Unveiling a 3DownNation project: Top 10 feuds in CFL history

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 situation has heightened distrust between CFL players, coaches, and team management and their boss, commissioner Randy Ambrosie.

Tensions rise with every passing day, relationships appear to be verging on irreparable, and everyone continues to voice their displeasure through social media and anonymous quotes. It is teetering dangerously close to a full-blown feud between the players and the league office.

While that is scary for those of us who care deeply about the long-term health of the league, this feud, like any other, is undeniably juicy. Humans love gossip, they love animosity, they love to observe sniping and bickering from afar. Feuds, as long as you aren’t at the centre, are exciting entertainment for the masses. But how does this feud compare to the greatest ones in CFL history?

Other leagues with bigger media profiles have had their fights and squabbles more precisely documented. NFL Films put together a whole production on the top 10 feuds in that league’s history. SB Nation has a popular YouTube series called “Beef History” which deep dives into the most high-profile fights in major sports leagues. I have sought to remind you about some of the nastier, dirtier, and juicier moments in the CFL’s illustrious history by following their lead and putting together my own list of the greatest feuds in CFL annals.

This was no easy task. I took fan submissions. I received suggestions from the media. I contacted historians. I spent hours scrolling through old newspaper archives. In the end, there is no way to say for certain if these are indeed the greatest feuds in league history, undoubtedly there are gaps in my knowledge, but they are undeniably entertaining.

Over the course of the next two weeks, 3DownNation will count down my list of the top 10 greatest feuds in CFL history. Today, we’ll start with a taste test of what’s to come and run through a few of the feuds that didn’t make the list.

The best Of the rest

Let’s make this clear from the start: this list is not about rivalries. The Battle of Alberta, the Battle of the QEW, or the Banjo Bowl can be nastier than most games and it can be difficult to draw the line at where a feud begins, but these are about something more personal.

The closest I came to including a true team versus team feud was the animosity between the pre-World War II Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa Rough Riders. They had a bevy of charges against each other in the ORFU, beginning in 1935 when the Argos outed Riders’ star Roy Berry as being an alias for University of Texas star Bohn Hilliard, whose pro baseball career made him an illegal import. Nine Rough Rider executives were expelled from the league as a result, including the Mayor of Ottawa J.E. Stanley Lewis. Ultimately though, this is not a list of the top ten ORFU feuds.

A couple of notorious CFL characters make cameo appearances on the list but easily could have been on it several times. Leo “The Lip” Cahill and “Jungle” Jim Trimble were legendary coaches and showmen who always knew how to stir the pot.

Trimble drew the ire of the Bombers through five Grey Cup matchups in six years and his infamous “We’ll waffle ’em” comments, but there wasn’t any maliciousness there. Leo Cahill’s 1987 spat with Saskatchewan defensive lineman James Curry was closest to making the list. It involved accusations of cheap shots, calls for suspension, and Cahill saying he didn’t want Curry banned from the league because the Riders would need a new defensive tackle and “they might find a good defensive tackle instead.”

Ironically, the last player suspended for on-field violence before Curry was Ed Harrington, who does make the list, in 1970 and Cahill presented him with the game ball on the field afterwards. The two coaches even feuded with each other when Cahill was hired over then Montreal assistant Trimble in 1963 for the Alouettes’ job, causing him to feel scapegoated for team losses and quit mid-season in 1964.

Cal Murphy was the centre of several feuds, as well. He notoriously fought against female reporters in the locker room, called Eric Tillman a “little red-haired pissant”, and had an icy relationship with Bob Ackles after being fired, including calling him a “little weasel” in 1986. Of course, Don Matthews was the most notorious feuder in CFL history and makes a prominent appearance on the list, though he could well have had several more including one with the aforementioned Murphy.

Some modern day, genuine Alberta beef was seriously considered for the list. Chris Jones left Calgary on bad terms with John Hufnagel due to a sketchy exit and refused to shake hands during future meetings with the Stamps. It was, of course, Stampeder Bo Levi Mitchell who blew the whistle on Jones’ secret practice squad in Regina and it resulted in a post-game altercation with Jones telling Dave Dickenson to “win with some class“.

Before Saskatchewan, Jones was in the eye of the storm in Edmonton where the feud between Ed Hervey and Len Rhodes got so bad that an anonymous staff member once said “Ed had a f*** you attitude toward Len and the commissioner [Jeffrey Orridge] and it got so bad with Chris that he told us not to talk to the guy. He told us, ‘If you go in the bathroom, if Ed’s at the urinal, go sit on the toilet and shut the door.’ That feud essentially blew up a Grey Cup championship team, but even it didn’t have enough of a juicy public side to overtake some of the older feuds.

The same was true about numerous other feuds, including spats Bart Andrus had with both Arland Bruce and Byron Parker during his lone year in Toronto. Even the aftermath of the infamous punch thrown by Robert Baker towards teammate Noel Prefontaine on live TV was largely kept out of the media, thanks to the smooth dealings of Pinball Clemons. Bomber Willard Reaves once threatened to punch B.C. crowd noise specialist Krazy George in the face, a bizarre vendetta that didn’t qualify but certainly amuses.

The feuds that did make the list are content rich. Most of the quotes are inflammatory. They’ve stuck in the minds of fans. They have multiple layers. Some are part of the mythology of this league and its cities. It was a high bar to cross, but ultimately the stories I selected deserved to be on the list.

Stay tuned to the site as we unveil one feud per day on the way to number one.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.