played in the whole family’s existence. “That was his pride and joy. The kids gravitated to the pool,” said George, Jr. “He knew if he kept the pool perfect, he’d get the grandkids over. He was smart that way.”
Avery talked to Baines about Brancato, the coach, as well as the family man. “He was a very quiet coach. You played for him for a few years probably before he really spoke to you. He let the assistant coaches do the coaching. He was the type of coach who got good people to work with him and he let them do the job with the players. Everybody enjoyed playing for him. He treated you fairly.”
Brancato liked a good laugh though and he especially liked it if he could share it with the victim afterward. Avery recalled a time with Baines in which Brancato threw some shade at him well after the fact. “We were down in Florida visiting Jimmy Clark (a former Ottawa U. Gee-Gees and Rough Riders’ coach) – myself and a buddy from high school.”
“Jimmy had a good size fishing boat with a couple of twin 200s on the back. Bobby Simpson and George and their wives used to go down to Florida every year. We took George and Bobby out fishing. George loved to tell stories from a coach’s perspective. George was laughing, ‘Jeff, do you remember we used to run that option with you when we wanted to kill the clock...because it took you so long to get around the corner?’ I said, ‘Ya, George, I remember running the play, I don’t remember that was the reason why.’ He was just laughing away.”
He could enjoy a laugh, but when it came to his job as coach (and de facto general manager), Brancato took the job seriously. He had four assistants in 1981 and each of them was a football lifer. Joe Moss looked after the offensive line. Former Stampeders’ and Rough Riders’ quarterback Jerry Keeling oversaw the offensive backfield and receivers.
Former Rider defensive back Bob O’Billovich was the defensive backfield coach and another ex-Rider and ex-Ti-Cat, Don Sutherin, coached the defensive line. O’Billovich and Sutherin shared the job of coaching the linebackers.
At the end of May, J.C. Watts, 1981 Orange Bowl MVP, signed a two-year contract with the Rough Riders. The deal would pay him $100,000 over two years. Additionally, he would receive a $15,000 signing bonus. But on the morning of June 1, as camp was in its second day, he left the team saying he was “burnt out with football”.
“My mind is back at my desk in Oklahoma. I’m worried about the appointments I’m missing. I just feel like I have to get back.” At the time, Watts was vice-president of King Energies in Oklahoma and had just started his own company which specializes in restoring land that has been used by companies who have drilled for oil. He was also being considered for the role of colour commentator for ABC’s coverage of college football.
According to unnamed Rough Rider players, Watts was talking more at dinner, the night before, about his Oklahoma business interests than he was about football. That said, they thought he would remain in camp a lot longer than he actually did.
No one was chasing him down as he left. Brancato told the Citizen’s Tom Casey, “There was no use in even trying to coax Watts into staying. You could tell the kid had his mind made up. He knew what he was doing.” The remaining quarterbacks in camp were Jordan Case, Ron Calcagni and Kevin Starkey and Brancato said that he was happy with the three of them.
But word of the money that the team was willing to pay an unproven rookie got around the team and there were literally some unhappy campers. Bill Banks and Mike Raines both came out to the papers as being disgruntled with the money they were paid. Raines demanded a raise from $42,000 yearly to $60,000 and if he didn’t receive it by June 3, he would retire. He was offered $50,000 per year and he declined that offer. He walked out of camp. His agent would eventually still be talking with Dunlap though.
The team’s offer was for $50,000 in 1981, $57,500 in the second year and $66,000 in 1983. Tony Gabriel, who had already announced that 1981 would be his last year of football, made $60,000. Raines rejected the offer and informed the league’s commissioner that he would be retiring. Brancato tried to spin it in the team’s favour. “He’s thinking in terms of what Tom Cousineau and Dave Fennell are making. I can’t see us changing our basic offer. We’ll miss him.”
Raines had a difficult time trying to rationalize the team’s position. “I keep asking myself if I’m being unreasonable. Considering what the other guys in the league are making, I feel I’m justified.”
His teammates knew his value to the team and they supported the First Team All-Pro. “He’s one of the best defensive tackles in the league and the good ones are getting $70,000 a season,” an unidentified Rider told Tom Casey. “He comes to play and I think all the guys are behind him. He deserves what he’s asking.”
The move was certainly a procedural one for the man who was one of the best defensive linemen in the league, if not the best, at that time. If Raines were to retire before the first exhibition game, he could return to the team at any time. If he retired after that first game though, he would have to wait 60 days before being able to rejoin the team. Raines told the Citizen’s Casey that he might ask the Riders to trade him as well.
