Former Argos head coach Leo Cahill dead at 89

Leo Cahill, the colourful former head coach/GM of the Toronto Argonauts, died Friday. He was 89.

Native of Utica, Ill., led Toronto to 2 Grey Cup finals

Toronto Argonauts general manager Leo Cahill, left, poses with president Ralph Sazio after a news conference to announce Cahill's hiring in Toronto on December 10, 1985. (John Felstead / The Canadian Press)

He was dubbed "Leo The Lip", a colourful character who made one of the boldest statements in CFL history.

Leo Cahill, the master recruiter and long-time head coach/GM of the Toronto Argonauts, died Friday. He was 89.

Cahill served as Toronto's head coach from 1967-72 and 1977-78. He also was the club's GM from 1986-88.

Twice under Cahill's guidance Toronto lost in the Grey Cup ('71, '87). He also wrote a book titled "Goodbye Argos" in 1973.

"Leo had a knack for identifying players, a talent for getting the best out of them on the field and a passion for promoting the game he loved," the Argos said in a statement. "The Argos and Toronto fans will remain forever grateful for Leo's lasting contributions to our organization and Canadian football as a whole."

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie also praised Cahill.

"In the long and colourful history of the Canadian Football League, few have left as lasting an impression, or added as much colour, as Leo Cahill," Ambrosie said in a statement. "He was truly one of a kind.

"His showmanship, however, may have led some to overlook his deep knowledge of the game. He had a keen eye for football talent and an ability to knit diverse and sometimes equally flamboyant personalities into a winning team . . . Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, his former players and his many friends and fans."

Cahill was born in Utica, Ill., and attended the University of Illinois on a football scholarship, appearing in the '47 Rose Bowl game. After college, Cahill joined the U.S. Army and served in Korea.

After receiving an honourable discharge, Cahill entered the coaching ranks, assisting with the offensive line at his alma mater. Then came stints at Lewis College, the University of South Carolina, and University of Toledo.

Argos take notice

Cahill began his CFL coaching career in 1960 as an assistant with the Montreal Alouettes. His tenure there ended in '64 but Cahill wasn't out of football long.

In 1965, he became the head coach/GM of the Toronto Rifles, a semi-pro team in the Continental Football League. Under Cahill, the squad reached the league final — losing 24-7 to Charleston — before making the playoffs in '66.

The Argos took notice, hiring Cahill as head coach in 1967. Toronto made the playoffs despite a 5-8-1 record before losing to Ottawa.

The Argos were 9-5 in '68 and dispatched the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the first round of the playoffs to set up a rematch with Ottawa in the East final.

Toronto won the opener of the two-game, total points championship 13-11 but the Riders won the next 36-14.

'Act of God'

Afterwards, Cahill dealt quarterback Wally Gabler to Winnipeg for tailback Dave Raimey and in '69 Toronto finished second in the East with a 10-4 record. After beating the Ticats 15-9 in the conference semi final, the Argos faced Ottawa in the final.

Again, Toronto won the opener of the two-game final 22-14. Afterwards, a brash Cahill publicly stated "It will take an Act of God to beat us on Saturday."

Cahill said later the "Act of God' reference was in relation to the weather and that if Mother Nature co-operated he felt the Argos would win.

Predictably, weather became a factor as cold conditions made the field at Lansdowne Park hard. Toronto wore traditional cleats while the Riders donned broomball shoes and cruised to a 32-3 victory.

That off-season, Cahill added quarterback Don Jonas from the Continental Football League as well as defensive end Jim Corrigall, a Canadian from Kent State who'd been taken in the second round of the NFL draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. But Toronto posted an 8-6 record to finish second in the East Division before losing to Montreal in the first round of the playoffs.

Master recruiter

Cahill solidified his reputation as a master recruiter following the '70 season when he landed Notre Dame quarterback Joe Theismann, Tampa tailback Leon McQuay as well as Ohio State standouts Tim Anderson, a safety, and defensive lineman Jim Stillwagon.

Toronto finished atop the East Division with a 10-4 record then beat Hamilton 40-25 in the conference final to advance to the Grey Cup at Empire Stadium.

Despite trailing 14-11 late in the game, Toronto appeared poised to cap its season off in style after Dick Thornton's interception return to the Calgary 11-yard line. But Stampeders' cornerback Reggie Holmes recovered McQuay's heart-breaking fumble on a wet field.

Once again Cahill made headlines that off-season by signing Michigan State star running back Eric (The Flea) Allen and Tampa offensive lineman Noah Jackson. But Toronto posted a 3-11 record to miss the CFL playoffs, costing Cahill his job.

Cahill returned to football in '74 as the GM of the World Football League's Toronto Northmen. But the Canadian government, in a move to protect the CFL, said it would pass legislation banning the league from taking root in Canada.

Flair for the dramatic

So the Northmen moved to Memphis, Tenn., and became known as the Southmen. The franchise had a league-best 17-3 record and captured the Central Division title.

The following season, Cahill stunned the football world by signing Miami Dolphins stars Paul Warfield, Jim Kiick, and Larry Csonka. However, the WFL ceased operations before the end of the '75 campaign.

Cahill returned as Argos coach prior to the '77 season and quickly showed his flair for the dramatic. Cahill signed Memphis State defensive back Eric Harris, a bona fide first-round NFL pick, while landing Canadians Mark Bragagnolo, a running back, and defensive back Paul Bennett.

Toronto finished third in the East at 6-10 and lost 16-10 to Ottawa in the division semi final. That off-season, Cahill signed former NFL star tailback Terry Metcalf and the Argos opened the '78 campaign winning three of their first four games before dropping five straight, resulting in Cahill being fired again.

After serving as a football analyst with CBC, Cahill returned to Toronto as GM in 1986. The club finished first in the East but lost to Hamilton in the conference final.

That off-season, Cahill added Holy Cross tailback Gill (The Thrill) Fenerty, who was the CFL's top rookie in 1987 as Toronto posted an 11-7 record.

Toronto returned to the Grey Cup that season but Jerry Kauric's late field goal secured the Edmonton Eskimos a thrilling 38-36 victory.

Toronto went 14-4 in '88 before losing to eventual Grey Cup-champion Winnipeg in the East final. Cahill was subsequently fired.

Cahill, a member of the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, resurfaced in 1996 as the Ottawa Roughriders GM but the franchise folded shortly afterwards. In 2004, the Argos appointed Cahill as a goodwill ambassador.