On Wednesday, University of Manitoba football coach Brian Dobie opened his paper to read about the death of hockey man and respected former Bisons coach Wayne Fleming, when his phone buzzed.
It was a text from Bisons offensive co-ordinator Vaughan Mitchell and it bore more sad news: Former Blue Bombers offensive co-ordinator Ron Lancaster Jr., who coached the Bisons football club for three seasons between 1993 and 1995, had died. His body was found in his Hamilton, Ont., apartment Tuesday night.
In a single day, the Bisons lost two coaches, two one-time family members, and both relatively young: Lancaster, the father to two young daughters, was 50 years old. Fleming was 62. "I think there's a lot of reflection," said Dobie, who knew both men from around the local sports scene; indeed, he and Lancaster were the final two candidates for the Bisons coaching job in 1993.
Dobie succeeded Lancaster as coach when the latter returned to the pros three seasons later. "There's a pride in the institution, and in what people to do to build things and create things and move forward," Dobie said of the impact of the news. "Wherever Bison sport is now is because of all the people that helped build it, and Wayne Fleming and Ron Lancaster Jr. were certainly important parts in terms of the growth of Bison sports."
And Lancaster, Dobie recalled, came to the Bisons as a "consummate professional." He'd already won his first Grey Cup ring by then -- with the Toronto Argonauts in 1991 -- and besides, the game was in his blood. His father, CFL Hall of Famer Ron Lancaster Sr., was an iconic quarterback who led the Saskatchewan Roughriders to their first Grey Cup in 1966. He went on to a coaching career, one which hit a high notes in 1999 when he won a Grey Cup with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats with his son coaching at his side. Lancaster Sr. died in 2008.
On Wednesday, as news of Lancaster Jr.'s death spread, his daughter Britt took to Twitter. "My favourite picture of you dad," she tweeted, and beneath those words was a 2008 photo of Lancaster, proudly holding the CFL Commissioner's Award, which he accepted on his late father's behalf.
Though he accepted the weight of a legendary name, he also looked to carve out his own space on Canadian fields, coaching for several universities and CFL teams. After the Bisons, he returned to the pros and joined the Edmonton Eskimos as their offensive co-ordinator in 1996.
He would coach again in Edmonton in 2005 -- where he won his third Grey Cup -- and 2006, after a stint as the Bombers' offensive co-ordinator in 2004. The Bombers released a statement mourning his passing on Wednesday. "The Lancaster name has deep roots in our league," Bomber president and CEO Garth Buchko said. "Our thoughts are with the entire family during this time."
After the CFL, Lancaster and his family moved back to Hamilton, where he settled down to teach and coach high school football.
As the Canadian football world paused Wednesday to remember the man, Bisons offensive co-ordinator Mitchell looked back on a pivotal meeting of his own. Mitchell was in his last year as a Bisons offensive lineman in 1993, when Lancaster took the program's reigns. At Mitchell's exit meeting, he gave the coach a long list of his thoughts about how the program could be improved.
"He really listened, and I got the sense from him that he appreciated the comments and it just struck me," Mitchell said. "I cared so much about that meeting as I was leaving, and he really leant me his ear. He left a really positive feeling. I felt I left on the right note, and it paved the way for me (to return to the Bisons as a coach)... for that, I'll always be thankful."
Glowing tributes for a coach, father
Many in the football world took to Twitter to bid farewell to Ron Lancaster Jr. on Wednesday. Some of their messages:
-- "Condolences to the Lancaster family on the passing of Ron Jr. former CFL coach. A loss way too early."
-- former Bombers head coach and TSN analyst Paul LaPolice
-- "I first met Ron Lancaster Jr when he was coaching at U of Manitoba. A chip off the old block & a good football man. You will be missed."
-- TSN broadcaster Farhan Lalji
-- "@brielancaster and Brittney, sad to hear the news of your father's passing. He was a good man. May God bless him!"
-- Montreal Alouettes GM Jim Popp, to Lancaster's two daughters
-- "RIP Ron Lancaster Jr. Prayers and condolences to the family."
-- retired Montreal Alouette and broadcaster Bryan Chiu
-- "Rest in peace dadddddy, miss you already." -- Brie Lancaster, daughter