Over in Montreal, Vince Ferragamo was throwing balls to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. Meanwhile, Mike Murphy, whom the Als signed as a free agent from Ottawa ruptured his achilles tendon, was done for the season and was placed on the retired list.
On the night of June 4, though, the Riders played their first pre-season game of 1981 at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. With Ottawa leading 13-12 in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, Argos’ quarterback Condredge Holloway tried to hand the ball off to Cedric Minter. The exchange was poor and the ball hit the turf. Ottawa linebacker Mike Peerman recovered the fumble.
With just more than three minutes remaining, Ron Calcagni then hit Pat Stoqua with a 28-yard touchdown pass to seal the 20-12 victory for the Riders in front of 28,325 Argonaut fans. Calcagni had scored Ottawa’s only other touchdown on an improvised run in the middle of the second quarter.
A week later, the Riders were playing again. June 11. The sports news was dominated by news of the major league baseball players strike, but for the Rough Riders, the Montreal Alouettes were in Ottawa and the big draw for this game was, of course quarterback Vince Ferragamo. Oh, and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson was there as well. Tony Gabriel was good to play again after nursing leg soreness. Jordan Case was resting a sore throwing arm that had plagued him for much of camp.
Ferragamo looked good but only generated one touchdown. On his second series of the game, he moved the Alouettes 75 yards in four plays. The final play was a 21-yard pass to Peter Dalla Riva. The extra point try was spoiled by a bad snap.
Ex-Alouette Ron Calcagni was great for Ottawa once again, playing the first half and completing 17 of 28 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown. The Riders eked out an 18-17 victory, but it was touch and go in the fourth quarter. After the first half, Ottawa was leading 14-9 and Ferragamo’s night was concluded.
Steve Grant was supposed to play the second half, but he couldn’t get much going. With less than three minutes remaining, Alouettes’ coach Joe Scannella looked over at Gerry Dattilio and said, “Do you think you can go in?” Dattilio replied, “Sure”. Scannella growled “Then take off that hat and get in there.” Dattilio took off his baseball cap, put on his helmet and went out there into the Bytown night.
Montreal had the ball on their own 35-yard line. Dattilio scrambled, he rolled out and back and up, he made passes and he looked awful out there, but he was marching his team down the field. On the fourth play of the drive, the Ottawa defense chased Dattilio out of the pocket. He was thirty yards behind the line of scrimmage when he spotted rookie Marc Lacelle open near the sideline. He hit him with a pass and the McGill product ran the ball down to the Ottawa 11.
Two plays later, Dattilio called a quarterback draw and barely got the ball over the goal line. It was now 18-17 for Ottawa. Scannella, figuring that a tie in an exhibition game is less than worthless, called for a Dattilio option play, on which he could either run or pass. But someone forgot to block end Curtis Anderson and the Riders snuffed out the threat and captured their second win of the preseason.
For the Montreal media, the big story of the night was the play of Calcagni. Two years earlier, he was a rookie with the Alouettes and he didn’t get to play very often. In 1979, he got enough playing time to throw 16 passes, completing just seven of them. Four of them were intercepted. In practice, back then, when he would hang a ball up and his teammates would make quacking noises, the inference being that he was throwing lame ducks. On this night, he did throw two picks, but his poise and maturation were quite evident.
In 1980, the Als released him and the Riders claimed him immediately, although, he didn’t get a lot of playing time that year. The difference now was getting repetitions at the position in practices. “I finally have confidence in my ability,” Calcagni told the Montreal Gazette’s Herb Zurkowsky. “I’ve been given the time in practice to develop. That’s what it’s all about. Practice makes perfect.”
George Brancato was happy with his development as well. “Ron called a great game. He knows what he can do and he goes out there and he does it. So far, he’s been our best quarterback.” In the final two minutes of the first half, Calcagni completed seven straight passes and directed an eight-play, 73 yard drive that ended with a 15-yard Wiley Pitts touchdown catch.
Joe Moss was also pleased with the way that Calcagni had looked so far in 1981. “Not only is Calcagni throwing the ball better, but he’s working the offense well,” Moss told Tom Casey. “He knows what we want and he’s doing it.” Jerry Keeling, the former CFL QB, echoed Moss’ sentiments. “For a youngster, he throws the ball particularly well deep.”
