A quarter century has passed since the Blue Bombers last lifted the Cup – and that team has lost none of its lustre
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/11/2015 (2673 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They were already legends in the moment, just as they remain so now. And they were absolutely, positively always bigger than life.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers of 1990 — the last from these parts to capture a Grey Cup, for those of you who might need reminding — gobbled up every minute of every day. They played hard on and off the field. And they won. A lot.
Playoff appearances were expected annually during that era and so, too, were championships.
This crew had bad boys and choirboys, superstars and foot soldiers. They had an icon as a general manager, a future icon in his first head-coaching gig walking the sidelines and just the right mix of whatever it takes to capture a title.
A quarter-century has passed since that championship — and with it a whole lot of heartache for the Bombers, who have lost all five of the Grey Cup games the franchise has appeared in since then. More recently, the club has missed the playoffs the last four years and six of the last seven seasons.
Grey Cup week has long been a perfect time to get all nostalgic; to honour the past while also chronicling the present. And so, with that in mind — and in an attempt to distract the Bombers’ long-suffering faithful from grinding their teeth through the remainder of the weekend with the Grey Cup game unfolding Sunday right here in River City — here’s a hike down memory lane…
Glory days II
First came Bud Grant, Leo Lewis, Ken Ploen and company — that dominant run of Winnipeg Blue Bombers football which resulted in six Grey Cup appearances from 1957-65 and four championships.
The Bombers of the 1980s/early 1990s were also a perennial Canadian Football League power. Lost in the shadow of the Edmonton Eskimos dynasty of 1978-83, they emerged in 1984 to end a 22-year championship drought.
They would win again in 1988, and again two years later. And by the time the run was done in 1993, the Bombers had appeared in five Grey Cup games, winning three (the last in 1990).
“What can I remember about those teams? I remember everything,” said Hall of Fame linebacker James West, who wore Bombers colours from 1985-92. “I mean, there was a 10-year period where we were the best team in that league. We didn’t win every year, but we were good.
“Everybody on that team was embraced and everybody felt special. There was nobody on that team who people said was the best player. But we did have the baddest man in the league in Chris Walby, and so we knew when we got off the bus we didn’t have anything to worry about,” West said.
“We had an attitude, man. A ton of attitude.”
Long before Swaggerville — that chest-thumping, ball-hawk defence of 2011 — there were the Bombers of the late ’80s/early ’90s. Just how good was that era of Blue Bombers ball?
Consider this: seventeen players, two coaches, the general manager and even the executive secretary that were part of that 1990 team are now in the club’s Hall of Fame. Another nine — including West, after Friday’s announcement — are in Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
“Those were the days of the old Bombers,” recalled James Murphy, one of the greatest receivers in the history of this grand ol’ league. “When you think about the ‘House of Pain’ and scoring galore… that era had teams that were the total package. Offence, defence, special teams, management, too. And that 1990 club was one of the better teams that I ever played on in my eight years with the Bombers.
“That was a great team, top to bottom.”
As good as the Bombers were during that span, training camp in 1990 opened with the club sporting a dominant defence, some outstanding pieces on offence… and a size-large question at the most important position on the field: quarterback.
Hall of Famer Tom Clements had retired after the 1987 campaign, and the quarterback of the 1988 championship team, Sean Salisbury, was leading the East Division in passing in 1989, but was grating a lot of teammates and management along the way, including GM Cal Murphy.
When Salisbury told a Los Angeles Times reporter (who had come to Winnipeg late in the season) he hoped to return to the NFL after the ’89 campaign, Murphy — his club in the midst of a seven-game losing skid that spoiled a 7-4 start — pulled the pin, cutting Salisbury and handing the starting job to Lee Saltz.
Clements, Brock, Jonas, Ploen… he was not.
“Lee Saltz. We won a playoff game with him in Toronto that year (1989) to get to the East final and afterward he was all over the place with his mighty-mighty self,” said West. “I said, ‘Man, you’re the worst quarterback in the league. Don’t get all pumped up now. You just did what you were supposed to do by not turning the ball over.’
“I’m not trying to be arrogant, but our team was based on what we did defensively. Our offence was really good, but we just didn’t want them to blank it up,” West said. “The only quarterback our defence didn’t give direction to back then was Tom Clements. All those other quarterbacks we had, they were given just one charge: don’t blank it up. That’s it.
