Bud Grant is on the line and, at age 89, is still sounding sharp, still spinning tales, and still so full of life.
As Grant is to become the latest addition to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Ring of Honour presented by the Insurance Brokers of Manitoba this Friday, we wanted to begin our chat with a question about what it means to be seen as such an iconic figure for two franchises – the Bombers and the Minnesota Vikings – when the legend cut us off quickly…
“Hey, did you see me blow the horn? I got to blow the big horn,” said Grant, not long after he was asked to help christen the Vikings spectacular new stadium.
“That was an honour. The thing is I’m 89 years old now and I’ve lived through all these transitions, from Osborne Stadium to this stadium. That’s an interesting thing to have in the back of your head. Fortunately, my mind is somewhat clear, so I can remember all this stuff.”
“But to answer your question about what it means… it means I can sit here today and entertain myself. I can think of the first day I walked into the airport in Winnipeg. I can think of the first game I played. I think of all the friends I had up there and all the experiences I had. It’s the same with the NFL and with what’s gone on here now.”
Grant was already an accomplished athlete when he first came north to the Bombers as a player in 1953. He was a three-sport (football, basketball and baseball) nine-letterman athlete during his days at the University of Minnesota, and was selected in both the NFL and NBA drafts in 1950.
He won a NBA title with the Minnesota Lakers in 1950, led the Eagles in sacks in 1951, and finished second on the club in receiving in 1952 before heading to Winnipeg because the Bombers were offering him more money.
A three-time Western Conference all-star in 1953, 1954 and 1956 – he led the West in receptions in each of those three years – Grant also still holds a CFL playoff record with five interceptions in a playoff win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
What happened next – and how he became the Bombers head coach at the age of 29 – is now part of Grant’s legend.
First, a bit on how fate intervened…
Back in the 1950s, the Canadian Football League held an all-star game in Vancouver after the regular season. Grant, as one of the league’s best, was selected to play. But Grant changed his plans to head out to Vancouver earlier and the original flight on which he was scheduled to depart – Trans Canada Air Lines Flight 810 crashed into Mount Slesse, killing all 62 passengers, including Bomber Calvin Jones.
In the days following that tragedy, and while still in Vancouver, Grant got a phone call from then-Bomber president Jim Russell.
“They said they wanted to see me when I got back to Winnipeg,” Grant recalled. “My family had already gone to Minneapolis and I was anxious to get home… but they didn’t tell me what they wanted to talk to me about. I thought I had probably been traded. Who knows what goes through your mind.
“But it ended up that they asked me if I was interested in coaching. I was not prepared for that question. I had just had a good year, I was on the top of my game and I was just 29 years old. I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to let me think about that a little bit. I’ll go home and talk to you in a couple of days.’ I started to think about how long I could play. I was still in good shape and had won a receiving title but decided to give it a try. They said they would give me a two-year contract and I told them I only wanted one. I said, ‘If I don’t like coaching or I’m not any good at it, this would allow me to still play.’
“They said, ‘Well, we like that better, too.’ I got a one-year contract for $1,000 more than I was making as a player.”
The Bombers wanted to make the announcement of their new coach on New Year’s Day, 1957. But his father had passed away on New Year’s Eve, and the news was delayed while Grant grieved.
When he did come up to Winnipeg later, he was told that before the announcement was to be made, the Bombers volunteer executive wanted to meet him in person.
“We were at Jim Russell’s house, in his basement. I’m still suffering from the loss of my father and I wasn’t really prepared for this,” Grant recalled. “I get down there and there’s 15-20 executives of the Bombers and they wanted to look at me because they had only seen me in a football uniform.
“I walked in the room and there was a big blackboard. Their first question was, ‘How are you going to beat (then Grey Cup champions) Edmonton?’ I looked at these guys and they knew nothing about football. But I got on the blackboard and I started to write everything I knew about football and use terms they did not understand.”
“There’s a little background here, too. Allie Sherman, the coach before me, had been fired when I was at the all-star game in Vancouver. Now, Allie was a fella from New York and he just didn’t understand Midwestern Canadians or Midwestern Americans. He knew football, but he had a very brash personality. He had favourites, I was one of them and we talked football a lot, but the coach can’t do that.
