Still got those Grey Cup blues Former Blue Bombers wince when they think of 1960 and the one that got away
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Decades later, Nick Miller has a gnawing regret about his 1960 Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
An incredible 14-2 regular season ended with a shocking loss in the West Division final and what should have been another trip to the Grey Cup.
Combined with Cup victories in 1958, ’59, ’61 and ’62, a Winnipeg championship in ’60 would have constituted the first five-peat in CFL history.
However, an injury to star quarterback Ken Ploen and a fumble in the final minute of an elimination game foiled those plans.
“The 1960 team is a bittersweet memory,” says Miller, now 90 and a lifelong Winnipeg resident. “I had the good fortune to be on four Grey Cup teams, along with about a dozen other guys on my team. And if you would ask any one of those guys, myself or any of those teammates, the response from all of us would be, ‘It should have been five.’
“I mean, we lost in ‘60 to an Edmonton team that was pretty badly injured and gone out to play in the Grey Cup against Ottawa and they were beaten. I felt along with the rest of my teammates that we could have easily beaten Ottawa and we would’ve had five Grey Cups.”
How dominant was Winnipeg in that era?
The Blue Bombers were directed from the sidelines by Bud Grant, the head coach who became a legend in the CFL and NFL, and led on the field by Ploen, still regarded as the finest player in Winnipeg franchise history, and a cast of players that included, Miller, a defensive back and fullback on the ‘60 squad, Gerry James, a superb homegrown running back and kicker, and punt returner Ron (Pepe) Latourelle.
The ‘60 Bombers established a club record of 10 victories to start the season — a mark challenged by the current squad only to have the streak snapped at nine consecutive wins last week — and employed the vaunted Wing-T formation, outscoring their opponents 453-239 during the regular season.
That remarkable year came to a shivering halt in the West Final, a best-of-three series played over a gruelling span of seven days in November of that year.
Winnipeg won the opener 22-15 in Edmonton and then lost the second 10-5 at Winnipeg Stadium, before dropping the decisive third game 4-2, also on Maroons Road.
Ploen broke a bone in his throwing hand in the opening game and didn’t play QB in the second game (a stellar two-way player, he only saw action as a defensive back) before returning to full duty, his right hand in a cast, in the finale. Backup Vernon Cole had been ineffective as his replacement.
Tommy-Joe Coffey booted the winning field goal for Edmonton with 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter, a sequence set up by a Ploen fumble on the Winnipeg 30-yard line. The Bombers needed only a first down to run out the clock for a 2-1 win and another trip to the title game.
“It’s hard to imagine those scores nowadays,” says Grant, from his home in northern Wisconsin. “For whatever reason, we ran a quarterback sneak – there must have been a lot of those in that game — and he put the ball in his (right) hand and Gino Fracas came in from the side and hit him with the ball in his right hand with a broken wrist and a cast on it. And that resulted in a fumble. Had Kenny not fumbled, we would have won the game…
“I asked him, ‘Kenny what were you doing with the ball in your right hand?’ He said, ‘Coach, I don’t know.’”
“I asked him, ‘Kenny what were you doing with the ball in your right hand?’ He said, ‘Coach, I don’t know.’” – Bud Grant
Miller, who watched from the sidelines, says the play is indelibly etched in his memory.
“He ran the ball – and I’ll never forget it – down the sideline, almost where our bench was and he could have stepped out of bounds but that wasn’t Kenny’s style,” says Miller. “So, he kept on (going) and put his head down and, of course, he had that bad hand and he was hit and the ball fumbled out and Edmonton recovered and they ran a play or two and then kicked a field goal and beat us 4-2.”
Latourelle, now 88 and a Winnipeg resident, says the miscue doesn’t tarnish Ploen’s legacy.
“He was a great leader, an incredible person,” he says. “He had the talent, ability to pass and knew when to pass, how to pass and who to pass to.”
Grant says missing the trip to the championship game was a temporary letdown.
“We’re talking about an injury here but that does not define his career in any way, shape or form,” said Grant, now 95. “He was great because he never was injured. He did not have injuries, and injuries that he may have had may have been overcome and they re not major. In this situation, a broken arm is a major injury and to put a cast on and still play is to his credit. He knew that he shouldn’t have the ball in his (right) hand.”
Miller refutes the suggestion by some that the ‘60 team, in fact, was superior to the four Cup winners of that era.
“I don’t remember it that way,” he says. “We had the same group of guys and it was basically the same team, so I don’t see how it was any better. To be honest with you, I think maybe it was a lesser team for this reason. In ‘59, and ‘58, we had a quarterback tandem that was unbelievable. We had Kenny Ploen and Jim Van Pelt, right? Van Pelt was the hero of the ‘58 Grey Cup team. He scored 22 points. Our field-goal kicker was Gerry James and Gerry got injured — he broke his leg in mid-season — and here’s Jim Van Pelt, who came up as a quarterback and all of a sudden he’s playing quarterback and kicking extra points.
“We had the same group of guys and it was basically the same team, so I don’t see how it was any better.” – Nick Miller
“The backup quarterback on the ‘60 team was a guy by the name of Vernon Cole. Not to take anything away from Vernon Cole but when you stack Vernon Cole up against Jim Van Pelt, he pales a little by comparison.”
Of the surviving members of the ‘60 team, not all are as fortunate as Grant, Latourelle and Miller.
Ploen, a long-time Winnipegger, has been suffering from dementia in recent years, while the 87-year-old James, who absorbed untold punishment during a 13-year career in the CFL and four seasons in the NHL, lives on Vancouver Island where multiple concussions have caused ongoing speech and memory problems.
Grant, who remains an active outdoorsman, relishes his ability to recall the past. His exploits during a career as a player and coach in Winnipeg are among his favourite memories.
“I can’t jump as high as I used to, I can’t run as fast as I used to and there’s a lot of things I can’t do,” says Grant, who coached the Blue Bombers to six Grey Cup appearances and four wins in 10 seasons at the helm. “But I do what I can do. I can hunt and fish, enjoy my family and eat good. Life is good for whatever time I’ve got left.
“The one thing that helps sustain you at my age… is if you’ve got good memories… If you’ve got those kinds of memories that you can rely on, when things might feel a little tough. It sustains you and I think it lengthens your life. So, I couldn’t be happier than I am today.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Friday, August 19, 2022 8:12 AM CDT: Corrects photo cutline
Updated on Friday, August 19, 2022 9:52 AM CDT: Corrects typo