CFL Colts corral a clever coach

February 08, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

If Baltimore fields a team in the Canadian Football League this summer, it can count on one thing: the unpredictable.

That covers everything from the novelty of a new game to the mental gyrations of an enterprising head coach.

Meet Don Matthews, coach of the would-be Colts, one of the CFL's most innovative minds. He's not kidding when he says he runs a wide-open offense, even by CFL standards.

This is a man who launched his head coaching career with an onside kick, who once ordered a pass off a double reverse from his own goal line, who once used a play that called for three rugby-like laterals out of punt formation.

This is a man not afraid to take risks.

Matthews, introduced yesterday at a down town hotel as the first coach of Baltimore's prospective CFL expansion team, has a solid track record for unpredictability and for winning.

"We're willing to take chances to win the game," said Matthews, who signed a three-year contract Sunday with options for three additional years. "But we don't do it just to do it. We think it out. When we do it, we expect big plays."

That's his "living on the edge" philosophy, a mind-set that helped him turn around three losing programs in the CFL and produce playoff teams almost immediately.

In another time and place, Matthews, 54, might have been a pioneer pushing west, said Adam Rita, offensive coordinator with the Edmonton Eskimos and a Matthews disciple.

"I see him as one of the guys sitting in a bar in St. Louis, Mo., in the 1700s, saying, 'I'm tired of this place. Let's go find new worlds,' " Rita said from Edmonton.

"He's the kind of guy I picture pulling up stakes, settling the west. He's the kind of guy who would have gone up in space without a window. You've got to admire a guy like that."

The admiration started with the British Columbia Lions' opening kickoff in 1983, when Matthews was a first-year head coach who had just given Rita his first coaching job.

"It was the first game at brand-new B.C. Place, with 58,000 there," said Rita, "and he opens his career as head coach with an onsides kick. And we got it, too."

Mervyn Fernandez, who later played for the Los Angeles Raiders, pulled down the pooch kick in stride and carried it inside the opponents' 10-yard line. A touchdown followed; it was the start of something special.

Under their rookie head coach, the Lions, who were a fourth-place team in 1982, went to the Grey Cup in 1983. They lost there to the Toronto Argonauts, but came back two years later to win the title against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

In 1987, with four straight playoff appearances under his belt, Matthews was fired in a front-office shake-up. A new general manager did the firing with two games left and the Lions at 8-6.

Matthews resurfaced at Toronto in 1990, where the Argos were coming off a 7-11 season. Under Matthews, they went 10-8 and reached the Eastern Division final.

After a year coaching the Orlando Thunder in the World League of American Football in the summer of 1991, Matthews was recruited in mid-CFL season to coach the Saskatchewan Roughriders. They were 1-6 at the time. They went 5-6 under Matthews, then 9-9 for a playoff berth in 1992. Last season they were 11-7 before losing an opening-round playoff game.

Matthews has a regular-season record of 91-53-1 in nine CFL seasons.

When he resigned his job in Saskatchewan in late December, it was with the intention of joining Jim Speros, the Virginia businessman trying to put a CFL team in Baltimore. Matthews took advantage of an escape clause in his contract to leave. Although he had time left on his contract, it was not an acrimonious split, said Alan Ford, general manager of the Roughriders.

"He did a good job for us, no question," Ford said. "We had 11 wins this season, and we hadn't won 11 since 1988. There was no problem [with him] on this end."

Speros, who expects a decision next week from the city on a lease to play in Memorial Stadium this July, said Matthews was his first choice.

"He relates to his players well, he's got an excellent track record,he's been in a start-up situation before, he's done things a lot of guys never conquered," Speros said. "He showed me what I was looking for. He'll get people fired up and excited about football."

Said Matthews: "We're not trying to compete with the NFL. Our product is different. It has its own value, it's own excitement."

And its own unpredictability.

MATTHEWS' CFL COACHING RECORD

PFYear.. .. .. .Team.. .. .. .. .. ..Record.. .. .. Postseason/comment

1983.. .. .. British Columbia.. .. 11-5-0 .. .. ..Lost Grey Cup

1984.. .. .. British Columbia .. ..12-3-1 .. .. ..Lost West final

1985.. .. .. British Columbia .. ..13-3-0 .. .. ..Won Grey Cup

1986.. .. .. British Columbia .. ..12-6-0 .. .. ..Lost West final

1987.. .. .. British Columbia .. .. 8-6-0 .. .. ..Fired in October

1990.. .. .. Toronto .. .. .. .. ..10-8-0 .. .. ..Lost East final

1991.. .. .. Saskatchewan .. .. ... 5-6-0 .. .. ..Hired in August

1992.. .. .. Saskatchewan .. .. .. .9-9-0 .. .. ..Lost West final

1993.. .. .. Saskatchewan .. .. ...11-7-0 .. .. ..Lost West semifinal

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