Articles

LES LEAR: Win, Place and . . .?

JIM COLEMAN September 15 1950
Articles

LES LEAR: Win, Place and . . .?

JIM COLEMAN September 15 1950

LES LEAR: Win, Place and . . .?

Articles

His first year as coacli of the Stampeders he won the Grey Cup. The second he ran second and the cheers of some grandstand quarterbacks turned to sneers. How about this year? Meet Butch, an ex-lineman, who now wears shoes as a grid executive

JIM COLEMAN

LESLIE (“BUTCH”) LEAR is a shrewd and tough young man who, in two short years, has demonstrated that he is one of the best football coaches Canada’s ever had.

When he coached the Calgary Stampeders to a Canadian rugby football championship in 1948 the citizens stampeded through the streets, a buckin’ and a whinnyin’ and a hollerin’. Nothing like it had happened since the prehistoric reefs beneath Turner Valley finally yielded their hidden treasures and belched oil into the Alberta skies.

It was a personal triumph for Lear who had just passed his 30th birthday. He had hit the jackpot in his first season of coaching. A Calgary team hadn’t won its own group championship in the West since 1911. Lear’s Stampeders went through the 1948 season without losing a single game. They had utterly humiliated their traditional rivals, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. They had shattered the Regina Rough Riders. Then they traveled 2,000 miles to Toronto and stunned a powerful Ottawa team to win the Grey Cup.

The Calgarians were much too exuberant, at that point, to take stock of the extraordinarily single-minded man who had provided them with an opportunity for celebration. In their enthusiasm they were unaware of the remarkable metamorphosis Lear had undergone in four years.

Let’s put it bluntly. When the Calgary Stampeder executive announced that the new coach would be Les Lear, the news caused a good deal of raucous, unbelieving laughter in the inner circles of Canadian football. Lear was well, er a very, very

rough diamond; a grand football player, mind you, but a man who was equipped with a deplorable, pants-kicking sense of humor.

In his seven seasons with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers he had established a reputation as one of Canada’s best linemen. He was the only Canadian ever to make the grade in the powerful National Professional League in the United States. But, when Lear left Winnipeg in 1944 to join the Cleveland Rams, his departure had been viewed with mixed feelings. There is plenty of open space in Winnipeg but there were times when the entire Prairies seemed too small for I .ear and his pnls.

Even in Calgary the appointment was viewed with misgivings. There were some Calgarians who couldn’t forget Lear as the beetle-browed Winnipeg lineman who had fished for goldfish in the lobby of the Carlton Hotel while the hotel stufT cowered fearfully in the background.

Accordingly, the eastern Canadian sports writers who interviewed Lear after his Stampeder« won the Canadian championship were astounded by the change in his personality. He was poised and polite, self-confident but full of healthy cynicism. With a Canadian title tucked away and un unl>euten season behind him he realized that he was fuced with the unenviable task of attempting to improve upon perfection.

“Listen to them yelling,” he said sardonically, jerking a thumb toward the noisy corridors of

Toronto’s Royal York Hotel, where the Calgarians were celebrating. “I’m a great guy now but I wonder if they’ll still love me when we lose a few games next year?”

Keenly aware of the high mortality rate among football coaches Lear went into a huddle with his jubilant backers as soon as they returned to Calgary. They tore up his existing two-year contract and gave him a new agreement with a five-year guarantee. He’ll be coaching the Stampeders through the 1953 season, come hell, hurricane or chinook.

He had good grounds for his scepticism. Every Calgarian suddenly became an expert football strategist. The grandstand quarterbacks weren’t entirely satisfied when the Stampeders failed to retain the Canadian championship in 1949. They overlooked the fact that their coach had performed a notable feat in getting them into the Dominion final in two successive years. When the Stampeders lost to the Montreal Alouettes the grandstand quarterbacks grew restive. They began to murmur that Lear had made a mistake when he cut loose Del Wardien who subsequently became a star with the Regina Rough Riders. They blamed him, too, for the fact that such good young players as Pete Thodos and Rod Pantages broke away from the Stampeders after the season ended and joined the Alouettes.

