Last Monday, I unveiled my latest project for 3DownNation, a list of the top ten feuds in CFL history. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll finish my countdown of the nastiest fights and most contentious disagreements in the history of the league.
Check out our previous posts below:
Number Ten: Adam Rita vs Jeff Reinebold
Number Nine: Dieter Brock vs the City of Winnipeg
Number Eight: Tyrone Jones vs Cal Murphy
Number Seven: Dave Chaytors vs Doug Flutie
Number Six: Ed Harrington vs Sonny Wade
Number Five: Cookie Gilchrist vs the CFL Establishment
We continue today with the fourth-worst CFL feud of all-time.
Number Four: Eric Tillman vs Don Matthews
Montreal Gazette reporter Herb Zurkowsky once wrote that “thousand-yard receivers are like feuds with Don Matthews, everybody has one.” Frankly, he wasn’t straying far into hyperbole.
“The Don” is arguably the biggest character in the history of the CFL. Beloved by his players and admired by opponents for his football acumen, he was always good for a spicy quote in the media and never ceded an inch of control on his football team.
Many consider him the greatest coach to ever take a CFL field. Others would argue that he was also the most egotistical. The man was complex, but he lived by a simple football philosophy.
“This is a dictatorship and I’m the head dick.”
One man stands apart from the rest when it comes to conflict with the legend: Eric Tillman.
When the longtime director of the Senior Bowl took over as the general manager of the B.C. Lions in 1993, he made quite a splash. He took the team from three to 10 wins in part by being active in the free agent market, something that was still taboo at the time. Ticats’ head coach John Gregory, one of the many miffed by the spending, called it “the best f***ing team money can buy.”
Matthews, then with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, was particularly upset. The Lions had signed all-star tackle Vic Stevenson and Matthews felt it was because B.C. offered an unfairly large contract. This ignored the fact that Stevenson said he took less money to play in Vancouver because he swore to never play for Matthews again after the coach had openly criticized the Riders’ offensive line in 1992.
Another part of that same incident the year previous was that Riders’ offensive line coach Gary Hoffman was fired and involved in a separate feud with Matthews. The Lions hired Hoffman after they brought in Stevenson, something that rankled his former boss. Angry faxes and phone calls were exchanged between the two teams.
The business conflict was used to hype up the first game between the two teams in 1993, but no one thought it would become the decades-long feud it was. The Lions won the game and an angry Matthews gave Tillman the cold shoulder when a handshake was offered. The scent of beef was clearly in the air, but Matthews and Tillman stayed relatively mum.
They were saving it for the rematch.
The animosity between the two clubs was a talking point ahead of game number two on September 25, 1993, but Matthews said he wouldn’t add fuel to the fire.
“What am I going to do? Go out and hit somebody?” he said dismissively to reporters.
After the Riders won, Tillman thought a more jovial Matthews would like to bury the hatchet and marched across the field for a peace-offering handshake. Instead, the coach responded with an expletive-laced tirade and called Tillman a “lying so-and-so.” The depths of his anger took most people by surprise.
When asked about what he said, Matthews followed his famous policy of refusing to answer questions he didn’t like.
“It’s personal. It’s nothing public,” he emphasized.
Tillman felt differently. He took the opportunity to spill the beans on almost every interaction the two had over the course of their careers. He explained how in 1990 a devious Matthews, then with Toronto, had offered to use his influence to get Argos’ GM Mike McCarthy fired and replace him with Tillman.
He told how Matthews had called him in the 1993 off-season and begged for the B.C. job, saying “he was too big for Regina.” He explained how Matthews had tried to get teams to blackball Gary Hoffman. He made a nasty remark about Matthews’ four ex-wives, for which he was later fined by the league. It was scorched earth and his point was clear.
“Don’s accomplishments on the field speak for themselves. His behaviour off the field also speaks for itself.”
When asked why this was different than other conflicts with opposing coaches, like when Cal Murphy had called him a “little red-haired pissant” earlier in the season, Tillman was clear.
“I respect Cal. I do not respect Don.”
The two were forced into a conference call later that week and they agreed to keep their mutual hatred out of the media. Tillman went home to visit his sick father rather than show up at their third meeting and it seemed the whole thing was put to bed.
“What happened happened, but I think it’s in the best interest of all parties to not discuss it any further,” Tillman said.
The two kept their feelings tight-lipped over the next several years, though Tillman’s Lions defeating Matthews’ dominant Baltimore Stallions — ironically loaded through a free agent spending spree — in the 1994 Grey Cup didn’t improve relations.
When Tillman left for the WLAF in 1995, you might have figured the whole thing was over. Then in 1997, the Toronto Argonauts, with Matthews as coach, did something shocking.
They hired Tillman as GM.
Given their history this raised eyebrows, but the two were successful on the field. Even though their coach and GM hated each other, the 1997 Toronto Argonauts won the Grey Cup.
What went on behind the scenes that year was understood but not well publicized. The two kept their fighting under wraps but some details leaked out.
The whole thing allegedly reached a breaking point when Matthews ordered Tillman on a scouting trip three days before the team was set to play the Lions on the road. The night of the game, Tillman’s friends in B.C. had planned him a big celebration for his 40th birthday. Matthews knew this and made his co-worker miss his own party.
Weeks after raising the Cup, Tillman quit the team and joined TSN as an analyst. He was fair and level in his commentary of Matthews, as his job demanded. Then Matthews left Toronto for Edmonton in 1999 and Tillman jumped right back into his old job as Argonauts’ GM.
The relationship between the two was no better off and Tillman believed Matthews had released Roger Dunbrack and voided Glen Young’s contract before departing so he could take them to Edmonton. Tillman was forced to re-sign them both.
When asked about his working relationship with Matthews before their two teams met, years of public silence came to a head.
“Everyone knows that he has an ego bigger than the Yukon and working with him was about as much fun as having a root-canal everyday,” Tillman ranted. “Anyone and everyone in Camp Matthews is in a subservient role and those who have been there understand it too well. Do I like him? No. Do I think I’ll ever work with him again? No.”
What would he do if asked to work with “The Don” again?
“Next time, given that opportunity, I’ll opt for the Peace Corps,” he replied.
Matthews wisely decided to keep the attention on his team and dismissed him outright.
“I’m sorry he has bad feelings but this game is not about how Eric Tillman feels,” he told reporters.
Tillman softened his comments the next day and insisted his relationship with Matthews came down to a fundamental incompatibility. He went back to a time-tested joke for his finale.
“Don has had many bad marriages and I was certainly one of them,” he jabbed.
With that the feud went silent again, this time for good. I’ve found no evidence the two men would ever like each other, but they both continued to be CFL fixtures and grew to respect each other professionally.
In 1993, Tillman had bemoaned how coaches and GMs failed to understand opponents had a job to do and “keep it between the lines” like the players did. It was a balance that Matthews never attained and an ideal Tillman failed to live up to each time he ranted publicly.
Matthews may be the greatest feuder in CFL history, but it was Tillman who elevated this fight to legendary status. Through it all, they both continued to win on the field and proved you better perform as well as you talk to make it in the CFL.