Reminiscing with The Don

Ron Lancaster was always my favourite person to talk football with. He could explain the game so concisely, so articulately, so simply, that anyone could understand it — even a fledgling sports writer with a hockey background. I’ve missed those conversations since Ron, a legendary CFL coach and player who became one of the best TV/radio analysts of all time, died seven years ago.

My second favourite football guru is Don Matthews. A Canadian Football Hall of Fame coach with 10 Grey Cup victories — five as a head coach; five as an assistant — he spent 1991-94 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders while I was in the early stages of a 26-year stint as the team’s beat writer for the Regina Leader-Post.

Brash and intimidating, with an air of invincibility, Matthews espoused a philosophy of “Living on the edge.” His team mirrored his philosophy and played aggressively on offence, defence and special teams. And it was never being rebuilt. We dubbed him “The Don.” The nickname stuck.

“You can’t be rebuilding in the CFL; the future is today,’’ he said. “And if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.’’

Although some players didn’t appreciate his methods, many thrived under Matthews, who never let favouritism dissuade him from replacing one player with a better one. He had a special knack for knowing when a player’s talent was in decline. And he could always find a better one.

Since stepping down as the Montreal Alouettes coach in 2006, caused by anxiety issues he said have since been dealt with, Don has been recruited for some special coaching projects with the Als and Toronto Argonauts, as favours to his friends Jim Popp and Adam Rita respectively. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2011, a worthy accomplishment for someone whose 231 regular-season wins were a CFL record before being eclipsed by Wally Buono. Otherwise he’s spent most of his time in Oregon, where he lives with his current wife and stepson midway between the homes of two of his sons. One year after his Hall induction he revealed he was suffering from cancer.

I phone him once in awhile to catch up. He tells me stories, says good things about his friends and nasty things about his enemies. We reminisce. He always seems to explain something new to me and I thank him for teaching me so much about football.

We spoke about a week ago. He seemed happy that I called. How is he doing?

“About the same,’’ Don said, before faltering during a story and adding a few minutes later: “I’ve got an illness. I don’t really want to talk about it.’’

He was tired. I told him I’ll call again. He’s still invincible, in my mind, and I hope we can have dozens more conversations.

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