This fails to disturb Lear. “I didn’t come to Calgary to win any popularity contests,” he says. “I came here to coach a winning football team.”

This is no idle pose. Lear is a hardheaded businessman and his business is coaching football teams. He is a ruthless, demanding taskmaster and a perfectionist. He is a strict disciplinarian. He is a “loner” who has no social intercourse with his players. They play the game according to his rules or they don’t play at all. Those grandstand quarterbacks who are under the misapprehension that he might be sensitive to criticism should take a peek into his background.

Lear was born in Grafton, N.D., of English and Norwegian parents. When he was 2 his family moved to Winnipeg where his father went to work in the CPR’s Weston shops.

He grew up on Alexander Avenue, within cinderflight of the railway tracks. There weren’t any Little Lord Fauntleroys in that neighborhood. There wasn’t any organized football in the Winnipeg schools, either, and it wasn’t until he reached Daniel McIntyre High School that he received a rudimentary idea of the game from the physical training teacher, “Pop” Cochrane.

Little Leslie was a charter member of a group of saintly young gentlemen known as the “Alexander Gang.” Their hated rivals were the neighboring “Dufferin Gang” which included such fragile children as Ches McCance and Harry Badger, later to be Blue Bomber stars like Lear himself. Officially, sporting events weren’t countenanced in Winnipeg on Sundays, but every Sunday afternoon the “Alexander Gang” met the “Dufferin Gang” in what was laughingly called a football game. There was a free-for-all fight on nearly every set of downs and the playing field was seeded with teeth.

In the autumn of 1933 the “Alexander Gang” and the “Dufferin Gang” signed a bloody truce and the survivors joined Fred Ritter’s Deer Lodge junior team. Ritter tried to beat some sense into their heads and, by the fall of 1936, they were ready to join the senior Blue Bombers. Ritter was ready for a strait jacket.

The young gentlemen distinguished themselves on their first road trip to Calgary. Coach Bob Fritz was a tolerant man but he found it necessary to suspend Lear, McCance, Badger and Bill Nairn who broke training rules so flagrantly that the startled Calgarians thought that they had been invaded by hostile Indians. The boys were learning to play good football but, in those days, when only a few dollars separated them from amateurism, it

was impossible to discipline them for their extracurricular activities. They took to traveling in their bare feet and once there was really serious trouble in the dining car of a Canadian Pacific train when one of the wackier Bombers insisted upon testing a woman passenger’s coffee with his bare toe before agreeing the java was cool enough for her palate.

“I guess that we thought it was pretty funny at the time,” Lear says grimly now. “But I’m not a kid any more. If one of my Calgary players tried that sort of stuff I’d fine him a month’s salary. My players are professionals and I insist upon treating them as professionals.”

Without a single pang for his own salad days this more mature Lear can append the following note to the strict itinerary

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Les Lear, Win, Place And......?

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with which he provides each Calgary player before every road trip:

I would greatly appreciate your being dressed in shirt and tie and also jacket when entering the diner or any dining rooms in hotels—also when sitting around the lobby. Remember, it doesn’t cost extra to obey all the rules.

Lear played in six Canadian finals for the Bombers. The Winnipeg team won in 1939 and 1941, defeating Ottawa both times. It was in 1941 that he gave one of the best individual performances ever seen in University of Toronto Stadium. For once, a lineman had an opportunity to star. Coach Reg Threlfall employed him as a running-guard that year and Lear, who in action resembles a high-speed bulldozer, scattered Ottawa bodies all over the field as his halfbacks followed him for long gains.

Lear was supposed to receive $800 from the Winnipeg club for his services in 1941. He received exactly $471 and wasn’t mollified a bit by the fact that unanimously he was chosen for the allCanadian team. (He made the mythical all-stars again in 1942 and 1943.) He accepted his money in a spirit of bitterness and then and there he conceived an antipathy for the entire executive of the Winnipeg club. The hatred continues to this day. Last November, after Calgary had defeated Regina to retain the Western Canada title, Arthur Chipman, a former president of the Blue Bombers, offered his hand to congratulate the Calgary coach. Lear spat contemptuously and turned on his

That 1941 season the Bombers had played three exhibition games against the Columbus Bulls, an American pro-

fessional team. The Americans had been impressed by the manner in which a young man named Lear had knocked them flat. American talent scouts had been watching his progress and, in the summer of 1944, Chili Walsh, general manager of the Cleveland Rams, decided he wanted the bulky Canadian.

