With two temperaments and quarterbacks, John Gregory led Roughriders to improbable Grey Cup victory

Courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

John Gregory had two nicknames when he coached the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“Barney” was one because in his milder moments he looked like Barney Rubble from The Flintstones animated TV series. “Diesel” was the other, because there were times he got so angry at a missed penalty call or a Riders mistake that he would explode and stomp along the sideline, red-faced and screaming for minutes before Mr. Rubble inevitably reappeared.

In one of my first press conferences following a Roughriders loss, Gregory threw a piece of chalk at fellow writer Nick Miliokas. Evidently, he didn’t like the question.

Gregory was at once a passionate and empathetic man, who set up a golf vacation for a couple of sports writers, including me, shortly after verbally ripping me apart for perpetuating his team’s quarterback controversy between Kent Austin and Tom Burgess. I thought about that quarterback controversy, Gregory’s fiery temper and down-home kindness — plus the 1989 Grey Cup he won as Saskatchewan’s coach — upon hearing he died Monday at age 84.

Gregory came to the CFL from Iowa through the U.S. college ranks. He got hired as an offensive line coach by legendary Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Cal Murphy in 1983. After four seasons and a Grey Cup victory in Winnipeg, Gregory replaced Jack Gotta as Saskatchewan’s head coach before the 1987 season. Roughriders general manager Bill Baker thought Gregory’s personality was a perfect fit for Saskatchewan. He was right.

Of course, it helped to have Austin and Burgess, guard Roger Aldag, defensive linemen Gary Lewis and Bobby Jurasin, defensive backs Richie Hall and Glen Suitor, kicker Dave Ridgway, linebackers Eddie Lowe and Dave Albright, tailback Tim McCray and receivers Jeff Fairholm, Don Narcisse and Ray Elgaard.

But Gregory had to deal with the Riders curse — they hadn’t won a Grey Cup since 1966 nor appeared in the game since 1976, which was also their last playoff appearance before he somehow juggled two starting quarterbacks into the 1988 West Semi-Final, which Saskatchewan lost.

One year later, while berating anyone who questioned his judgment — I think the head coach preferred starting Burgess against zone-oriented defences and Austin against man-oriented defences, or the other way around — the Roughriders compiled a 9-9 regular-season record, upset the 10-8 Calgary Stampeders and waltzed into Edmonton for the West Final against the 16-2 football team, who pictured the visitors as lambs being led to a slaughterhouse.

Saskatchewan inconceivably won and qualified for the 77th Grey Cup in Toronto’s brand-new SkyDome, where they dumped the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 43-40 on a dying-seconds field goal by Ridgway.

Austin was the quarterback, which didn’t really surprise anyone paying attention. Gregory celebrated magnificently in his green-and-white, knitted Roughriders sweater, telling everyone that football teams need two quarterbacks to win. (Burgess got traded that offseason to Winnipeg, where he subsequently won the 78th Grey Cup.)

Gregory confessed he had dealt midseason with the Riders’ recent failures by bringing in a quasi-psychologist, who renamed the team as “89ers,” set up Grey Cup space in the locker room and had the players tape their ring fingers to symbolize the championship baubles they were pursuing. He took some heat from Riders fans for besmirching their traditions and some players thought the 89ers shtick was hokey, but Gregory insisted his approach helped win the franchise’s second championship.

Gregory remained loyal to his champions, keeping too many veterans on the roster until he was fired by general manager Al Ford in the early morning hours following a 1991 loss. When I called Gregory and Ford separately around 2:30 a.m. for the Regina Leader-Post story I was writing, each of them was crying. Don Matthews replaced Gregory.

Almost immediately after being fired in Saskatchewan, Gregory was hired by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Gregory couldn’t replicate his success in Steeltown. After Hamilton dumped him in 1994, he spent the next 17 seasons in various versions of Arena Football, primarily in Iowa, where he coached future Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and won more championships.

The Riders didn’t win another Grey Cup until 2007, with Austin as their coach. Gregory was inducted into the Riders’ Plaza of Honour in 1996. We spoke since, but on that occasion, we laughed about our old disagreements, debated the merits of a two-quarterback system and reminisced about the one time we played golf together and I nearly holed a 150-yard bunker shot to beat him by a stroke.

He threw his golf ball at me.

Evidently, he didn’t like losing.

Darrell Davis has reported on the Riders for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2006.