CFL legend had fun with game he loved
Former quarterback, head coach Ron Lancaster made the world 'a better place'
Ron Lancaster was many things to many people across the Canadian Football League: intense, passionate, brutally honest, a mentor and a good family man.
The legendary quarterback and longtime head coach, who died Thursday morning at age 69 from an apparent heart attack, less than two months after being diagnosed with lung cancer, was also quite the gambler — on the field.
Just ask former CFL offensive lineman Chris Burns, who played under Lancaster in Hamilton from 1998 to 2001.
Burns played right guard for the Tiger-Cats in 1999 and remembered Lancaster at his best, during the East final that November against the hometown Montreal Alouettes.
With Hamilton trailing and facing a third-and-one situation in Montreal territory with less than one minute left in the fourth quarter, Lancaster summoned outside linebacker Joe Hagins to play fullback and lined the offence up to run the football.
Instead, Hagins ran up the middle without the ball and waited for quarterback Danny McManus to throw up a pass that he caught under the watchful eye of defender Barron Miles.
Hamilton got the first down and later scored a touchdown, pulling out a 27-26 win at Olympic Stadium. A week later, Lancaster guided the Tiger-Cats to a 32-21 win over Calgary in the 87th Grey Cup at BC Place Stadium.
"We would run the same play in a short-down situation and it worked every time," Burns, who has been out of football since 2004, told CBCSports.ca. "But we also practiced variations of that play and one of them was a pass play [like the one in the 1999 East final] where we lined up like we were running the ball.
"When he [Lancaster] called it [in Montreal] we were all like, 'What the hell?' Looking back, you could tell from the conversation [between McManus and Lancaster during a timeout before the play] they were having some fun with it, which is exactly what [Lancaster] did.
"He wasn't an x's and o's guy, which is the right approach. He had confidence in his coaches and in his players, knew we had practiced the play and gave it a shot. It was one of the greatest plays I've ever been part of."
Lancaster, who stands fifth all-time in CFL regular-season victories with 142, also coached the game in a way Burns had never seen before.
The 1999 and 2000 East all-star said the Ticats teams he was part of didn't wear pads in practice, never hit, but did everything at full speed.
"He didn't like getting guys hurt but he also expected a lot of effort," said Burns, who now hosts pre- and post-game radio shows for the B.C. Lions on TEAM 1040. "Our offensive line was probably the best shape of any O-line in the league. We gave up [just] seven sacks in 21 games that year."
While Burns and Lancaster had their differences — the former didn't like how he was treated after Hamilton cut him at training camp in 2002 — the coach earned the respect of his players with an up-front demeanour.
Burns said there were various sides to Lancaster, who led the Saskatchewan Roughriders to a Grey Cup win in 1966 as a player and guided Edmonton to a CFL title in '93 as coach.
He recalled one road trip when the coach and Burns were talking about health and Lancaster blurted, "I love hamburgers, I'm just like Wimpy," the hamburger-loving cartoon character.
Rare fit of anger got players' attention
Burns also experienced the extreme opposite, a rare angry side of Lancaster that once showed during halftime.
"I think it was in '99 or 2000," said Burns. "We weren't playing very well in the first half of the game and he came in [the dressing room] and he lost it. He turned purple, kicking garbage cans and going nuts.
"Everybody in the room, I tell you, their ears perked up and their eyes widened. Everybody took notice because he didn't do that very often."
Lancaster, who was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1982, loved the game. But more importantly, he loved the players and his colleagues.
In 1994, Lancaster was head coach in Edmonton and sensed one-time CFL quarterback Joe Paopao wasn't happy in his role as offensive co-ordinator with the Lions, so he placed a phone call to his friend.
Lancaster asked Paopao to travel to Edmonton, where he convinced him to sign on and lead the Eskimos offence. Paopao was still under contract in B.C. but ended up working under Lancaster for two seasons before taking over in '96.
"If I needed someone to bounce things off or ask for advice, he was always there for me," said Paopao, who was lured by Lancaster to join the Tiger-Cats as assistant coach in 2006. "It was one of those friendship deals like a grandfather or a good neighbour.
"He did several things that helped me as a young coach and how to be a better family guy. Family was everything to him.
"You knew where you stood with Ron. He was brutally honest in a genuine way. And if he didn't like you he told you, too," Paopao said, laughing. "But there aren't too many people he didn't enjoy.
"The world was a better place when he was walking this Earth."