Jim Hopson goes from humble beginnings to the Roughriders Plaza of Honour
Hopson was the first paid president and CEO of the community-owned Roughriders
Two more names are officially becoming Saskatchewan Roughriders royalty tonight.
Two former members of the offensive line, Jim Hopson and John Terry, are both being inducted into the Riders Plaza of Honour. But for Hopson, it's his work off the field that will be remembered for decades to come.
Hopson was the first paid president and CEO of the community-owned Roughriders. He started the job in 2005 before retiring in 2015. Under his guidance, the Riders went from a team struggling to pay the bills to powerhouse on and off the field.
To reflect on his life and career, Hopson spoke to the CBC's Peter Mills:
MILLS: Former president and CEO of the Roughriders, former Riders offensive lineman, former Regina Ram, former Thom Trojan, former small town teacher: Of all those titles, which one makes you the most proud?
We lived in a house that didn't have sewer and water when I was a little guy and the honey wagon would come around the back alleys.- Jim Hopson
HOPSON: I've never been asked that. I'm very proud of being a Thom Trojan and I'm very proud of being a Ram. I guess I'm proud of all those things. It's a part of who I am.
M: Tell me about the small town teacher side.
H: I started in Ceylon, Saskatchewan, south of Regina and there is no school there now but that's where I got my start and I enjoyed it a lot. I taught for many years in Lumsden, I was a director in Sturgis, so I moved around the province and had a lot of great experiences.
M: Going back to those early days, I've heard your beginnings described as "humble beginnings". Tell me about growing up in Regina.
H: Humble. North Annex. North of Dewdney. N.O.D. We lived in a house that didn't have sewer and water when I was a little guy and the honey wagon would come around the back alleys. We had to haul our water in the winter. So yeah, it was humble but dad put sewer and water in the house and we learned about hard work, we learned about making do and think overall it was probably good for me.
M: What was something you took away from that that built to your success growing up?
H: Hard work. Perseverance. Respect for others. Appreciation for what you have. Those are things that my parent's instilled in me. I think most of us who grew up in that area during the '50s and '60s that's what we came away with.
M: Mid-2000s that hard work obviously paid off. You became the first paid president and CEO of the Roughriders. We all get first-day jitters when we go to a new job. What were you feeling?
H: I had so much on my mind I don't know that I was feeling a lot. It was January 2. I hired Steve Mazurak the day before and we just jumped in. I didn't have an office. I went in there and of course it was in [Taylor Field], resources were very, very lean and so the first thing was, 'Where am I going to work?' It was a busy time but it was a great time.
M: Was there one thing that you came in and really wanted to accomplish?
H: I wanted to win championships. I really did. The fans had been tremendous, they had been with us forever, but we hadn't given them a lot to support in the '90s. Times were tough and the team was in trouble. I knew the team was in better shape [in 2005] in terms of player personnel. Roy Shivers had done a good job, but I wanted to win championships. I felt with championships we could establish a new culture and then build some resources so we could build the team up to where I wanted it to be.
I had more than one family come to me and ask if they could spread the ashes of one of their loved ones on Taylor Field.- Jim Hopson
M: And how did you do that?
H: It wasn't easy and it was a lot of people pulling together. 2007 really kind of lit the flame for us because we won that Grey Cup in Toronto and the excitement and the fan base just really got behind the team.
Of course, we were back in the Grey Cup in '09 and '10 — although, we shouldn't talk about '09, we know what happened there — those things really helped us build a fan base. When we built the fan base, it gave us resources, we could invest in the team, we could invest in the stadium, we could begin talking about a new stadium. When we went from 7,000-8,000 season ticket holders to 20,000-25,000 that really put us in a different situation.
M: You talked about how the fans really jumped on board and I think one of the reasons you're being inducted into the Plaza of Honour is because of community engagement. And I know for a fact that you would personally reply to people's emails and calls promptly. Was there an interaction with a fan that really stands out with you?
H: There were so many. It was a habit I picked up back in education: get back to people as soon as you could. The ones that I enjoyed the most and really stuck with me were the older fans who had been around for a long time, maybe their health wasn't that well and they were having trouble getting to the games, but they would tell me the stories about coming to the games in the '50s and '60s. They'd call and ask if it was OK if they used the Rider flag on the casket of their husband or loved one. Pretty touching stuff.
I had more than one family come to me and ask if they could spread the ashes of one of their loved ones on Taylor Field. of course the city said we shouldn't do that [laughs] but anyway, there were so many stories of the fans' love for the team ... those were what kept you going in the tough days.
M: When there are tough times that also brings a lot of criticism as well. When people are calling for the coaches, the players, and the executives to be fired, what are you thinking in that role?
H: I always used to say to the staff and the football people, "It's a good thing because it shows that people are connected, they're invested in the team." I mean, we could be in Toronto and they would love to have that kind of passion and excitement. You gotta take the good with the bad. When we win here, there's nothing better.
This is a community-owned team so this is their team, this is our team. So people weren't afraid to come up to me in Tim Hortons and tell me what they thought or didn't agree with a decision I had made. But on the other side, they were generally kind and supportive.
M: Are you to blame for those high expectations now?
H: I hope so. I went in thinking that anything less than multiple championships was going to be a failure ... the key thing that I tried to do was change that culture of expecting very little.
M: Winning two Grey Cup championships was obviously the highlight of your time as president and CEO, but I wanted to show you a photo that I think really shows maybe your happiest moment as a Rider. Tell me about this photo.
H: [Laughs] That is funny. Weston Dressler scoring a touchdown coming down the sideline. I used to stand down by the south end zone all the time and try and stay away from the player's bench and he went by and scored.
I'm nothing if not excitable and passionate and so it kind of shows my personality. Weston looks pretty calm there, doesn't he? Just running down the field for another touchdown. That's cool. Thank you.
M: You're also going into the Plaza of Honour with John Terry, who was another offensive lineman. Is there something about Saskatchewan and offensive linemen?
H: Seems to be. When you think about the great players that we've had, we list people like Roger Aldag, Bob Poley, Gene Makowsky, the list goes on and on ... maybe it's that connection to the people and the hard work because usually offensive linemen aren't really the stars. You would probably see as many Aldag jerseys and Makowsky jerseys at a game today as you did when they played. That doesn't happen in a lot of places so yeah, I think it's kind of neat.
M: Speaking of the game, I'm going to put you on the spot. The Riders play Calgary on Sunday: What's your prediction?
H: I think they're going to win ... coming off a break, they've made some changes and that's not a bad thing. And Calgary is going to lose. It's almost impossible to get through a season undefeated and what better place than Mosaic Stadium and Plaza of Honour weekend?
M: With Jim Hopson in the stands...
H: That's right, cheering them on!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Roughriders (3-4) take on the Calgary Stampeders (7-0) at Mosaic Stadium on Sunday, Aug. 19. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. CST
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