CFL icon Lancaster dies at 69

Canadian Football League legend Ron Lancaster died Thursday morning from an apparent heart attack, less than two months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 69.

'Ronnie was someone who believed in every game': former teammate Jim Hopson

Canadian Football League legend Ron Lancaster died Thursday morning from an apparent heart attack, less than two months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 69.

The former standout quarterback, who also had a long career as a head coach, administrator and television commentator, had been undergoing radiation and chemotherapy.

Lancaster, popular and respected in CFL circles for his integrity and up-front demeanour, survived a battle with cancer in his bladder five years ago.

"His intensity, his commitment to win. Ronnie was someone [who] believed in every game that we were playing in," Saskatchewan Roughriders president Jim Hopson, a former teammate of Lancaster's, told CBC in Regina. "We never really lost Ronnie; we just ran out of time.

"He had tremendous intelligence, tremendous vision for the whole field. He saw things that some of us never saw."

Lancaster began this season serving as the senior adviser to organizational development with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and worked as a colour analyst on the team's radio broadcasts before receiving the diagnosis.

He previously worked as a game analyst for the CFL on CBC alongside the late Don Wittman, and called basketball for the network at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Lancaster's death leaves 'hollow feeling': Higgins

During an interview with CBC's Newsworld, former CFL head coach Tom Higgins remembered Lancaster's infectious smile and positive nature.

"He touched so many people's lives in so many different ways, even beyond the world of athletics which is rare in today's society," said Higgins, now the CFL's director of officiating who played with and against Lancaster in the 1970s and later worked with him in Edmonton.

"It's a hollow feeling, it's an empty feeling … he was the loveliest man you could ever come across."

Said CFL commissioner Mark Cohon: "Our country has lost a giant of a man. Ron Lancaster is deeply loved across Canada, as a CFL player, coach, broadcaster and mentor, but most of all as a true friend. His career spanned eras, bridged west and east, and delighted our fans.

"But his life transcended sport, because the young man who came here from Pennsylvania grew into a true Canadian hero — a role model who often towered above the rest, and yet remained resolutely down to earth, at the same time."

Lancaster returned to football in 1991 as head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos, with whom he spent seven seasons and won a Grey Cup in 1993.

Hugh Campbell, a former teammate of Lancaster's in Regina who later served as Edmonton's president during Lancaster's tenure as the club's head coach, said Lancaster always wore his emotions on his sleeve.

"Ron Lancaster was exactly what you got," he said. "His words and body language were unfiltered.

"He believed in hard work and thoroughly enjoyed his interaction with the huge variety of people in his life. Ronnie would turn a simple conversation with someone he knew forever or a fan he just met into a fun experience."

A standout playing career

A three-time all-star, the native of Fairchance, Pa., led Saskatchewan to the Grey Cup in 1966 and guided the Tiger-Cats to the 1999 championship as coach.

Former CFL defensive lineman Ed Philion told on Thursday that Lancaster-coached teams were always physical and he bought into what he was selling.

"I think he knew the importance of having character guys on his team. Defensively, they had [end Joe] Montford, [tackle Mike] Philbrick. They had some guys that wanted to beat you up in the alley," said Philion, whose Montreal Alouettes fell 27-26 to Lancaster's Ticats in the 1999 East final.

"He understood what it took to win. I think he always tried to surround himself with tough-nosed football players."

Joe Paopao, a CFL quarterback in the 1970s, '80s and 1990, served as the Eskimos offensive co-ordinator under Lancaster in 1994 and '95. They remained close over the years and often exchanged jokes through e-mail.

"He knew what was important to him in life, which was his kids and his passion for football," Paopao told by phone from the University of Waterloo (Ont.), where he is the offensive co-ordinator of the Warriors football team. "He also enjoyed a good laugh and people that understood the emotional journey you go through as a coach. He was a good storyteller.

"If I needed someone to bounce things off or ask for advice he was always there for me. He was a great mentor."

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said Lancaster will forever be linked to the Roughriders and football excellence.

"Ron Lancaster's heart, character, competitiveness and unselfish contributions back to our province are the reasons why he remains so loved by not only Rider fans, but by an entire province," Wall said in a statement.

Lancaster's death has prompted several CBC readers to write in and share their memories of the CFL great. Regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in league history, Lancaster's Grey Cup title with Saskatchewan is still vividly remembered.

"I'll never forget meeting him with thousands of fans at the airport and at the Armories in Regina after our first Grey Cup win in '66," one reader wrote. "I travelled in from Weyburn [Sask.] to participate in that historic moment. It was the greatest and something that will always stick with me."

Lancaster's 142 regular-season wins place him fifth on the CFL's career list.

Little General takes charge

Nicknamed the Little General, he broke into the CFL in 1960 with the Ottawa Rough Riders and three years later was traded to the Green Riders. He spent 16 years in Regina and helped the Roughriders to 14 playoff berths, 12 West final appearances and five Grey Cups, including the victory in '66. Lancaster was named the league's outstanding player in 1970 and 1976.

Shunned by the big U.S. colleges, the five-foot-five Lancaster played for Ohio's tiny Wittenburg University, where he gained a reputation for his great throwing arm and strong leadership.

Lancaster also was overlooked by the National Football League but drew serious interest from a team he knew little about — the Rough Riders.

When Lancaster retired, he did so as the CFL's career leader in pass attempts (6,233), completions (3,384), yards (50,535), touchdowns (333) and interceptions (396).

In 1982, Lancaster was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and three years later the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.

It's been a tough year for the CFL with the loss of former commissioner Jake Gaudaur, Hamilton Ticats player Jamaica Jackson, B.C. Lions president Bob Ackles, commentator Leif Peterson and Hall of Famer Earl (Earthquake) Lunsford.

Lancaster is survived by his wife Bev, three children Lana, Ron and Bob, and four grandchildren.

With files from the Canadian Press