Brancato was pleased with the way his defense played in this game as well. In Montreal’s first preseason game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Alouettes were victimized by the Ti-Cats’ incessant blitzing. Ottawa tried the same thing but did not have the same success. “We tried blitzing Ferragamo but they picked it up. I guess they were expecting it after the Hamilton game. I was also impressed with our defensive backs. They were around the ball all game.”
For both teams, it was now back to work. There were still a lot of players in the camps of both clubs and they had to get the number down to 34 in less than three weeks. After the Montreal game, Ottawa still had 55 players and had to cut five by June 16. And Mike Raines wasn’t one of them – although it was reported that he was back in Ottawa and wanted to talk to Dunlap and Brancato about a contract.
The 34-man roster had to consist of no more than 15 American players. As the team stood on the morning of June 12, there were seven U.S.-born members of the defensive backfield. Jonathan Sutton, Mike Davis, Greg Grimes, Sharay Fields, Ricky Barden, Maurice Tyler and Bill Schoepflin were all there and they had all looked good in camp. That presented a little problem for the coaches. They couldn’t keep them all.
One other problem the coaching staff faced was a lack of speed at the wide receiver position. The fastest guys they had were Bruce Walker and ex-Carleton Raven Gary Cook. Their speeds in the 40-yard dash were reported to be about 4.7 seconds. Not exactly sprinter-type speed. But the presence of Wiley Pitts and Steve Coury, and the fact that both those men were performing well, seemed to alleviate that concern in the short-term.
The good feeling from the win over Montreal allowed the coaching staff the wherewithal to give the players the weekend off. That said, the team would be five players lighter by Tuesday. Once back to work, preparations would begin for the upcoming return match against the Alouettes at the Big O in Montreal.
On cut-down day, Ottawa traded import fullback Mark Bright to Winnipeg for rookie running back Dennis Mosley. They suspended offensive lineman Wes Phillips, who didn’t really want to play football anymore anyway. Also gone were Canadian offensive lineman Frank Moffatt, deep back Mike McIntyre, import wide receiver Wally Wright, defensive lineman Kurt Brecabill and defensive back Marcus Quinn.
Mike Raines was back in Ottawa and met with Jake Dunlap. They did not come to an agreement but they sounded like they were getting closer. The fact that Dunlap’s offer included incentives that could get Raines closer to the number he was looking for and the fact that a major investment firm with an office in Ottawa wanted to offer Raines a position with them made the nation’s capital the most attractive place for the 1980 All-Canadian to locate. At worst, it looked like he would play out his option year with the Riders in 1981 and then look around again after that.
As good as everyone felt after the 18-17 win over Montreal on June 11, the feeling that they gave the game away ten days later at Olympic Stadium hung over the team. Montreal won it 21-17. For Joe Scannella, there was relief. Montreal had their first victory of the preseason. Ottawa had been dealt their first loss. But no one was talking negatively for the Riders – not publicly anyway.
The Alouettes were the team with the ‘extravagant payroll’ but their play had not been indicative of that. Vince Ferragamo was the best player on the field in this game. He only threw 13 passes in the first half but he completed eight of them for 158 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
One of the biggest adjustments he had been trying to make, according to his coach, was the mental switch that Canadian football brings from the NFL game. “Vince also has to change his concept of play selection to adjust to two-down football but that’s our responsibility. That’s why we lack continuity,” Scannella told the media after the game.
For his part, Ferragamo is still playing the role of the student. “The philosophy of Ottawa’s defense is to create confusion. Ottawa moves around a lot – in and out of a three-man line. One time, I made an audible and it was the wrong play for the defense. Another time, I called the wrong blocking pattern.”
“I’m still familiarizing myself with the Canadian game. The extra deep back has been another adjustment for me. So it explains why we haven’t been all on the same page. Some are a page ahead and some are a page behind.”
For Ottawa, there was a feeling of inconsistency on offense. Ron Calcagni started the game for the Rough Riders and looked good in the first quarter. He took the team 75 yards on nine plays for their first touchdown – a 16-yard pass to Pat Stoqua. Stoqua was a guy who was looking better and better every time out.
But in the second quarter, whether it was because of adjustments Montreal was making defensively or bad decision making, Calcagni struggled and was unable to move the team the way he was earlier in the night. He finished by completing 11 out of 19 passes with a couple of interceptions. Both of those picks were balls thrown into tight coverage.
Kevin Starkey played well in this game and his performance had improved as the preseason moved along. Jerry Keeling said as much to Ottawa Citizen columnist Eddie MacCabe. “He’s looking better all the time. He’s getting more confidence, doing a lot of things better. He could always throw it well, and he calls a good game.”
