TORONTO — Canadian Football Hall of Fame member Don Matthews, one of the CFL’s most successful coaches, has died. He was 77.
The Toronto Argonauts said Matthews died Wednesday of pneumonia in Beaverton, Oregon. He had announced in 2012 he was battling cancer.
In a statement, the CFL called Matthews “one of a kind.”
“Upon hearing of the passing of Don Matthews, the Canadian Football League family is both deeply saddened by this loss and grateful for his many contributions to our league,” the statement said.
A larger-than-life character with a sharp wit who thrived in the spotlight, Matthews kept people around him on edge with his abrasive, no-nonsense style. It worked: He had 231 wins and five Grey Cup victories on his resume.
But he was also a controversial figure who had a high-risk, high-reward philosophy.
Players traditionally loved suiting up for him because of his reputation for creating a winning atmosphere and protecting his athletes. During the regular season, Matthews’ teams rarely hit during practice, and he routinely allowed his players to help create the weekly game plan.
Yet he maintained his distance. While known for being a “player’s coach,” Matthews would make the tough personnel decisions and wasn’t afraid to bench a veteran or cut him outright if he wasn’t producing.
“It’s that balance, and to do that you must be brilliant,” said running back Mike “Pinball” Clemons, who won two Grey Cups over three seasons playing for Matthews in Toronto. “Some people try to be a player’s coach, but they let it go too far and the players run the roost.
“He was a player’s coach, but he was also the boss and everybody knew that.”
Matthews was also brutally honest, a trait reporters covering his teams knew well as he would call them out publicly for asking what he deemed an inappropriate question.
But even the press corps respected him, voting Matthews the CFL’s coach of the year five times.
A former Marine from Amesbury, Massachusetts, who eventually became a Canadian citizen, Matthews began his CFL coaching career as an assistant with the Edmonton Eskimos in 1977 before being promoted to defensive coordinator the following season. He helped the club win five straight Grey Cup titles before being hired as B.C. Lions head coach in 1983.
Matthews spent 22 seasons as a CFL head coach with B.C., Baltimore, Saskatchewan, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
“He was, quite frankly, the best leader I’ve ever been around,” Clemons said. “He taught me so much and the majority of those lessons you didn’t realize were lessons until after the experience, when you realized you walked away with more than you gave, more than you were promised and much more than you were entitled to.
“He was magical in his approach, he was infectious. But uniquely, he had a way of bringing out the best in people, he put you in the best position to be successful.”
And that included Clemons, who said Matthews allowed him to be a full-time running back for the first time in his career in 1996. But Matthews bucked conventional football wisdom as Clemons had more receiving yards (1,268) than rushing (286).
“He changed his philosophy, he changed the game to accommodate my skillset in a time where that really didn’t happen,” Clemons said.
Matthews was also a controversial figure. In 2004 while he coached in Montreal, the Alouettes were twice accused of videotaping opposing coaches’ signals on the sideline.
Prior to the ’04 East Division final versus Toronto, he downplayed his reputation, saying “I have a passion for milk and cookies. I have a way more boring life than some of you might think.”
Matthews is survived by his wife, Stephanie, and four sons.