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'Sports genius': Former Bombers pay tribute to the legend, Bud Grant

Winnipeg Sun logo Winnipeg Sun 2023-03-12 Paul Friesen
The statue of Bud Grant in Winnipeg at IG Field in Winnipeg on Saturday, March 11, 2023. Grant, one of the most revered people ever associated with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the CFL, passed away Saturday at the age of 95. © Provided by Winnipeg Sun The statue of Bud Grant in Winnipeg at IG Field in Winnipeg on Saturday, March 11, 2023. Grant, one of the most revered people ever associated with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the CFL, passed away Saturday at the age of 95.

World-class athlete. The Bo Jackson of the 1950s. A coach’s coach. A perfectionist. Avid hunter. Gun for hire. Practical jokester.

Bud Grant was all of those, and more, according to those who played with or under him during his time with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Nick Miller has his own description.

“The man was a sports genius,” Miller, 91, told The Winnipeg Sun soon after learning of Grant’s death on Saturday.

When Grant came to Winnipeg in 1953, he’d been the No. 2 receiver in the NFL the previous season, with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Miller was his teammate the next four CFL seasons, after which Grant became his head coach for another eight.

That bronze statue of Grant outside the current home of the Bombers?

That’s pretty much the expression the man held as he stood alone on the sidelines every game.

“He was thinking,” Miller said. “You never saw him change his expression. But he was all about winning. Anytime you had a problem on the field, by the time you got to the sidelines he had the solution. They called him the fox, because he was so smart, so sly.”

By his second year as head coach, at the age of 30, Grant led the Bombers to their first of four Grey Cup titles in a five-year span, still the most successful era in franchise history.

“He could really read players,” Paul Robson, a former linebacker and centre who’d become the Bombers GM in the 1980s, told The Sun . “You think about the teams he had both in Winnipeg and Minnesota, they were veteran teams. Once he found guys that could play, he knew what they could do, so he designed things for them.

“An amazing, amazing guy.”

For things he couldn’t control, Grant had a way of finding an advantage, too.

Robson and Miller recall how he had a close tie with a weather expert at the Winnipeg airport.

On blustery days, Grant would be calling him before the game and have someone call again for updates during it.

“We always seemed to be going with the wind,” Robson said. “Because he was such an outdoorsman, he was keenly aware of the weather. So we always had the advantage of his awareness of when the wind was going to shift, and if it was going to rain.”

Under Grant, it was understood players needn’t worry about the conditions. It became a point of pride to wear short sleeves, even cut them shorter, for games in bitter cold.

Heaters on the sidelines – who needs ’em?

Grant felt the same way about pre-game, motivational speeches.

“If you hadn’t prepared all that time on the field, what could you do in a locker-room pep talk?” is how Robson described the coach’s philosophy. “I only recollect one half-time speech that Bud gave. And I’ve very seldom told this story.”

It was a September day in 1964, the Bombers playing the Riders in Saskatchewan.

Robson recalls them being down, 30-0, after the first half.

In those days, a buzzer in the locker-room – sounding at the five-, three- and one-minute marks – signalled the time remaining in the half-time break.

“Nothing’s been said in the locker-room,” Robson recalled. “Nothing. So the buzzer goes five times (the five-minute warning). The buzzer goes three times. Now guys are getting a little antsy. And the buzzer goes one time. And Bud is standing in the doorway to the field.”

Robson recalls the speech like it was yesterday.

“Men, I want to tell you that’s the worst half of football that I’ve ever experienced as a coach. Now, you should understand there’s a clause in your contracts which allows me to fine you one game’s pay for indifferent play. And I intend to do it.”

The Bombers would score 30 second-half points, but drop a 31-30 decision on a late single.

“And he didn’t fine us,” Robson said.

While Grant wasn’t big on speeches, he was obsessed with having his team prepared.

“There was no detail that was too small for him to cover,” Miller said, explaining how the team would practise kickoffs over and over.

The coach’s thinking: what other play generates an average of nearly 30 yards?

“And we practised, believe it or not, the national anthem,” Miller said. “Standing at attention with our helmets at our side and facing the flag. He wanted the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to be the New York Yankees of Canadian football. The Yankees were a class organization and he wanted us to be the same way. So your socks had to be pulled up, your sweater tucked in and you looked and acted like a football player.