Walsh and coach Buff Donelli vividly recall Lear's arrival at the Ram training camp. He was packing 215 pounds on his five feet 10 and onehalf inches. He looked at his AllAmerica rivals suspiciously and he acted as if he bore each of them a personal grudge. He went through the practice sessions in such a fury that Donelli had to restrain him. His bruised teammates gave him the nickname of “Butch” which has stuck. He adapted himself to the American game rapidly and he was one of the 28 men retained by the Rams to open the season. He was paid $185 per game for a 12-game schedule and it represented a rather handsome increase over his Winnipeg salary.

He fought his way to a spot in the regular line-up and, betöre the season ended, Donelli had trimmed him down to 190 pounds. “I’d never really been in condition before,” says Lear.

Football is Lear’s business but his real love is horse racing. So, during the following summer, he went to work as a groom and “hot-walker” for Spud Murphy, a “gypsy” horse-trainer who campaigned a small stable on the prairie fair circuit. A long-distance phone call from Walsh caught up with Lear one morning at the Saskatoon Exhibition grounds. Walsh told Lear he was sending him a new contract which would pay him $375 per game. Lear kissed the horses adieu and started out for the Cleveland training camp.

The Rams had a great season. They won the world professional title, defeating Washington Redskins, 15-14, in

the final. Frank Filchock (who engineered the defeat of the Calgary Stampeders in the 1949 Grey Cup final) nearly forward-passed the Rams out of the park that afternoon but the real star of the Cleveland victory was Riley (“Rattler”) Matheson. the fabulous lineman who now has joined Lear in Calgary. Lear received honorable mention when the U. S. professional All-Star team was chosen that year.

He Started From Scratch

Lear admired the Rams’ coach, Buff Donelli, intensely and decided that some day he would be a football coach himself. He made a record of the manner in which Donelli dealt with every situation and kept a record of his successful plays. Lear still has the notebooks. A selection of the best plays now has been transcribed into his “master book” on which the Slampeder formations are based.

In 1943 Lear had started his sportscoaching career by handling the Winnipeg Esquires in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. His teams didn’t win any major championships but they developed such hockey players as Cal Gardner. Harry Taylor, Terry Sawchuk, Danny Summers and Bobby Love, all of whom have performed notably in professional ranks.

The Cleveland Ram franchise was transferred to Los Angeles in 1946 and, in the 1947 season, Lear was traded to the Detroit Lions. Although he had a two-year contract with Detroit he preferred to live in California whe e he could watch the winter horse racing. He took as a groom a race-track detective and, for one period, he was agent for Bobby Summers, the Canadian jockey who was riding at Santa Anita.

Just after 1948’s New Year Eve Lear had determined to make his permanent home in Long Beach and he was considering buying a sporting goods business. One day his phone rang insistently and the operator told him someone named Tom Brook was calling him from Calgary, Canada. Lear never had heard of Brook, a Toronto oil promotor who had moved to Calgary and who had been voted into the job of reviving the fortunes of the battered Calgary Football Club. Brook offered Lear the job of coaching the Stampeders. After five days of negotiation and haggling he was Calgary’s new coach with a two-year contract.

Lear confesses he nearly headed back for Long Beach when he saw a large sign in Brook’s Calgary office. The sign stated bluntly: “Calgary Wants

The Grey Cup.”

