Blue Bombers coaching legend praised
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Bud Grant had the public persona of a stoic, hard-driving taskmaster.
But in retirement, the most successful head coach in the history of the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers enjoyed a warm and enduring relationship with friends and former players, and he was a genial interview subject for curious reporters.
In a phone conversation with the Free Press on Aug. 15, 2022, Grant said his love of the outdoors contributed to his longevity.
“I cannot jump as high as I used to. I cannot run as fast as I used to,” noted Grant, who was at his Wisconsin cabin at the time of the interview. “There’s a lot of things I can’t do, but I do what I can do. I can hunt and fish, enjoy my family and eat good. Life is good with whatever time I’ve got left.”
Grant, a member of both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died Saturday at his home in Bloomington, Minn. He was 95.
In 10 seasons as head coach, he guided the Blue Bombers to Grey Cup championships in 1958, ‘59, ‘61 and ‘62 while also reaching the title game 1957 and 1965 before moving on to coach the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in 1967.
A former Blue Bombers player, Grant was appointed head coach of the club at the age of 29.
The club unveiled a bronze statue of his likeness outside IG Field in 2014 and inducted him into its Ring of Honour two years later.
During that chat in August, he sounded like a man without regrets.
“If you’ve got good memories and the memories that you conjure up when you sit here and look out the window are good memories and you remember all the friends that you had, all the family that you have and all celebrations that you’ve been involved in, 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,” said Grant.
“So, I couldn’t be happier than I am today, right now, sitting here looking over a lake.”
Grant and his Hall of Fame quarterback in Winnipeg, Ken Ploen, were both avid hunters and fishers. They reunited frequently before and after retirement for hunting excursions to Delta Marsh and elsewhere.
News of Grant’s death was met with profound sadness by Ploen’s wife, Janet. Ken Ploen, now 87, suffers from dementia and is longer able recognize his family members.
Janet was asked what her husband’s reaction might be to the coaching legend’s demise.
“He would be very sad, he’d be very devastated,” she said. “But that’s life. I mean, Ken’s going to be 88, Bud was 95. They both have had pretty good, long lives.”
Janet Ploen said Grant had an intimidating presence during her husband’s playing days but her opinion of the man changed over time.
“We would see him down in Naples (Florida), after years of Ken not playing for him, and he was great,” said Janet Ploen. “I told him, ‘You know, I was so afraid of you while Ken was playing ball for you but you know, you’re a pretty nice guy.’ He just laughed.”
She said it was no surprise that Grant and her husband got along and worked so well together.
“I think they were very much alike,” said Janet. “They were both very private people… quiet people. Very, very kind. They would do anything for you but they liked their privacy.”
Nick Miller, who was Grant’s teammate with the Blue Bombers beginning in 1953 and played for Grant on the 1958, ‘59, ‘61 and ‘62 Cup winners, said the coach was all about preparation.
“He was brilliant,” said Miller, 91. “He was a great strategist. He was a monster for detail. There was no detail that was too small for him to get you prepared to play the game. He prepared (us) to play the game, and halftime was for fine-tuning what was happening on the field. There was no situation on the field that he wasn’t prepared to handle…
“They poked fun at him because of his stoic behavior on the sidelines but it was all business and he wanted no interference. “He studied the game and he was a student of the sport.”
Another former player, Noel Dunford, revered the man for his decision-making.
“The decisions he made were very logical,” said Dunford. “It was pretty easy to buy into what he was teaching and, generally speaking, a lot of guys liked the way he coached. Some didn’t like him, just because he was their coach and he was the head guy, but 90 per cent of the guys really appreciated him.”
Grant may have been a disciplinarian but he made time for his players on an individual basis.
“If you asked him one-on-one there were a lot of guys that learned a lot from him, myself included,” said Dunford. “He knew the football game well. He knew how each individual position should and had to be played. So, everybody admired that also.”
Dunford, now 83, never lost touch with his old boss.
Grant would travel north for occasional fishing trips to the Lake of the Woods area with Dunford, a Kenora, Ont., product. He recalled visiting Minneapolis for a Vikings game in the 1990s with his son, Tyler, only to have Grant take him on a tour of the stadium, introducing him to the Vikings owner at the time.
Fishing was a serious pastime for Grant.
“He looked at fishing just like he looked at football — very logically.” said Dunford. “He thought, ‘How can I get the most fish?’”
Grant’s reverence and connection with his former players was highlighted in 2007 when a special dinner was held in Winnipeg to present rings to winners of previous Grey Cups in the ’50s and ’60s, men who played in an era when rings were not customary.
Grant, then 80, made the trip north to help with the presentations. Former CJOB broadcaster Bob Irving was on hand to emcee the event.
“This dinner left a lasting impression on me,” said Irving. “I introduced each player… and so the format of this thing changed very quickly because he wanted to say something about each and every one of them, which he did. It was incredible.
“It was incredible to me the things he remembered about them. He had an anecdote or a story or a little personal thing to say about each and every one of them. And it struck me how remarkable that was and then I could see their respect.”
Irving, who had come to know Grant in the years since his retirement from the NFL, was struck by the admiration Grant’s former players had for their old boss.
“The enormous respect, admiration and I use the word love that all these guys had for him was incredible,” said Irving. “Really unlike anything you see very often in pro sports.”
For Irving, Grant’s reputation only revealed part of the story.
“He was stoic and very serious and yet when you met him and chatted with him, he was really down to earth and a very likeable guy,” said Irving. “But he had this aura about him that a natural born leader has. That’s why, at age 29 — which is when he took over — he could be successful because there was something about this guy that was special.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Wednesday, March 15, 2023 9:15 AM CDT: Removes duplicate word