“And he did the same thing in the NFL. He was a proud man. A sloppy team, which he didn’t tolerate, was a reflection on him as a person.”

As uptight as that sounds, Grant loved a good office prank, word of which trickled down from a secretary to the players.

“She told me he’d put dead mice in her drawer,” Robson said. “He’d do stuff to see what other people’s reactions were, and he’d get a big kick out of that.”

Going into his office, at least to negotiate their next contract, wasn’t very funny for players, though.

“He pushed the contract across the table and I signed it, got up and walked out,” Robson said. “That’s how it went.”

“That’s pretty much it,” Miller agreed. “If you played for him, you knew you were out on the field because you were the best man there. He wanted nothing less than perfection. That was his yardstick. You had to respect the man’s ability. And he made winners out of us. We were champions.”

Not only on the football field.

Grant formed a basketball team that included Miller and teammates Frank Rigney, Ray Jauch, Ken Ploen and Ernie Pitts that was wildly successful in the local senior league.

Miller says even when shorthanded by injuries, he’d concoct a game plan to win.

He played baseball, too, for whomever wanted him badly enough.

“He told Rigney he made more money playing Legion baseball than he did with the Eagles,” Miller said. “He was what you might call a mercenary, a gun for hire. He’d play for you one game and pitch against you the next game.”

“Our Bo Jackson,” is how Jeff McWhinney described Grant.

McWhinney’s dad, Glenn, was another player under Grant who also became a Bombers scout, which allowed him to get closer to the coach than players would.

“My mom said, ‘That son of a gun used to show up at 4 o’clock in the morning to get your dad out of bed to go hunting,’” McWhinney said. “He was pretty boisterous. You knew when Bud Grant was in the house.”

McWhinney’s father helped coach Grant’s basketball team, passing down a story about a game against a hot-shot American team at a North Dakota air-force base.

After watching the American team slam-dunk their way through their warmup, Grant and McWhinney’s dad came up with a plan: they removed the pins from the hinges of their dressing-room door.

When it was their turn to take the court, they’d fire up their team, then literally blow the doors off, stopping the Americans in their tracks.

“And they look at these crazy Canadians coming out with that door flying out onto the court,” McWhinney said.

The younger McWhinney would go on to become the keeper of the Grey Cup, running into Grant many times at Hall of Fame events.

“It was like royalty walked in,” McWhinney said. “Everything went quiet. He was the coach of coaches. My dad had the ultimate respect for him. He was a computer. My dad learned so much.”

One thing Grant couldn’t teach anybody: how to dance.

Robson recalls an ongoing gag at team functions, where quarterback Ken Ploen’s wife would ask the coach for a dance. Grant would always say he was saving the first dance for his wife, Pat.

That never happened.

“He wasn’t going to dance with anybody,” Robson said.

He took the Bombers to the big dance six times, though, and the Vikings to the Super Bowl four times after that.

He’s one of just three people in both the Canadian Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame, Warren Moon and Marv Levy the others, easily the greatest coach in Blue Bombers history, and one of the greatest, period.

“You wouldn’t get an argument from me,” Miller said.

Nor from Robson.

“It’s a point of pride for anybody to say I played three years for Bud Grant.”

Twitter: @friesensunmedia


Some of the quotes from Bud Grant that stand out in the interviews he’s done with sports columnist Paul Friesen over the years.

“We had polio, we had mumps, measles, small pox — all those things you got quarantined. You put a notice on your door: ‘This house has measles, so don’t enter.’ And we eventually found cures for all for that. We will find a cure for this.” – In the early days of COVID-19, April, 2020.

“Originally I was going to have a gun over my shoulder. They said we do not want a gun involved. I said, ‘Well, OK, I’ll do without the gun, but I’ve gotta have a dead duck then.” – Describing the bobble-head doll Grant had made for the last of his annual garage sales in Bloomington, Minn., this one marking his 90th birthday, in 2017.

“That’s your job.” – Asked in 2016 what he thought of current Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea.

“It was a shock. All of a sudden we’re skidding down the runway with no wheels. The propellers are shredding, and the scraping sounds, going 100 miles-an-hour or whatever we’re going. There were sparks flying and pieces of the under-carriage bouncing around.” – After surviving the crash-landing of a small plane while on a hunting trip to Canada in 2015.

“Most people are dead before they get one of these put up.” – At the unveiling of his bronze statue at Winnipeg’s new stadium in 2014.


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