How long can Bud Grant keep the Bombers flying?

July 18 1959

How long can Bud Grant keep the Bombers flying?

July 18 1959

How long can Bud Grant keep the Bombers flying?

He has fired close friends in cold blood but once wept when his players cheered him

tackle. During Grant's term as a player for the Bombers — from 1953 through 1956. after two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League—he and Leake and Canakes and their wives spent many a social hour to-

gether. To make his decision more unpalatable last season, Grant knew that Mrs. Leake had remained home in the States to have a baby. But his records and the movies of Bomber games told him he had better backs than Leake and

better tackles than Canakes. They went.

If this seems cold-blooded. Grant suggests it would have been unfair to release players with better records and retain players whose main qualification was that they were friends of the coach.

“This is no closed deal,” he says of his roster. “We try to give every candidate a full, fair trial. Those who don't make it are called privately into the office and told why, based on facts. Those who do make it know we play no favorites, and we think this makes for a sounder, more spirited team. They know it's a personal achievement when they make this club. And you can't overrate that kind of pride.”

Even some of the released players, aware that Grant’s approach is objective, apparently bear no grudge. The night Buddy Leake left Winnipeg he called at Grant's home to say goodbye to the coach and his wife Pat.

Grant regards the Bombers as a unit, from head coach to water boy. He rarely uses the first person singular in conversations relating to the team, and always says "we" when referring to a coaching decision. During a practice last season one of his assistants, Joe Zaleski, told quarterback Jim Van Pelt to hold the ball a moment longer before passing it.

"Bud wants you to try it that way." he told Van Pelt.

Grant, standing solemnly a few yards away, moved in beside Zaleski.

“/ don't want him to try it that way. Joe," he said. “The coaching staff wants it that way. We want it that way."

Gary Cooper look

Recently Grant drove some five hundred miles to Minneapolis to talk to a prospective Bomber player. He arose at five o'clock for the long car trip because he isn't fond of flying. Yet the Bombers fly everywhere and Grant flies with them. Stan MacDonald, the TCA man who arranges the team’s transportation, asked Grant once why he and his team didn’t travel by train occasionally on shorter trips.

“My personal likes and dislikes,” he said, for once resorting to the first person, "don't enter into this. The players rest better in hotels than on trains.”

Grant's attitude, while remote, has won the respect of hts players. Once in 1957, after the Bombers had nipped the then awesome Edmontons 28 to 27, the players ail but tore down the dressing room in post-game exuberance. Then somebody shouted, “Three cheers for the coach!" The cadenced cries swept the room. Deeply moved, Grant edged toward an anteroom in the midst of the cheering and was gone for five minutes. When he came back he said crisply, “Thanks, boys. Now then, on Monday when we play Regina . .

His eyes were pink, recalls former Bomber manager Bill Boivin. “He'd been crying.”

Grant is rarely given to displays of emotion. His reserve seems more one of an inner assurance than of shyness, although he has an aw-shucks Gary Cooper look about him, too. His wife, Pat, an outgoing person with dark flashing eyes, says Bud has never felt a sense of insecurity. “We complement each other,” she says. “I’m a worrier.”

She relates that Grant can be remote even at home. “His parents felt, and I feel, that Bud doesn't really need anybody,” she says gravely. “He's very selfsufficient. He likes solitude, but he’s wonderful with the four children. He has great tolerance of other people's frail-

ties and understanding of their actions.

“When Jim Trimble (the Hamilton coach) was sounding off about what his team was going to do to us in the Grey Cup game, Bud was untouched. ‘He’s gotta say something, honey,’ was all Bud said. ‘He’s colorful.’ I must say I felt less charitable.”

Newspapermen have found Grant pleasant if less than garrulous in their visits to his office. He sits in an openthroated flannel sports shirt behind his desk in a cubicle off the football headquarters in the new Winnipeg Arena, wearing a trace of a smile, his eyes unfathomable.