Starkey was one of those guys who was not great in practice but he could turn it on when the big lights came on. “I get ready for games. I guess it’s a mental thing. I think I’m working harder in practices. But, maybe I’ve been cruising a bit. I guess some days, I work hard and some days, I don’t. But I get ready for games.”
Jordan Case was still experiencing pain in his throwing arm. Brancato wanted to keep all three quarterbacks, even if he had to place one on the taxi squad. One of the guys that the coaching staff had liked so far included Tim Berryman at middle linebacker. He had shown quickness, the ability to hit and he would go to the ball. His only issue was a history of injuries.
Pat Stoqua was another guy that had impressed the coaches. Playing in the slot, he caught the ball well and he could block also. He spent a lot of time with the old slot back, Jim Foley, another guy who didn’t mind getting his uniform dirty if it meant making a play or helping a teammate to make a play. “He has started there the last two games and he’ll start there in the next one,”Brancato said of Stoqua. “He has been playing really well, right from the beginning of camp.”
Bruce Walker had looked very good in this preseason as well. He ran excellent routes and with a move, could shed a defender. In this game against Montreal, he juked the Alouettes’ Scott Montana and found himself open in the middle of the field. Starkey hit him for a 63-yard touchdown. Before that series, Starkey and Walker had a little chat about doing something just like that.
“Bruce and I talked about it on the sidelines,” Starkey told Tom Casey. “We felt we could beat the back on a post pattern.” So, yes, they had lost the game, but they weren’t going to dwell on the negatives. They would see them, assess them, learn from them and then flush them.
That Montreal game had taken place on a Sunday. On the following Wednesday, Brancato made some cuts that were somewhat revealing. Middle linebacker Bill Banks, defensive back Maurice Tyler and rookie middle linebacker Bubba Brown were told they were no longer part of the team.
Banks had joined the Riders before the 1980 season after they obtained him from Hamilton. Ottawa gave up offensive guard Ray Honey for Banks. Banks started all sixteen games for the Rough Riders in 1980. Maurice Tyler joined the Riders late in 1980 after playing parts of eight seasons in the National Football League. For Brown, it was a case of just not being as good as the other candidates for his position.
Banks had publicly voiced his displeasure with his salary earlier in camp and there were some questions from some that his departure might have been the result of his grousing. Brancato was quick to dismiss that idea. “There are two factors why we dropped him,” he told Tom Casey. “First of all, we decided to go with a Canadian there and secondly, Bill had his problems last season.” The ‘Canadian’ they would go with at middle linebacker was Tim Berryman.
They still had 47 players in their locker room and that number had to be trimmed to 34 by 3 p.m. on Monday, June 29 – four days later. That would mean the game they had against the Toronto Argonauts on the Friday night would be the litmus test to see who might stay and who might not.
The game might have been scheduled for Friday night, but the ‘games’ may have begun on Thursday in the early afternoon. The Argos scheduled a morning flight from Toronto and, if you listened to their coach, Willie Wood, they had the field booked in Ottawa for a 12:30 practice. They landed in Ottawa and had their bus travel directly from the airport to Lansdowne Park.
But when they arrived there, the Rough Riders were practicing. So Wood ran his players through a workout on a gravel lot adjacent to the field. After a short time, they cut that off and contended that the Rough Riders were playing some ‘dirty pool’. Brancato said he knew nothing about it. Dunlap said that he had communicated with the Argos’ GM, Tommy Hudspeth, and had confirmation from Hudspeth that the Boatmen would have the field at 2 p.m.
This was just the latest episode in a little thing the two teams had going on with each other for the previous couple of seasons. In 1979, before a game between the two teams, Toronto coach Forrest Gregg sent his team to warm up in the Ottawa end and continued to do so as the Riders’ kicker, Gerry Organ, was booting field goals over their heads.
In 1980, when Condredge Holloway was still playing for Ottawa, the Rough Riders accused Jim Corrigall of flattening Holloway with a hit that put him out for a number of games. “This is bush,” Wood said of Practice-Time-gate. “We couldn’t do anything. It was as if we wasted a day of practice. My immediate reaction is that we should reciprocate the next time Ottawa comes to Toronto.”
Wood continued, “It’s a professional courtesy to let the visiting team practice first.”
Brancato was nonplussed. “I had no idea what was going on or even that Argos were practicing on the other field,” he told reporters. “I was under the understanding that they weren’t supposed to practice until two. I saw a couple of heads pop through the doorway of the Civic Centre shortly after 1 p.m. figuring the Argos had just arrived. That’s when I pulled our guys off the field – we were finished anyway.”
