Jim Hopson had spoken to a couple other people before calling me about the possibility of writing a book chronicling his term as president/CEO of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“I want the book to be honest,’’ Hopson said. “I know we’ve had some disagreements over the years, but we were always honest with each other. If we don’t like something, we’ll be honest about it.”
As a journalist, a sports writer at the Regina Leader-Post who was the CFL team’s beat writer for 21 years, I couldn’t resist such an offer. I might actually learn a few things about the inner workings of a CFL office, specifically one that had evolved from absolute mayhem into the league’s most profitable venture under Hopson, whose proficiency was rewarded Wednesday when he was announced as an inductee, a builder, into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
A well-deserved honour, I believe, particularly after helping him write “Running the Riders: My Decade as CEO of Canada’s Team.”
Hopson grew up in Regina, where he played high school and junior football before joining the Roughriders for a short career as an offensive lineman on a team led by Hall of Fame quarterback Ron Lancaster and fullback George Reed.
He later became a teacher, principal and administrator, helped the Riders as a volunteer and ultimately became the community-owned franchise’s first full-time, paid president/CEO in 2004.
His mantra was to stop thinking about the Roughriders as “the little engine that couldn’t” and create a winning atmosphere, with a swagger and a sense of self-importance. He knew a winning team in Saskatchewan would almost market itself, but he surrounded himself with strong people in the office. And when Hopson realized the tandem of head coach Danny Barrett and general manager Roy Shivers, in place since 2000, had reached their apex without making a Grey Cup appearance, he made the moves in 2006 to replace them with Kent Austin and Eric Tillman.
It worked immediately, with the Roughriders winning the 2007 Grey Cup.
Hopson’s process for hiring Tillman and Austin had been a well-kept secret, until he wrote it straightforward and honestly in Running the Riders.
By the time Hopson retired in 2015, the Roughriders had also advanced to the CFL championships in 2009 and 2010 (losing both to the Montreal Alouettes) and winning another Grey Cup in 2013, a home-town victory that is likely the highlight of the franchise’s 109-year existence.
He was also aboard for the start-up process that helped build Mosaic Stadium, the team’s two-year-old home. And the Roughriders, who had relied on government handouts to survive the 1990s, have become the CFL’s wealthiest franchise, repeatedly recording profits, often leading the league in attendance and selling more merchandise than the other eight teams combined.
Hopson, indeed, had been honest in my dealings with him during his Roughriders tenure. He knew, from his experiences in the education world, whenever schools were closed, districts were amalgamated or teachers weren’t hired, someone had to step forward and be the decision-maker. He never shied away from that responsibility with the Roughriders, answering promptly and sincerely to fans, players, media and anyone associated with the team or league. That doesn’t mean everyone agreed with his decisions, but he was never afraid to make them.
When writing Running the Riders, we decided the best production method was for him to write his story — about his childhood, his family, his football career, his admiration for Lancaster and Reed and legendary junior coach Gord Currie through his careers as an educator and Roughriders executive — and deliver the hand-written pages to me for editing, typing and questions. There were a few stories that needed to be fleshed out, plus he had stick-it notes attached to send me to additional pages, which were sometimes written in different colours of ink (I hated the pink pen!), but his full, honest story was there in excellent penmanship.
At the risk of too much back-patting, it’s a good book. I’m on the Hall of Fame Selection Committee, so I’m not allowed to reveal the discussions concerning any potential inductees. I will confess that I mentioned Jim Hopson had written a fine book, describing a career worthy of being in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.