In 1991, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats came into the Labour Day game 0-8 on the season having just fired their coach, the otherwise forgettable David Beckman. They were facing a 6-2 Toronto Argonauts team that featured a sensational rookie named Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and the game had all the makings of a blowout.
Final score: Hamilton 48 Argonauts 24.
More than 25 years later, the Ticats come into the Labour Day Classic with the same terrible record and a coaching change to match, head coach June Jones playing the role of John Gregory, who took over for Beckman and won his first game as head coach. Gregory had previous CFL experience, winning the 1989 Grey Cup with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a thriller over the Ticats with Kent Austin as his quarterback.
Jones, however, will be making his CFL debut as a head coach, which doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the importance of this game to the community and the fan base.
“I know this the kind of like the old time, it’s what the NFL has lost. This game is a tradition,” said Jones, who was the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons in 1991. “I can tell from practice that the kids are a little more focused and understand the importance of this game.”
Speaking of kids, Mike Filer was not quite 18 months old in September of 1991 but came understand the importance of the signature game while coming of age in Brantford.
“I went to a lot of Labour Day games growing up, that was one we never missed as a family,” Filer said. “We’ve been stressing the importance of that to the guys in the locker room, what this game means to the city of Hamilton and the community.”
It’s been a tough week for that community as its watched the team endure one of its toughest and most humiliating weeks in recent memory – and perhaps ever. The attempted hiring of controversial former Baylor head coach Art Briles saw scorn heaped on the franchise from all sides – owner Bob Young eventually issued multiple apologies – while an ongoing dalliance with bad boy quarterback Johnny Manziel kept the team in the headlines.
Add a change at quarterback, with Jeremiah Masoli replacing Zach Collaros – who was subsequently the subject of trade rumours – and the Ticats have been surrounded by noise this week, absolutely none of it good.
But veteran Courtney Stephen said he’s paid it no mind.
“To be completely honest, not even just lip service, but we don’t care. We just don’t care. We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Stephen said. “We have to handle our business because the second you take the eye off the ball, it’s going to hit you in face.”
The Ticats, believe it or not, still think they can miracle their way into the post-season, putting together an improbable run that would become the stuff of legend. No CFL team has ever made the playoffs after starting 0-7, never mind 0-8.
“We’ve got an opportunity to do something that’s never happened before and I’ve told the guys, accomplishing that would be something that they’d never forget,” Jones said. “That’s something they’ve really good to take hold of.”
Enter Masoli, whose personality allows him to a) be largely unaffected by the chaos going around him and b) supremely confident in his ability to get the job done, regardless of said challenges.
“Jeremiah has a little moxie about him, gets things done maybe not the way you want them but he makes them happen,” Jones said, who also pointed to Masoli’s experience in the coach’s preferred offensive system as a reason for the change. “Every since he was at University of Oregon, there was change and he just fought all through it. He believes in himself.”
Things didn’t end all that well for that 1991 squad. They would finish the year 3-15, well out of the playoffs, while the Argonauts would go to win the Grey Cup that season.
But none of that mattered on Labour Day. Even Gregory knew it.
“I’ve had a lot of real positive things happen in my life in football. But certainly this was one of the biggest,” he said after the game. “It ranks right up there with winning the Grey Cup.”