“There’s an air of mystery about this guy,” one reporter says. “I think his biggest asset is that calm facade. It's like if a beautiful girl walks into a room. If she’s composed there’s mystery and you’re attracted. If her tongue starts flapping she’s just another dame. Grant’s tongue never flaps. You wonder what the hell he’s thinking.”

When Grant is coaching he stands impassive and ramrod erect in front of the Bomber bench, wearing a dark blue baseball cap and a navy blue Bomber parka. He also wears a shortwave earphone over the cap, with the battery strapped around his waist. This keeps him in contact with a spotter in the press box who passes down information on defensive alignments, suggestions as to plays that might work, or flaws spotted in Bomber tactics. Grant never resorts to histrionics. Mostly he confers with the quarterback, passing along the spotter's suggestions. Even in last year’s Grey Cup game, when the Bombers fell behind Hamilton 14 to 0 in the first ten minutes, he showed no dismay. It didn’t occur to him, he says now, that his team might be routed, as it did to millions of people watching the televised game. He was concerned. though, that the two quick Hamilton scores might affect his players psychologically, and he took a quick look along the bench. He was reassured.

"There was no panic. Nobody’s head was down,” he says.

Canadian - born Roger Savoie, a cherub-cheeked savage in the Bomber line, says one reason nobody panicked was that Grant remained obviously unmoved by Hamilton's quick takeoff.

"We realized we were in a war,” young Savoie admits, "so we knew we had to work harder.”

Savoie says Grant's organization impresses most players. “He hangs a practice schedule in the dressing room and you know exactly what you have to do, click, click, click. If it says you're going to be out there one hour, it’s one hour. Some coaches turn one hour into three, and the players resent it.”

Buddy Tinsley, a veteran all-star lineman from Texas, concluded an equally admiring assessment of Grant with a sudden non sequitur.

“He gets more birds than anyone hunting.”

Grant hunts, fishes, curls and plays poker with the players in the off season. People who've done these things with him say he excels at them all.

"We go deep into the bush hunting and 1 take a compass and 1 get lost,” says Grant's assistant, Joe Zaleski. "Bud doesn’t take a compass and he never gets lost. I’m tramping around trying to find my way back, and he laughs and says, ‘C'mon, the car’s over this way, maybe a quarter mile.’ It always is. And when we go fishing he always catches fish and when we play poker he always wim money. It’s uncanny.”

Grant is no party guy. He rarely has even an occasional beer and detests

smoking. Once he was sitting in a canoe on Delta Lake, northwest of Winnipeg, with his Labrador dog Brandy and a novice Nimrod, the TCA man Stan MacDonald, who was smoking a cigar. Grant was uneasy, and at length told his companion why.

“He asked me to put out my cigar.” says MacDonald, “in the middle of a lake in a bloody canoe!”

Grant's wife says he is idealistic about women, and is disturbed if they smoke. The strongest denouncement of a woman she has ever heard made by the coach of

Canada's toughest football team is, "Gee, she sure smokes a lot, doesn't she?” Grant's wife does not recall ever hearing him swear.

Grant's anathema for smoking, drinking, swearing and allied evils stems from an ambition in his earliest boyhood to be a great athlete and, eventually, a coach. He followed a carefully plotted path in achieving goals that any red-blooded American boy would cherish. Sports ruled his life and, the way he played them, he ruled sports. A few years ago the University of Minnesota named him the

school’s greatest athlete in the first fifty years of this century, awarding him the Jim Thorpe Trophy ahead of such nationally known Minnesota sports figures as Pudge Heffelfinger, Pug Lund and Bronko Nagurski.

Grant's nature is that of his mother, a quiet reserved woman whose husband, Harry Peter Sr., was an assistant fire chief in Superior, Wis., where Bud was born on May 20, 1927. His mother began calling him Bud to differentiate from his father, who was called Harry. Harry, who died a few years ago, was a fine

semi-pro baseball player and on many occasions took his son with him to games.