“You don’t have to try and win the game, you ain’t need to try to make any big plays. Just don’t blank it up.”
The defensive unit was still the backbone when the 1990 season opened, but after struggling in the preseason, Murphy completed a pivotal trade on Canada Day: sending Saltz and the rights to receiver Allan Boyko (who would later return to the Bombers) to Saskatchewan for quarterback Tom Burgess, who had started nine games for the Roughriders in 1989, but was clearly the 1A starter behind Kent Austin.
Burgess didn’t frighten defences by getting outside of the pocket and running like Tracy Ham or Damon Allen. And he certainly didn’t have the arm of an Austin or Matt Dunigan. But he was perfect for a team that simply needed the quarterback to manage the game — to not blank it up — to hand the ball off to league-rushing champion Robert Mimbs and then play a simple pitch-and-catch game with receivers such as Murphy, Rick House, Perry Tuttle and Eric Streater.
“I loved Tommy Burgess,” said Walby, the Hall of Fame offensive tackle. “He was an O-lineman who played quarterback and he might be one of the most underrated quarterbacks ever. I’ll tell you this, in all the time I played, he was one of the great, great guys. He was just a blast. He used to try to buy everybody drinks with his hotel room key.
“We’d go to the bar and he’d always pull out that stupid room key and go, ‘It’s on me, fellas.’ Of course, the server would go, ‘You can’t use this’ and he’d add ‘Well, I guess it’s on somebody else then.’ He did that every time,” Walby said .
“His sense of humour was unparalleled. He was one of those guys you’d run through a wall for. Now, don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t lovey-dovey in the huddle. He was a firecracker.”
Ironically, while it was often said Burgess’ 40-time was measured by a sundial, it was his legs that would ultimately help propel the Bombers to the 1990 Grey Cup, as he busted up the middle late in an East final win over Toronto to set up a game-winning field goal by Trevor Kennerd and a trip to Vancouver to face the Eskimos.
The Bombers had dominated the league defensively in ’90, ranking first in most defensive categories, including points allowed, while finishing plus-20 in the turnover ratio — courtesy a whopping 48 interceptions by the defence, a CFL record that still stands.
But the offence, even in allowing the fewest sacks and with Mimbs leading the league in rushing, finished last in points scored — a full 217 less than the league-leading Argonauts. That had some believing the Eskimos, led by the spectacular Ham, were favourites heading into the championship.
That notion lasted all of 30 minutes, before the Bombers scored a Grey Cup record 28 points in the third quarter of a 50-11 thrashing that led to the franchise’s 10th title. Burgess was the offensive MVP, Greg Battle the defensive MVP, and fullback Warren Hudson was the top Canadian.
Battle’s handiwork in that game — two interceptions, including a 32-yard return for a touchdown — ranks among the greatest defensive performances in Grey Cup history. But it’s not those numbers he remembers most.
“My grandfather, William Isler, was there all week along with my wife and he had the chance to watch me play,” Battle said from Phoenix, where he is a pastor at Mountain Park Community Church and the linebackers coach at Desert Vista High School. “He was 75 at the time, he’s since passed away, and years later — he lived until he was 92 — it was that game and that week he spoke about. That’s my fondest memory, being able to bring him and my wife onto the field after the game and enjoying that victory.
“That was a great team and I have great memories of that time.”
There’s no cookie-cutter method to taking 40 to 50 football players — Canadian and American; black and white — and turning them into a Grey Cup champion. If there were, certainly we wouldn’t be talking about the 1990 Blue Bombers as the last from these parts to win a title.
“We had a lot of characters, but it all came together,” Battle said. “If they had a full team of guys with my disposition, we probably wouldn’t have been as good. That chemistry thing, how you get it to work properly in terms of wins and losses, is a mystery. But we had the mix of all types and it worked.”
Cal Murphy was the kingpin, Mike Riley the on-field mastermind. But it’s what was percolating in the dressing room that made the chemistry work.
“That team was very talented on both sides of the ball,” explained cornerback Rod Hill, now a manager with Loblaws in Winnipeg. “We had fun, but we held each other accountable. There was no such thing as ‘You get it next time.’ It was ‘You get it THIS time.’ We expected people to perform and there was a lot of peer pressure in that locker room.
