Friday, September 19, 2008
Ron Lancaster, 69: Athlete
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 19, 2008
Ron Lancaster, a son of the Pennsylvania steel mills, came north as a young man to play professional football. He never left, becoming a legend as a player and coach.
He wore the jersey of the Rough Riders in Ottawa and the Roughriders in Regina. He was twice named the league's outstanding player and twice named coach of the year. He won four Grey Cup championships – two on the field and two more as a coach. For a time, he worked in the broadcast booth, bringing to a generation of CBC viewers insight into the razzle-dazzle nature of the Canadian game.
In Saskatchewan, he will forever be remembered as the quarterback who delivered onto faithful and long-suffering Prairie fans their first football championship. No other title will ever be as sweet as the 1966 triumph.
So revered was No. 23 that the team's telephone number remains 306-569-2323, the final digits a tribute to Mr. Lancaster three decades after he last wore the famed green-and-white jersey.
He was called the Little General for his diminutive stature and his take-charge attitude. One sports writer nicknamed him “The Blond Boy Gambler.” Some teased by calling him the Leprechaun, or Keebler, after the cookie-baking elves. In his playing days, Mr. Lancaster weighed 175 pounds and stood just 5 foot 9. “And a half,” he would insist. The Little General had greater success than Napoleon in marching his army across the frozen steppes, such as were prairie gridirons in winter.
Stumpy in stature, his blond hair worn in a crew cut long after the style fell out of fashion, Mr. Lancaster became the embodiment of football in the wheat province. The elements were a challenge to be endured, the end of a poor campaign regarded the same way a farmer handles a poor harvest – by getting ready for the next season.
An elusive runner and a daring passer, Mr. Lancaster seemed to sling the ball rather than throw it. He rewrote the Canadian Football League record book in 19 seasons of dramatic football. He passed for 50,535 yards, which is about two-thirds of the way from Taylor Field in Regina to Moose Jaw city hall.
Mr. Lancaster hailed from a small town and played college football in a small town. He felt at home in the Saskatchewan capital, where he also taught high school for seven years.
He was born in Fairchance, a hamlet in the heart of the Pennsylvania hill country where coal and coke were king. As a boy, the family moved to Clairton, a hard-scrabble city south of Pittsburgh that would later be the setting for the movie The Deer Hunter. His father, brothers, uncles and cousins laboured in the steel mills and he, too, found summer work there.
Clairton was a blue-collar, lunch-bucket town where men worked hard and played harder. The seasons were defined as much by sport as by weather – basketball in winter, baseball in summer, football in fall.
The air in the Monongahela River valley was filled with pungent odour of sulphur from the city's coke works. The grimy industrial setting produced steel and football players, the latter the only crop that seemed to take root in soil dusty with residue from the mills. Mike Ditka, Joe Namath and the great Johnny Unitas (five years Mr. Lancaster's senior and his all-time favourite player) all came from the region.
The boy witnessed his first football game at 5, cheering for the team of the high school where he soon would become a star. Sports filled the parts of the day not occupied by school. “It was never a problem getting a game,” he once told The Hamilton Spectator. “There was always enough kids. With 70 blocks of houses and six houses to a block in a circle, there was always games going on.” Friday-night high-school games attracted as many as 10,000 customers, with another 1,000 disappointed fans turned away.
Mr. Lancaster grew up dreaming of playing quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, or shortstop for baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates. He was just 16 and a high-school junior when he became the starter for the Clairton High Bears. The Daily Courier in nearby Connellsville, Pa., dismissed him as “a small boy and the ‘only' quarterback of the 53 players remaining on the roster from the initial list of 101 candidates.”
After graduation, he enrolled at Wittenberg University, a small, liberal arts school at Springfield, Ohio. As a sophomore in 1957, he led the football team to its first Ohio Conference crown since before the Second World War. More importantly, he broke a 29-year jinx by defeating arch-rival Ohio Wesleyan University. The Lutherans' triumph over the Bishops led to much celebration, and Mr. Lancaster's teams posted a 25-8-1 record in his four seasons, as he earned an education degree.
Too small to interest the National Football League, and warned away from the fledgling American Football League by his college coach, Mr. Lancaster signed instead with the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1960.