For his part, when he got off the field, Brancato called Jake Dunlap to find out what was going on. Dunlap told his coach that he had a telex from Hudspeth that confirmed the Argos would be practicing at 2 pm. He proclaimed total innocence.
“I’m not saying there could not have been a breakdown in communications between the two front offices,” Brancato said. “If there was a change, I had no knowledge of it.”
With the ‘final cuts’ looming after this game against the Argonauts, the result of the contest was probably less important than the way each individual man played in the game. The good news, as far as the Ottawa fans were concerned, was that the Riders won the game 35-25. The players would have a couple of days to ruminate over everything else.
Ottawa managed to win three of their four exhibition games and in the final game against Toronto, they accumulated 29 first downs. Their defense held the Argos to just 26 yards rushing, but Condredge Holloway was able to throw for 312 yards in the first half and part of the fourth quarter, completing 16 of 27 pass attempts. It was not a good night for Sharay Fields and Bill Schoepflin. Holloway seemed to pick on them specifically.
The offensive line looked good in both pass protection and on the run game. Richard Crump carried the ball just 13 times but he ran for 100 yards. Of the three quarterbacks, Calcagni looked the sharpest. Ottawa’s first regular season game would be fast approaching. They were set to play the three-time Grey Cup champion Edmonton Eskimos to start the campaign. But first, the players would have to wait to see who survived ‘cut day’ and who did not.
When cut-down day came, it was interesting and sad to see who the team would keep. To get down to the mandated 19 Canadians and 15 Americans, Brancato had to let some veterans go. In the locker room, it was quiet time and no one ever likes to see someone gathering up their personal belongings and setting them into a green garbage bag but that was what was happening for several of the now ex-Riders.
Of the four veterans, gone were offensive guard Doug McGee, defensive back Jon Sutton, receiver Steve Coury and defensive end Curtis Anderson. Sutton had played with the Riders since 1979. Coury and Anderson joined the team in 1980. Doug McGee had been with the team since 1977. His departure was especially difficult for some of his former teammates.
Eddie MacCabe wrote about McGee’s final day with the team in the Ottawa Citizen.
“Jeff Avery came by, was startled by the news and said, ‘Don’t tell me’. ‘Yeah, I’m green-bagging it’, McGee said, and prepared to throw the garbage bag into his car. Tony Gabriel came by. ‘Doug, don’t tell me...don’t say this to me.’ ‘Yeah, well, it’s part of the game,’ McGee said. ‘We both know that.’”
McGee was no longer an Ottawa Rough Rider, but he was fortunate. He had a job in the real world with North American Life Insurance. One of his bosses was former Rough Rider Moe Racine. McGee had played the last four years in Ottawa and had never won a starting job, so he had an inkling that this day might be coming, but it’s never easy. He was an Ottawa boy, went to Glebe Collegiate and, like Rick Sowieta, Mark Philp and Glenn Cook went to the University of Richmond in Virginia.
Brancato was pragmatic about the loss of McGee. “The guy works hard, he gives everything, but on certain blocks, he just can’t get there...going out and getting the middle linebacker, blocking on a tackle with the play going away from him. He does a lot of things well, but we had to try something else.”
One of the surprise cuts was Mike Peerman, who had a great camp and could play either defensive line or linebacker. The hope for him was to see him pass through waivers and stay with the team on the taxi squad. Also, the term ‘final cuts’ is a bit of a misnomer. Now that a bunch of players were out on the open market, teams could pick and choose guys to fill their needs as they saw fit. Also, players released on this day could be back the next week.
Ottawa’s biggest concern was their lack of CFL experience in the defensive secondary. That was remedied almost immediately, when the team picked ex-Montreal Alouettes Randy Rhino and Jim Burrow off the waiver wire after other teams made their ‘final cuts’ on June 29. Burrow is the father of former LSU star and current Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow. Rhino had been in the CFL for six years to that point. Burrow played three years with Rhino in Montreal.
To accommodate the two, Greg Grimes and Bill Schoepflin were released. The Riders also picked up receiver Kelvin Kirk, who was cut by Calgary, just in case Wiley Pitts was unable to play in the team’s opening game against Edmonton on July 3. Also, by game time, Ottawa would have the superb defensive lineman, Mike Raines, back in their lineup.
(Kirk would eventually play for the Rough Riders and stay in Ottawa after his playing days were over.)
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