Born and raised in Saskatchewan, I’ve been a Saskatchewan Roughrider fan all my life, even though I’ve been living in Ontario since 1976. By the way, there’s two seasons in Saskatchewan: winter and football season. They say--whoever they are--that the prairies never leave you. Actually, it doesn’t and either does the football team you grew up with. My interest with the Riders really began in 1963, after one particular classic playoff game that resulted in one of the greatest comebacks in Canadian Football League history. How did it come about?
In 1962, the Riders had just come off a decent 8-7-1 season where they had made the post-season for the first time since 1958, only to be thumped in the first round by the Calgary Stampeders in a two-game total-point series by a combined score of 43-7. A couple years before, the Riders had been on the verge of declaring bankruptcy and without ever winning a Grey Cup. Seasons of 1-15 and 2-14 in 1959 and 1960 plus some dreary home attendance was about to do them in. Then they hired legendary NFL coach Steve Owen, in his early 60’s at the time, who took them to five wins in 1961 with a much-improved defense. But he retired in January, 1963 following a heart attack a month after the first round of the playoffs, the same season he had been awarded CFL Coach of the Year for his 8-7-1 record.
Rider management now needed a younger coach for 1963 who would take them to the next level and they found it in the unpredictable, hot-tempered Bob Shaw, a coach who reportedly didn’t take any crap from anyone. At 43, he had been a former NFL receiver and assistant coach, a CFL receiver, and had spent the three previous years as head coach of the New Mexico Military Institute.
During the off-season, Riders general manager Ken Preston had purchased a young, Ohio-born quarterback named Ron Lancaster who had played three so-so years with the Ottawa Rough Riders. The price: $500, along with a bottle of whiskey, according to one story. On a good day, the chunky Lancaster might have come in at 5-foot-9, not exactly the tallest signal-caller in the league. I say a “good day” because I stood beside Lancaster once in 1977 outside Hamilton’s Ivor Wynn Stadium (my second year living in Ontario) and asked him for an autograph: I’m 5-foot-8 and he was shorter than me. Anyway, when Lancaster reported to Shaw at the downtown Roughrider office for the first time, the conversation went something like this:
Shaw (annoyed): “Who are you?”
Lancaster (straight-faced): “I’m your new quarterback, Lancaster.”
Shaw (in shock): “You’ve got to be kidding?”
Lancaster soon discovered he was one of several quarterbacks vying for the Number One job. It was the beginning of a stormy relationship the two would have for the next two years.
Two other future stars joined the Riders that season, both from Washington State: fullback George Reed and receiver Hugh “Gluey Hughie” Campbell; two players whom Shaw nearly got rid of before he gave either of them a proper tryout that year. He thought Reed wasn’t strong enough to be a running back and that Campbell wasn’t fast enough to be a receiver. Shaw nearly cut Lancaster too in mid-season, and it boiled down to one game being the deciding factor. At home in Taylor Field against the Edmonton Eskimos, Lancaster had started but was benched in the second quarter and replaced by veteran Frank Tripucka. Lancaster then found himself back in the game in the second half. At one point, the Riders were on their one-yard line, their backs to the end zone. Coolly, Lancaster marched his team 109 yards on 16 scrimmage plays, climaxed by an eight-yard pass to Dale West in the end zone. The Riders won 8-7, and Lancaster kept his job…for the time being.
Bolstered by a 7-7-2 record, the Riders made the Western playoffs for the second straight year and again would meet the Calgary Stampeders in the first round of a two-game total-point playoff. Unfortunately, Calgary won the first game 35-9 at home on November 9 as Lancaster tossed three interceptions. Now, in order for the Riders to take the first round, they had to win the second game by at least 27 points! Yeah, right, as if that was going to happen.
