For once, CFL is optimistic heading into off-season, not desperate
By DAN RALPH -- Canadian Press
Montreal Alouettes linebacker Kevin Johnson carries the Grey Cup through tens of thousands of fans that lined Ste. Catherine street for the Grey Cup parade in Montreal Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2002. The Montreal Alouettes’ 25-16 Grey Cup victory over the Edmonton Eskimos, a game filled with drama at the end, was a fitting conclusion to what was a solid campaign for the much-maligned league.
The chaos and uncertainty that have traditionally plagued the CFL are gone, replaced by a quiet confidence and optimism for the future.
The Montreal Alouettes' 25-16 Grey Cup victory over the Edmonton Eskimos, a game filled with drama at the end, was a fitting conclusion to what was a solid campaign for the much-maligned league.
In a season that began with a very public and messy divorce from former commissioner Michael Lysko, the CFL managed to register several key achievements. Most notably:
Television ratings soared 27 and 19 per cent, respectively, at TSN and CBC. And the combined viewership for CBC's telecasts of the East and West Division finals (an average of 1.079 million viewers) was a 44 per cent increase over last year. Good news, considering the CFL's television deal expired at season's end.
The league boosted its stable of major corporate sponsors.
The CFL successfully returned to Ottawa after the embarrassing demise of the Rough Riders in 1996.
More than 57,000 spectators jammed into Montreal's Olympic Stadium to watch the home-town Alouettes defeat the surprising Argos 35-18 in the East Division final.
The following week, 62,531 spectators filled Commonwealth Stadium (about 2,100 more than capacity) to watch Montreal and Edmonton battle in a sloppy but entertaining Grey Cup game on the frozen grass field.
The day before the Grey Cup, the CFL named 49-year-old Tom Wright as its new commissioner. After an exhaustive eight-month search for Lysko's successor, the move to hire the former Adidas executive was widely applauded as Wright brings a measure of credibility to the post based upon his extensive background in sports marketing.
Problems still exist -- attendance in both Hamilton and Vancouver continues to lag -- but at least the league appears to be in a solid position to tackle these challenges head-on.
The Ticats, who lost six of seven to finish the season, averaged a league-low 17,699 fans, a decrease of 4.8 per cent over last year. In mid-season, the club's ownership formed an advisory board to boost the club's corporate sponsorship and season-ticket sales. Head coach Ron Lancaster, who has been in Hamilton the last five years, was re-signed to a three-year deal on Dec. 23, ending the speculation that he might leave.
B.C. enjoyed a better season, winning nine of its last 12 regular-season games to finish third in the West after general manager Adam Rita fired head coach Steve Burrato and assumed sideline duties. But still, the Lions averaged just 18,507 fans, which was a drop of 6.8 per cent over last year. Rita was fired by at season's end.
The expansion Renegades posted a league-worst 4-14-0-2 record in their inaugural CFL season, but they were a hit in the stands, averaging 23,776 fans per game.
Toronto also experienced an attendance increase -- 21,000 this year after averaging less than 16,000 fans in 2001. One reason for the boost was the club mixing big-name entertainment (featuring the likes of skateboard legend Tony Hawk and boxing icon Muhammad Ali) with football. But the Argos also turned some heads on the field when they won their final four regular-season games under coach Mike (Pinball) Clemons to earn their first playoff berth since '99.
Clemons replaced Gary Etcheverry, who was fired in September with the club languishing with a 4-8-0-0 mark. In December, he agreed to stay on as coach.
One CFL head coach who could be on the move is Calgary's Wally Buono. Buono has enjoyed immense success with the Stampeders, guiding the club to six Grey Cup appearances and three wins during his 13-year tenure with the club.
But Calgary, the 2001 Grey Cup champion, failed to reach the playoffs this year. That prompted team owner Michael Feterik to appoint Fred Fateri, a close friend, to oversee the entire Stampeders' operation, including the football side which Buono has capably handled.
Last month, Feterik gave the B.C. Lions permission to speak to Buono about their vacant head coach-GM posts. That permission was later withdrawn as the two camps sniped at each other.
Montreal Alouettes Reggie Durden tries to intercept pass to Eskimos Terry Vaughn who makes the catch during the Grey Cup game Sunday, Nov. 24, 2002 in Edmonton.
Still, considering the CFL was on life support just 10 years ago -- prompting then commissioner Larry Smith to quickly launch an ill-fated expansion into the U.S. -- these would appear to be very heady times for the league, with continued talk about an interest by the CFL to place expansion teams in both Quebec City and Halifax.
For the second straight year, the Saint Mary's Huskies, under the guidance of head coach Blake Nill, won the Canadian university football title. The Huskies defeated the Saskatchewan Huskies 33-21 in the Vanier Cup at SkyDome.
Queen's Golden Gaels quarterback Tommy Denison captured the Hec Creighton Trophy as Canadian university football's outstanding player. Denison threw for a Canadian college-record 3,001 yards and led Queen's nine wins in 11 games before losing to McMaster in the Ontario conference final.
Canadian football players also flourished south of the border this year.
Mike Vanderjagt of Oakville, Ont., began the 2002 season as the NFL's most accurate kicker in its history.
Canadians Brett Romberg, Sherko Haji-Rasouli, Joe McGrath and Miguel Robede were members of the top-ranked Miami Hurricanes. Romberg, from Windsor, Ont., Haji-Rasouli, from Toronto, and McGrath, from Moose Jaw, Sask., were all offensive linemen with the Hurricanes while Robede, from Montreal, was a defensive end.
Romberg won the Rimington Trophy as U.S. college football's top offensive centre and this year. He was also a finalist for the Outland Trophy, given annually to the top offensive lineman in the American university ranks.