“But he was really tough on the Canadian guys,” Grant continued. “A lot of those Canadian guys had not played college football and he was very impatient with them, he called them down a lot and he used language that I never used. The players, the Canadian players primarily, were going to strike. There was a meeting in the locker room without the coaches and, I’m selfish now because if they strike I lose my job and I don’t get paid. I said, ‘Hey, we can’t quit. If you’ve got a grievance, I will talk to Coach Sherman and let’s see if we can settle this without a strike.’
“I guess it got back to the executive that I had something to do with helping avoid the strike and Jim Russell thought I’d be a good coach. I’m speculating a little bit here, but I must have made an impression in the basement that night because they offered me that contract.”
What Grant and the Bombers did next, of course, is part of this franchise’s folklore. Under his guidance, the Bombers appeared in six Grey Cups from 1957-66, winning four in 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962. He racked up 102 regular season wins – still tops on the Bombers’ all-time list – with a .644 lifetime regular season winning percentage, was named the CFL’s top coach in 1965 and had a 16-8-1 record in 25 career playoff games.
But it also says something of Bud Grant, the man, that he was able to transition from player to coach and still command a room. And it says something of Bud Grant, the 29-year-old rookie head coach, that he was able to quickly recognize what needed to be fixed and put his plans in place.
The Bombers were in the Grey Cup in his first year as the boss, and then won four of the next five titles.
“Some of these guys were older than I was when I became the coach, but I had a good relationship with them,” said Grant. “We hunted together, we went fishing together, we played poker together, we drank beer together. I knew them well enough to think they had some respect for me as a person.
“It wasn’t easy. I also had to become the No. 1 recruiter. I knew we had Americans that just weren’t good enough and you’d never cut a Canadian. Having played American football and college football I did have a few contacts and so I started calling everybody I knew asking about coaching and players. I remember I went to Denver and a friend of mine had recommended a player. The first player I signed was (Bomber hall of famer) Ernie Pitts. I had never heard of Ernie Pitts until I got down there.
“The key player, of course, was Kenny Ploen. But we also signed Frankie Gilliam, Ray Jauch, Bill Whistler, Sherwyn Thorson…. But Kenny was the ambassador and he helped get a pipeline into Iowa.
“Plus, I knew our Canadian contingent was as good as anybody. We had (George) Druxman and (Ed) Kotowich and (Cornel) Piper and Gerry James, (Cec) Luining and (Lorne) Benson, (Keith) Pearce, (Norm) Rauhaus, Gordie Rowland and Nick Miller… we had 12-15 that were as good as anybody.
“I always say ‘Coaches don’t win football games; players win football games.’ I was smart enough to know that to win, you’ve got to have the best players.”
Interestingly, one of the American players the coach opted to keep after the 1956 season was a guy coming off an injury that Grant had his doubts about.
“The one carry over, who was the best player I ever coached, was Leo Lewis,” said Grant. “I played with Leo one year and then he hurt his ankle real bad. I talked to him and he wanted to come back, but I had very big reservations about whether he could overcome that injury. He had surgery in Lincoln and said it was fine, but I only gave him a conditional contract because he had to prove he was healthy first.
“It was the best thing I ever did. Leo was a special, special player. He was good an all-round football player as anyone, any place.”
Grant left the Bombers after the 1966 season to join the Vikings, a club he had already turned down when they came courting in 1961. He would guide the Vikings to their first playoff appearance in 1968 and a year later, to the first of four Super Bowl games.
Grant remains atop the Vikings all-time wins list as a coach and still keeps an office at their facility as an advisor.
And here in Winnipeg, he remains to this day an icon and the very definition of a winner. That’s why a statue of Grant was unveiled in front of Investors Group Field in 2014.
“I made a lot of friends up there, I loved it up there,” said Grant, who had planned a hunting trip in Amaranth and Stony Mountain before the Ring of Honour ceremony this Friday.
“The whole experience left quite an imprint on me. I enjoyed playing so much. I enjoyed Winnipeg so much. I enjoyed my teammates so much. I enjoyed the atmosphere around the Bombers, Canadian football… everything. The town, the people. It wasn’t only the football, it was the whole experience.”