Two days later on a cold Remembrance Day at Regina’s bandbox, Taylor Field, most of the local fans who dared to show had their doubts. In front of the near-empty stands, Calgary kicked off to the Riders who brought the return to their own 34-yard line. As Lancaster took the team into a quick huddle, halfback Ray Purdin sauntered his way unnoticed to the sideline right in front of the Calgary bench, making sure he stayed in bounds by a few feet. At the snap of the ball, Purdin took off down the sidelines before the Calgary realized he was there, caught a pass thrown by Lancaster, and raced 76 yards untouched for a shocking TD. The handful of fans and the Rider bench erupted. The Riders had pulled off a classic Sleeper Play!
Everything went right for the Riders that day, while the Stampeders couldn’t get anything going. As the game went on, Rider fans made their way to Taylor Field in droves and poured into the stands until it was a full house. On four different occasions the Stampeders ventured inside the Red Zone, where their kicker Larry Robinson attempted four field goals, but missed them all, having to settle for two singles. The Rider defense smothered the Stampeders--the highest scoring offense in the CFL--all game. By the time it was over, the Riders won by 39-12 and a slim 48-47 in total points to take the first round of the playoffs.
In what has since been tagged “The Little Miracle of Taylor Field,” Lancaster completed 26 of 45 throws for 492 yards and five TD’s, with his tosses and yardage setting CFL playoff records. Rider halfback Ed Buchanan, released by Calgary in the previous off-season, took his revenge on his old teammates by scoring two touchdowns. To his dying day in 2008, Ron Lancaster called the game a fluke. “We should never have won by that big a score. But we won it, and that’s all that mattered,” he said. Incidentally, after this the CFL banned the Sleeper Play. From then on, wide receivers had to line up on the hash marks.
Although the Riders went on to lose the Western Final to the BC Lions two games to one, the Rider fans endured the coming cold winter weather with warm hearts thinking back to the upset win over the Stampeders. Never really comfortable with Lancaster as quarterback, Bob Shaw coached for a second season, where the Riders once again made the playoffs only to be beaten out by Calgary. At the end of 1964, the frustrated Lancaster was ready to retire from the game and get a teaching job in the States. But the new Rider head coach Eagle Keys talked him out of it by telling his quarterback that he was the number one guy and that he would have total control of the offense.
That was all that Lancaster needed to hear. From that moment on, Lancaster excelled. The Riders won their first Grey Cup in 1966, after waiting 56 frustrating years, beating the Ottawa Rough Riders 29-14. The province of Saskatchewan and especially Regina went nuts and partied for days. I remember that time well. I was in Grade 9. When the game was over, my older brother came racing home after watching the game at a friend’s house. He grabbed his trombone--he played in a community band--and drove out with his friend to Albert Street to celebrate with the thousands of revelers. He said later that his trombone sure sounded neat echoing off the downtown Regina buildings that night.
From 1963-1976 inclusive, with Lancaster at the helm, the Roughriders made the playoffs every season. When he retired in 1978, he was the all-time CFL passing leader with 50,535 yards. Then he went onto a successful coaching career in the league, his best years with Edmonton and Hamilton, winning one Grey Cup with each club. When the durable George Reed retired in 1975, he was the all-time rushing leader in North American pro football with 16,116 yards, and considered by many as the greatest running back the CFL ever produced. He rushed for 1,000 yards in 11 of his 13 CFL seasons, all with Saskatchewan. Hugh Campbell also went into coaching, guiding the Edmonton Eskimos to five straight championships from 1978-1982: this after a six-year playing career as a Rider receiver where he caught 321 passes, averaging 16.9 yards per catch, and scoring 60 TD’s, including a then-record 17 of those in the Riders 1966 Grey Cup year. He later coached briefly in the USFL and NFL, before returning to Edmonton in upper management until his retirement from the game in 2006.
And to think, Bob Shaw nearly cut all three of these American-born-and-raised CFL All-Stars who had arrived in Regina as virtual unknowns to play ball back in 1963. Today, all three are in the CFL Hall of Fame. Furthermore, on the 2006 list of TSN’s Top 50 CFL players Reed ranked second overall, Lancaster seventh, while Campbell registered on the Honour Roll.