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Show love for the coach who loved us

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There seems to be something about Winnipeg that compels guys who have played football here to fall head over cleats in love with our humble home.

Buck Pierce was traded to the Beautiful Coast this week, but he maintains Winnipeg is still home.

Bud Grant left the Bombers to coach the Minnesota Vikings, but even decades later, writing in his recently published autobiography, he repeatedly refers to how much he and his family loved Winnipeg and seemingly everything about it during his 10 years of living and coaching here.

In fact, Grant repeats, "I was happy in Winnipeg" twice on the same page. And he was just warming up.

By my count, he alludes eight times in 27 pages to his fondness for the city. Including this passage: "I loved living in Winnipeg. It was a truly great place to raise a family. The schools were good and we were very secure and happy there. The people were absolutely wonderful. They were the nicest people you would ever find anywhere. I suppose the fact we won championships helped, but they were just great people."

For the record, he would lead the Bombers to six Grey Cup appearances and four championships.

As an 18-year-old quarterback, I got to meet Bud Grant in passing at a Bomber rookie camp in 1966, the year before he left. Yet, more than 45 years later, Bud's looking back with such fond memories of Winnipeg is rivalled only by my admiration for the man.

And my love of his book.

I Did It My Way, co-written by Jim Bruton, is an easy, conversational-style read, where the coach with the stone-faced sideline presence and ice-blue eyes drops his mask and finally speaks out with the kind of feeling he always seemed to guard so carefully. It's a voice only his intimates -- and perhaps those who listened to his emotional Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech -- have heard before.

And only his intimates have heard the inside stories about his life, in and out of football, that are in the book. Even my NFL-Sunday-hating wife -- who was forced to listen to me read bedtime excerpts -- was compelled to pick it up. That's because Bud's autobiography is a lesson in how to live a life and raise a family more than it is a guide in how to coach a team. He writes, for instance, with open affection for his father, whose own life adds a little known twist to the Bud Grant story.

"My dad was born and raised on an Indian reservation... which raised the question of whether I have any Indian blood in me. My uncle always called me a 'blue-eyed Indian.' "

Bud writes that, outside of his Scottish, Irish and Swedish roots, his heritage was never clear to him. "But I do remember my family had a lot of Indian friends, mostly dad's."

His dad died on New Years Eve, 1957, without knowing his 29-year-old son had just accepted an offer to switch from playing with the Bombers to being their head coach.

Which brings me to this excerpt about how the Bomber board conducted his coaching job interview.

The meeting was held at the home of Winnipeg car dealer and club president Jim Russell, where more than a dozen board members had gathered.

"They all had a few drinks before I got there and were feeling pretty good," Bud writes. The Bomber board wanted young Bud to tell them how he was going to beat the Grey Cup champion Edmonton Eskimos. He was handed a piece of chalk and directed to the blackboard that had been set up in the front room.

"I knew they knew nothing about football."

That was another repeated phrase in the book.

That the Bomber board, comprised of businessmen, was clueless about football.

"So I went up to the blackboard and put up a bunch of X's and O's and hit them with all the terms about football that I could think of at the time."

It worked. They offered Bud a three-year contract, starting at $12,000 -- $1,000 more than he made as a player -- with $1,000 raises during each of the next two years.

He accepted.

But only for one year.

He reasoned if he didn't like coaching, he could go back to playing. The Bud Grant Bombers beat the Eskimos that year, and went on to play in the Grey Cup. Four years later, in 1961, the Vikings offered him their head coaching job. He turned it down. He and his wife, Pat, had six children and as Bud said, he was happy and secure in Winnipeg. Minnesota, meanwhile, was new to the National Football League. But by 1967, even though he had signed a contract extension to be the Bombers coach and general manager, Bud decided the time was right for him to take over the Vikings. Obviously, he never forgot or lost his affection for Winnipeg.

Which leads me back to my campaign to erect a statue at Investors Group Field to the one former Bomber player and coach who personifies everything we want our team to represent. And I'm not just talking about winning championships. It could be our own way of showing Bud Grant how much we still love him. And, if they can make it happen, how the current Bomber board knows about the importance of our football history to our football future.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2013 B2

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