Grant knew when he was fourteen, a gangling kid excelling in baseball, football and basketball, that he wanted to become a coach. His high-school coach in Superior, Harry Conley, was an influential factor in his decision, preaching a philosophy of sacrifice for success. "He was a stern but fair man who was patient and helpful, yet could be tough,” says Grant, possibly unwittingly mirroring himself.

Bud went straight from high school into the navy. He was stationed at the Great Lakes training centre where Paul Brown, who now runs the Cleveland Browns, was the football coach. Grant doesn’t feel the tremendously successful Brown influenced his own theories of football except possibly in his time-clock methods.

Grant chose Minnesota as his school when he came out of the navy because it was closer to Superior than the university of his home state. He earned seventyfive dollars a game playing semi-pro baseball, worked on the campus and had the benefit of the G.I. Bill, w'hich cared for his tuition. After graduation he played two years of professional basketball with the Minneapolis Lakers, who won the league championship, but he decided that, at six foot three, he was too small for that game. "People six-ten look ordinary,” he says.

Grant had been drafted for pro football by the Philadelphia Eagles, but the place he wanted to go was Winnipeg. He liked the idea of Winnipeg, he says now. because he was impressed by the hunting and fishing facilities nearby, by Canadians he'd met during a summer working on the lake boats, and by the things Butch Larsen, a Minnesotan who coached the Bombers in 1950, told him about the Canadian game.

He rounded up three other Minnesota stars, Billy Bye, Leo Nomellini and Gordie Soltau, the latter two of whom became stars with the San Francisco 49ers, and was set to move to Winnipeg. But there was a sudden change in coaches at Winnipeg, and the new coach, George Trafton, cancelled the deal.

So Grant went to Philadelphia, with Winnipeg in the back of his mind. At a hundred and ninety-six pounds, playing defensive end in a league of rocketing, two-hundred-pound-plus halfbacks and even bigger fullbacks, he confesses he "almost got killed.” Cleveland’s Marion Motley, at two hundred and thirty-four pounds, once kayoed him with a knee in the head, and Grant thought it had come right off.

Toward the end of the NFL season Neill Armstrong, a Winnipeg end. joined the Eagles, and through him Grant arranged to meet Trafton, the Winnipeg coach, during a trip to Cleveland. Trafton told him player raids between Canadian and American pro leagues, rife for two years, were ended and that no player could jump his contract in one country to play with a team in the other.

Grant seemed trapped, since his contract with Philadelphia contained an option on his services for the following season. All player contracts contain this option, and each year when a player signs a new contract the option binds him for the following year.

But Grant ingeniously found a loophole. He refused to sign a new contract in 1952. declaring that he'd play on the opfion clause in his 1951 contract. He was called to NFL president Bert Bell's office, where he explained that he wanted to play on the option so that he could negotiate a more remunerative contract

next season. He didn't, however, say where.

Jim Trimble became the Eagle coach in 1952.

"I'm only going to play offense this year, Mr. Trimble.” he told the coach. "I’m through with that defense.’’

He did it surpassingly well. He caught fifty-six passes, second only to Cleveland’s Mac Speedie. Seven were for touchdowns, one of them for eighty-four yards. He was named to play in the professional bowl game in Los Angeles as an offensive end for the eastern division. This pro bowl game would have given him six hundred dollars and expenses but the Eagles, putting on the squeeze, said he couldn't play until he signed next year’s contract. Grant went to president Bell. Bell said he could play if he signed his contract.

“I told Bell he knew what he could do with my six hundred dollars,” says Grant. Though it cost him the money, he was now free to join Winnipeg.

Lanky Grant was a magnificent target for the pass-master quarterback of the Bombers, Indian Jack Jacobs, and he led

all pass-receivers in the western conference in 1953, 1954 and 1956. In addition, he was voted to the western conference all-star team in each of those years. In his last year as a player. Grant caught sixtythree of the seventy-nine passes that came his way, an incredibly high percentage, and he capped his performance that season by catching two touchdown passes in the Shrine all-star game at Vancouver when the westerners whipped the Big Four’s all-star team 35 to 0.

