In Ambrosie, CFL makes the right choice for commissioner

With Randy Ambrosie poised to become the CFL’s next commissioner, it’s somewhat comforting to know the league has tried this before — hiring an ex-player — with varying degrees of success since former player Jake Gaudaur set the standard.

To begin with, the CFL got it right this time by hiring a Canadian. A Canadian with deep CFL roots and business roots.

Now the CFL governors, a meddling lot who have cycled through 12 commissioners (three on an interim basis) in the 33 years since Gaudaur retired, have to leave Ambrosie alone. Put him in charge. Trust him.

That’s the problem with the CFL: Unlike the NFL, which thrives by giving its commissioners absolute authority, the nine CFL governors are constantly battling over petty issues and refuse to let anyone else be in charge. It’s the reason why Jeffrey Orridge, an American and the most recent and most curious hiring, lasted only 25 months as CFL commissioner.

Ambrosie has most recently been CEO of a large, Canadian investment firm, so his financial and business acumen are beyond reproach.

A 54-year-old native of Winnipeg, Ambrosie was an offensive lineman who played for the University of Manitoba before a nine-year CFL career divided between the Calgary Stampeders, Toronto Argonauts and Edmonton Eskimos. He won a Grey Cup with Edmonton and retired following that 1993 season.

Offensive linemen are frequently the most articulate, intelligent and thoughtful members of a football team. Dealing with Ambrosie as a player proved those points; he was always approachable and introspective, one of the Eskimos who shook his head and tried to downplay the team’s 16-2 regular-season record in 1989 as his teammate, brash defensive lineman John Mandarich, boasted about how easily Edmonton would blow past the 9-9 Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West final. In one of the biggest upsets in CFL history, Saskatchewan won 32-21 en route to its surprising Grey Cup victory, a championship that would have been preordained for the Eskimos if they had more players approaching it like Ambrosie.

During his last two seasons as a player, Ambrosie was secretary of the CFL Players’ Association and fought staunchly to protect Canadian jobs as the league tried expanding into the U.S. Gaudaur, another Canadian protectionist, would have been proud.

Gaudaur had the job from 1968-84 and was the CFL’s longest-tenured commissioner, overseeing 16 years of stability as its teams benefited from sold-out stadiums and well-paying broadcast rights for radio and television. Doug Mitchell, Bill Baker and Larry Smith are the former players who have since followed Gaudaur in the job.

Mitchell, Gaudaur’s successor, left the CFL in decent shape, but Baker was summoned for a one-year term (1989) as a crisis manager and Smith (1992-97) took over a league so desperate for capital that he supervised its ill-fated expansion into the U.S., something that would have appalled Gaudaur.

Ambrosie was reportedly in the running (and perhaps the runner-up) just over two years ago when the CFL governors decided Orridge would be the next commissioner.

Why they didn’t choose Ambrosie then is anybody’s guess, but at least they can now correct their mistake.

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