Success Breeds Jealousy

Even Lear’s most snide detractors will admit that he started from scratch in Calgary. For one thing, there wasn’t much local material. He returned to California and persuaded Keith Spaith, a young T-formation quarterback, to accompany him to Calgary. Spaith had I been suspended from American football for wagering on his own team in a playoff game. Johnny Aguirre, a Southern Cal graduate with pro experience, Woody Strode, a gangling end, and Chuck Anderson, from Ohio State, joined the party. Lear then snatched Harry Hood and Bert Ianonne from the Winnipeg Bombers and picked up four Vancouver juniors, Pete Thodos. tied Gyles, Rod Pantages and Jim Mitchener.

Brook shuddered as be contemplated the growing list of expenses but the new coach merely pointed to the big sign on the office wall.

I/oar had learned his lessons well. He remembered his own rigorous experience in the Cleveland camp. I'-

remembered the 1938 Grey Cup final in Toronto when the Blue Bombers had kept pace with the Toronto Argonauts for 45 minutes and then collapsed in the final quarter. He decided that the Stampeders would be the best-conditioned team ever to step on a Canadian gridiron.

Mewata Stadium was no place for a sensitive schoolboy that year. Lear, who has command of rich, colorful and imaginative language, drove his charges to exhaustion. He ran them until they tripped over their own tongues. But •hard work, good coaching and good luck paid off handsomely for the Stampeders. There wasn’t an empty seat in the stadium when the Blue Bombers made their first appearance in Calgary.

The Bombers never knew what hit them. Lear didn’t permit his men to relax for a second. They kicked the

Bombers from one end of the field to the other. The final score was Calgary 30, Winnipeg 0. When the game ended veteran Calgary football enthusiasts swarmed out of the stands and grasped Lear by the hand. One of them, with tears of happiness in his eyes, said: “I’ve been waiting for this day for more than 20 years.”

On Novembtr 26, in University of Toronto Stadium, the incredible Stampeders won the Canadian championship, beating Ottawa 12-7.

There’s nothing that breeds jealousy as quickly as success. By winning the Grey Cup in. his first year Lear put himself in the hot spotlight of publicity. There were a few raised eyebrows when Chuck Anderson, who had been outstanding defensively in the Canadian final, was cut loose from the Calgary team. Then four of Lear's most pr >ficient young players decided to attend McGill University in 1949. To plug the gaps Calgary imported Ezzard (“SugarFoot”) Anderson and Riley (“Rattler”) Matheson.

Lear began to run into minor criticism immediately after the Stampeders lost the 1949 title game to Montreal. There were certain Calgarians who believed that the Stampeders had become too much of a three-man show operated by Iear, Brook and team-mnnager Archie McGillis. There were complaints that these three didn’t take other members of the executive into their confidence. Even the matter of liar's annual salary was a closely guarded secret.

I/ear didn’t help himself particularly when, in a broadcast after the Montreal game, he made some very intemperate remarks about the manner in which the governing Canadian Rugby Union was handling football affairs His critics eagerly seized upon these remarks and, tjehind their hands, wliispered that the coach was guilty of poor

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Continued from page 46 sportsmanship. They began to complain, further, that Lear’s hard-driving tactics were causing dissension on the

“We pay our players like professionals but some of them feel that they should be treated like college boys,” Lear snaps. “I believe that the average professional player’s heart is in his pants-pocket—that’s the reason we fine ’em when they break the rules.” On one road trip last season he discovered five of his players in a compartment, working on half a case of whisky. “You might as well go ahead and get good and drunk,” he drawled, “because this is going to cost each of you 50 bucks.”

Once or twice during each season Lear will order his players to go out and break all training rules for one night. He has relaxed his own rules to

appoint Matheson line coach so he can have the constant company of the “Rattler.”

The best thing that ever happened to Lear was his marriage to Betty Louise Neill in 1946. They live with their small son and six race horses in a ranch house on 25 acres in Spring Bank, on the western outskirts of Calgary. She keeps Les from violent arguments with the more verbose of his grandstand quarterbacks. When the hecklers cause Lear to raise his voice she kicks him on the shins beneath the table.

The Lears are happy with their horses. If the day comes when Les decides he has had enough of football he will devote himself to the breeding and racing of thoroughbreds. It is typical of him that he doesn’t intend entrusting his horses to anyone—he’s going to handle them himself, if