The Canadian Football League has a new look for this year’s Grey Cup week. For the first time in seven years, and only the second time in a decade, the Edmonton Eskimos will not be playing in the national championship game. One of the great dynasties in Canadian sports history has finally come to an end. The team’s record rivals the glory years of the Montreal Canadiens when they dominated the National Hockey League in the 1950s and 1970s. The Eskimos scored six victories in nine Grey Cup appearances, with the last five in succession. But that reign ended with a humiliating 49-22 semifinal loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last week.
The players gathered at the Eskimos’ spring training camp in 1972 were a motley crew of football vagabonds and rejects. They looked out of place in the green and gold that Johnny Bright, Normie Kwong and Jackie Parker had worn so proudly in the 1950s. But from that group, coach Ray Jauch, and later Hugh Campbell, fashioned a powerhouse of a calibre the league may never see again.
The Eskimos of the 1970s were built around a most unlikely hero—a pot-bellied sheep farmer who had bounced from the Toronto Argonauts to the British Columbia Lions before landing in northern Alberta. “We had a ragtag bunch of rejects, cuts and trades who knew they were on their last chance,” says the now retired hero Tom Wilkinson. “Every player on our offensive line had been cut or traded. But that kind of atmosphere did a lot to generate what they call team spirit.” That spirit was fuelled, too, by winning. Wilkinson, the portly quarterback, led the Eskimos to second place in the West in 1972, and the reign of terror began.
The Eskimos won the West the next three years as the cast of characters around Wilkinson emerged as stars. Place kicker Dave Cutler regularly broke CFL scoring records. At the same time, Wilkinson was throwing to receivers like George McGowan, who was named the league’s outstanding player in 1973. Defensive back Larry Highbaugh accumulated credentials for the league’s Hall of Fame, and the defensive line earned its nickname—“Alberta Crude.” The Eskimos lost two Grey Cup games under Jauch, but slowly the chinks in the dynasty were filled, and they won their first national final since 1956 in 1975.
The management fired Jauch after
Edmonton lost the 1976 western final, and Hugh Campbell, a former all-star receiver with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, took over. The soft-spoken, wryly humorous coach, with executive manager Norm Kimball, cemented the team’s grip on the West and the city’s grip on its stars. “We don’t build in problems,” Kimball said. “We do not want any discontented, disinterested people here.” As the Eskimos marched through the 1970s and into the 1980s,
winning the West six times and the Cup five times under Campbell, the only discontent was in the CFL’s other eight cities, the disinterest only among Edmontonians. In 1980, after the team’s second-ever loss in two-year-old Commonwealth Stadium, Campbell said: “Our fans were watching the game like they were watching a play at the theatre. They have actually cheered for our opponents, hoping for a close game.” With the addition in 1978 of quarterback Warren Moon and receivers Tom Scott and Brian Kelly to complement defensive superstars Dave Fennell, Dan Kepley and company, there were even fewer close games. In the six years from 1977
to 1982, the Eskimos were the scourge of the league, winning 70 and losing just 21 regular season games.
But the end began after last year’s Grey Cup victory over Toronto, when Wilkinson retired and coach Campbell took a job with the United States Football League. Pete Kettela replaced him. He had no CFL experience, and discontent spread through the team. Moon went public with his dissatisfaction over Kettela’s new offence; teammates
argued and criticized each other in newspaper interviews. Management replaced Kettela at midseason and hired Jackie Parker, the brightest hero of the 1950s Grey Cup championships. It was too late. Moon, playing out his option, complained of overwork, and the club faltered to an eight-win, eight-loss regular season, its worst since 1971. And with 17 players 30 or older and Moon possibly heading to the National Football League or the USFL, the Eskimos finally find themselves where their rivals have been for 10 years—rebuilding. While it lasted, the Edmonton dynasty was the most glorious ever.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.