Ottawa had another talented young quarterback in Russ Jackson, who is now regarded to have been as the best Canadian-born quarterback in the game. Coach Frank Clair platooned the two pivots, with Mr. Jackson often starting and Mr. Lancaster coming in later in the game.
In those days, the backup quarterback had to handle the dirty work of playing defensive back. In just his second game, Mr. Lancaster intercepted three Hamilton passes, running one back for a touchdown. Although a heavy smoker, he proved to be quick on his feet. He later came to be described as “the only chain-smoking quarterback in the CFL.”
Ottawa won the 1960 Grey Cup over the Edmonton Eskimos at Vancouver in a game best remembered for fans spilling onto the field and tearing down the goal posts with 41 seconds left on the clock.
The duelling quarterback tandem created much friction in Ottawa. The Rough Rider brain trust decided to go with Mr. Jackson. Mr. Lancaster was traded to Saskatchewan before the 1963 season. He would stay with the Roughriders for 16 seasons as a player and two more as a coach.
Mr. Lancaster returned to Empire Stadium in Vancouver for the 1966 Grey Cup game against his old team. A gambler at heart, he nearly threw an interception in the second quarter, only to have defensive back Bob O'Billovich deflect the ball through his outstretched hands to Al Ford for a major. The score was tied 14-14 at the half.
Saskatchewan's George Reed then ran for a touchdown and Mr. Lancaster completed his third touchdown pass, while the defence shut down Mr. Jackson and the Ottawa offence.
The 29-14 victory caused scenes of jubilation in downtown Regina, as well as in one of two locker rooms at Empire Stadium.
The most restrained player in the champagne-soaked bedlam of the victor's room was the winning quarterback. “We knew Ottawa could score a lot of points, so naturally we had to score a lot ourselves,” he explained. “If we were going to lose, we didn't want to be shellacked, so we opened the throttle.”
That glorious triumph was followed by Grey Cup losses for the 'Riders in 1967, 1969, 1972 and 1976. Those defeats led to the joke that in Saskatchewan the wind would blow in spring, summer and winter, while Mr. Lancaster would blow Grey Cup games in the fall.
Often self-deprecating and always humble, Mr. Lancaster guided the Roughriders into the playoffs in all but two seasons in which he wore their colours.
Mr. Lancaster won the Schenley Award as outstanding player in 1970 and 1976 and was awarded the Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy five times as the Western Conference's most valuable player. He was an all-Canadian four times and a Western all-star seven times. He led the league in passing yardage in five seasons.
At retirement, he held league records for completed passes (3,384), touchdown passes (333) and yardage (50,535). He also threw 396 interceptions.
His coaching debut with the green 'Riders was a fiasco, as he won just four games over two seasons. “I was too friendly and too familiar with the players,” he later told The Globe and Mail. “It made it tough to get rid of them.”
He then became a television analyst of uncommon insight and understated wit. “I've never been nervous in front of a microphone,” he told The Globe in 1989. “I know I can do it well, just as I knew I could play well. I've always believed in keeping it simple. I feel that if my wife can understand what I'm saying, then others will, too, and that means I'm doing a good job.”
The CBC assigned him to be a basketball commentator at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
He returned to the sidelines as a coach with Edmonton in 1991, directing the Eskimos to a Grey Cup two years later. He then coached the Hamilton Tiger-Cats from 1998 to 2003, filling in as interim coach midway through the 2006 season. He won his final Grey Cup with the Ticats in 1999.
Mr. Lancaster's 142 coaching victories place him fifth on the league's career list.
In 2004, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. In August, he announced the beginning of radiation and chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer.
Most recently, he was employed by the Ticats as special adviser of organizational development. He lived in the Hamilton area, a city whose residents he said reminded him of the hard-working people with whom he had grown up.
Mr. Lancaster was inducted as player to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1982. He was also a member of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame (1985) and the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame. He was one of 12 charter inductees into the Wittenberg University Athletic Hall of Honour in 1985.
“I don't consider myself a legend,” he once said. “I'm just a guy who goes to work every day like everyone else.”
Ronald Lancaster was born Oct. 14, 1938, at Fairchance, Pa. He died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 69. He is survived by Beverly, his wife of 50 years, and by his children Lana, Ron, and Bob. He also leaves four grandchildren.
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