“You know, I was a free agent once and I had no thoughts about leaving. I wanted to stay a part of that group because I knew we had a pretty good thing going and I could trust those guys to be prepared to play.”
Hill wasn’t alone in wanting to stay. Other teams may have waved more money at them in free agency, but the guarantee of some playoff cash and a shot at a title, for the most part, kept the team from splintering.
“That was the selling point,” said Walby. “You may go somewhere else and make an extra 10 or 15 grand, but we’re going to be in the playoffs and have a chance to win the Grey Cup every year.
“It’s a tribute to Cal. He played hardball with a lot of the guys on contracts, but that guy could build a winner like nobody else. He had such a nose for talent and a way to keep most of the guys together,” Walby said. “He would threaten you. He’d walk up to Stan (Mikawos) and go, ‘Hey Stan, how do you like your locker?’ Stan would go, ‘It’s good, coach.’ And then Cal fires back. ‘Don’t get used to it.’ Stan would then go back into the weight room and work out again.
“He ruled with fear sometimes, but in the 16 years I played we never missed the playoffs,” Walby said. “That team, like most of them, had guys from all different parts of Canada and the U.S., all kinds of different backgrounds. We used to have what we called ‘B-N-O’s’ — Boys Nights Out. It’s part of what made us successful. Some of the barriers would come down.
“Look, not everybody got along. When you have 46 guys in the locker room there’s going to be a bunch of assholes in there. But most of it was good. And the bad guys got weeded out.”
A quarter-century later
Somewhere in Winnipeg right now, one member of the 1990 Blue Bombers is swapping a story with another. Maybe it’s over a meal and, quite likely, a beverage or three might be involved. And the lot of them will tell you the fact they are doing this 25 years after Winnipeg last celebrated a Grey Cup championship is both heartwarming and, well, shocking.
“It’s amazing we’re talking about that team being the last to win some 25 years later,” said Hill. “But it seems like every day somebody comes into the store and wants to talk about football and that team. It makes you appreciate that you were a part of something, that it wasn’t just one individual.”
“It happens all the time to me, too,” added James Murphy. “It’s the last championship team from these parts and fans have to cling to something. I know the Bombers had some good teams after that, but that was a great football team.
“Wherever I go or if I’m at a speaking engagement that 1990 team comes up, especially if I’m wearing my (Grey Cup) ring. People see that bling and they want to talk about the team.
“I think about the people that were born that year or after and haven’t really seen a Grey Cup victory or experienced a parade… that’s a generation that’s missing out.”
It will be the Ottawa Redblacks and Edmonton Eskimos lining up Sunday afternoon in the 103rd Grey Cup. The Bombers were eliminated from the playoff picture weeks ago.
A quarter-century has taken its toll on that ’90 squad, as Cal Murphy, Warren Hudson, Tyrone Jones, Steve Roehutskors, Nick Benjamin and Jeff Croonen, along with assistant coaches Bob Padilla and Jim Gilstrap, director of player personnel and scout Pat Martin have all since passed away.
“That makes me appreciate it even more,” said James Murphy. “To know that you are part of a legacy… a guy like Tyrone Jones, I thought he was going to live forever. When we get together the stories always get better. We’ve all got grandkids now… you never know when you’re time is up and so whenever we can be together again is special.”
“You know,” added Walby, “when you start rattling off some of the names from that team… there’s some guys who are still my best friends. Other guys, I had forgotten. A guy like (defensive end) Quency Williams… man he was crazy. He was scary. He’d just have to walk up to your locker and you’d be giving him money. He’d see you with your wallet and he’d bark, ‘What are you doing? What’s in there?’ And you’d be ‘Just take it, OK? I didn’t want this anyway. I was going to use this for Christmas gifts, but go ahead, you have it.’
“I know the Bombers have had some good teams since then, but it’s just bizarre to me that we were the last to win. It’s interesting, because we haven’t won since when we walk anywhere there isn’t a time when you don’t feel the fans’ frustration. I hear it all the time, ‘You guys… I wish you could still be out there.’
“I joke, ‘We could get into our stance, we just wouldn’t be able to get out of it again.’ ”