But while Winnipeg was the most spectacular team in the west, Edmonton was the most successful, and Bomber brass suspected that coaching deficiencies were at least partly responsible. They decided not to renew AI Sherman's contract and began looking around for a successor. Bill Boivin, then general manager who now is a director of the Vancouver Lions, recalls that he and club president Jim Russell got a notion at one of the mid-winter executive meetings that Grant might just be the answer, but they were apprehensive about press and public reception of a man who had never coached anywhere.

“First thing we've got to do,” Boivin told Russell, "is sell the newspaper and radio guys. If we can convince them, they’ll convince the people."

Before announcing their choice, the two men spent a couple of weeks discussing coaching* possibilities with the sports editors, the football writers and the broadcasters, always tossing Grant’s name into the conversation and dwelling on his leadership qualities, his knowledge of the Canadian game and of the league itself. When the announcement finally was made, the papers and sports broadcasts already had laicf a solid foundation for Grant.

Paradoxically, though Grant had been a vital element in Winnipeg's fancy of-

fense, one of his first moves as coach was to de-emphasize passing and make the Bomber attack more varied. He built a strong running game, utilizing the running and passing abilities of new quarterback Kenny Pioen, from Iowa’s Rose Bowl team, whom Boivin and Russell had scouted in a game against Minnesota, and subsequently signed.

“We were pretty to watch, all right," says Grant, recalling the aerial attacks of the Jack Jacobs era, “but we always lost the big one."

So he switched to a diversified offense, and he brought in as his assistant a teammate from the Philadelphia Eagles, Wayne Robinson, a cool and vicious linebacker who last summer became head coach of the Vancouver Lions. Grant and .Robinson complemented each other at Winnipeg, Robinson lashing the players, Grant running the throttle with his velvet glove. Newsmen called them the Cobra and the Fox.

The Fox found his highest moment in last November’s Grey Cup game, when his perceptive eye saw two possible weaknesses in Hamilton’s defense, the best in the east, and enabled him to channel his team’s strength against them. By using two leaks the Bombers scored one touchdown and set up two others in Winnipeg's 35-to-28 victory.

Grant and pressbox spotters Zaleski and Robinson—the omnipresent “we”— conferred on the fact that when the Bombers ran four backs to the right, with only quarterback Van Pelt going left after handing off the ball to a halfback, the eastern defensive backs all moved to their left to cover the moving Bombers. Grant told Van Pelt, who usually stopped running after a few strides, to check whether a Hamilton back kept an eye on him. Van Pelt reported that none did. Thus, with Winnipeg desperately needing a touchdown after falling behind 14 to 0, the Hamilton defense was caught flat-footed when the quarterback, going to his left again after giving the ball to halfback Leo Lewis going right with the other three, unexpectedly turned downfield and was in the clear on the left sideline to take a pass from ball-carrier Lewis and score Winnipeg’s first touchdown.

On the other play, halfback, Kenny Pioen twice threw to fullback Charlie Shepard, once for nineteen yards and then for twenty-seven yards at crucial points, setting up the Bombers for two touchdowns. The play’s success depended on Leo Lewis and Pioen faking a wide end sweep, bringing up Hamilton’s outside linebackor to contain them. As the defender came up, Shepard cut inside him to the spot he'd vacated. Then, instead of Pioen following Lewis wide on the end sweep as he usually did, he twice put on the brakes abruptly as the linebacker neared him, and flipped the ball to the uncovered Shepard.

Grant is as aware as the next man that no coach can make the fakes or apply the brakes on the field, and even declares that coaches get too much credit.

“The strategy stuff is overrated,” he says solemnly. “We don't try to outcoach the other team, we just try to outplay* them. We look at films of the other team, read our scouting reports, try to figure where they’re weak and throw our strength there. It's not inspired, it’s calculated information."

Trouble is, from where the rival thinkers stew, the Bombers too often have found the weakness since Harry Peter Grant made up his mind to live in Winnipeg. To this point, when Grant is setting his mind to something, he is setting a steel trap. ★