Friday Conversation: Best player turned coach

DSC 9044.JPGIt is not uncommon for players to become coaches once their days on the field are behind them. If you look at the head coaches, only three — Jim Popp, Chris Jones and Rick Campbell — never played in the CFL. The other six — Kent Austin, Scott Milanovich, Wally Buono, Jason Maas, Mike O’Shea and Dave Dickenson — all spent time on CFL rosters, with Milanovich being the only one who didn’t see significant playing time during his career.

So that got me thinking: who is the best player turned coach in CFL history?

For me, the answer seemed simple: Ron Lancaster.

Lancaster is a four-time Grey Cup champion, winning twice as a player and twice as a coach. He was a four-time all-star, two-time Most Outstanding Player and a five-time nominee for Most Outstanding Player during a stellar 19-year playing career. It was with the Saskatchewan Roughriders — he broke into the league with the Ottawa Rough Riders, but was buried behind some guy named Russ Jackson — where he spent the majority of his career. During his 16 years in Regina, Lancaster guided the Riders to 14 straight playoff appearances, 12 appearances in the Western Final, five Grey Cup appearances and quarterbacked the Roughriders to their first every Grey Cup championship in 1966. When Lancaster retired following the 1978 season, he owned pretty much every major passing record in the CFL.

His coaching career started quickly after his playing days were over as he immediately become Saskatchewan’s head coach following his retirement. His first stint as a head coach wasn’t great, but after staying out of coaching for 11 years, he returned to the sidelines to coach the Edmonton Eskimos from 1991-1997, taking them to two Grey Cups, winning one in 1993, and left the Eskimos as the winningest coach in franchise history. Upon leaving Edmonton following the 1997 season, Lancaster came immediately to Hamilton and took a team that went 2-16 in 1997 and got them to the Grey Cup in 1998. The Ticats lost in 1998, but Lancaster got them back to the title game in 1999, this time winning it. When all was said and done, Lancaster won more games as a head coach than all but three other men.

Lancaster was a Hall of Fame player and would no doubt have been a Hall of Fame coach if he wasn’t already enshrined as a player. For my money, he is the greatest player turned coach in league history.

But my opinion isn’t the only valid one, so I turn it over to you guys and gals: who do you think is the greatest player turned coach in the history of the CFL? I look forward to seeing some of your answers.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.