CFL Colts coach Matthews gains edge by living on it

June 05, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

Don Matthews has already planted the seed. Into the fertile soil of his players' imaginations, he has dropped the first attitudinal directive.

Living on the edge.

It is deeper than a slogan, better than a marketing concept. For the coach of the CFL Colts, it is a philosophy -- for football and life.

It is how he wants Baltimore's new Canadian Football League team to be.

What starts as a mind-set blossoms into mayhem.

"I'd like the players to be daring, living on the edge, willing to take chances and make plays," says Matthews.

"I used to say that with our team because we're willing to take chances. We're willing to fake a field goal, fake a punt, run a reverse out of our own end. That's what we call living on the edge.

"Players need to understand I'm willing to live on the edge, and I expect them to do the same thing."

In a head coaching career that spans 96 victories and nine seasons in the CFL, Matthews rarely has been caught without a trick up his sleeve. He is renowned in Canada for his gadgetry. Once he called for a pass off a reverse on his goal line. It went for 87 yards.

In his first game as head coach of the British Columbia Lions in 1983, he ordered a pooch kick to start the game. One of his players caught the ball in mid-stride and nearly scored, setting in motion a B.C. rout.

The phrase "living on the edge" started in Vancouver that season. By 1992, his Saskatchewan Roughriders used it as a team slogan. It has come to permeate a Matthews-coached team.

"It carries into everything he does, from signing his name to making important decisions at a critical point in a game," said Jim Popp, the Colts director of player personnel who joined Matthews in Saskatchewan two years ago.

"He's a steady person. He enjoys life. He likes to make people happy. He likes to see people succeed, and he lets them succeed."

Matthews' coaching philosophy is not just seizing the moment, but maximizing it. He applies a common-sense approach to every facet of the game. If it doesn't directly affect the outcome, he doesn't waste time on it.

With Matthews, taboos are taboo. He allows his players to take their helmets off during practice -- even sit on them if they like.

"If keeping a helmet on helps you win, then I'd have them keep it on," Matthews said. "If it doesn't have an effect in helping you win, then I don't see any reason for doing it."

Players appreciate an open-minded approach. Wherever Matthews goes, he cultivates the loyalty of his players.

"He's definitely a players' coach," said nose tackle Jearld Baylis, the CFL's defensive player of the year who joined the Colts as a free agent. "He wants to take every avenue to win. He's not narrow-minded. He knows players see certain things that coaches can't see."

Matthews has a knack of putting big problems in perspective, too.

"He has a unique talent of finding simple solutions to complex problems," said Steve Buratto, the Colts offensive coordinator who has known Matthews since they were teammates at the University of Idaho. "One of his greatest attributes is that he does not waste a lot of time placing blame. He discerns what the problem is and tries to find a solution."

Defensive line coach Marty Long, who came to the Colts from The Citadel, noticed the economy of time from the outset.

"He's a common-sense coach," Long said. "He meets if there's a reason to meet. If not, he'll leave the coach's time to the coach to get football stuff done.

"A lot of time is wasted in staff meetings, when a head coach's ego has to be massaged. There's not any wasted time here that way."

Matthews' reputation is built on more than gadget plays and common sense, though. He has turned three losing CFL franchises into three playoff teams. He has not had a losing record with any team he's coached for a full season.

"He can turn a program around real quick," said Gene Bates, a college scout for the Washington Redskins who worked with Matthews during his high school coaching days in Nevada. "He motivates kids real well. He's fair and honest, and he will tell it like it is. In Baltimore, he'll probably turn it around faster than anyone, especially because he knows the Canadian game."

Matthews' formula for success is simple: Bring in the best assistants and the best players you can find, then let them do what they do best. That's what he does best, he says.

"I surround myself with good coaches," he said. "I think I have the ability to judge talent. I create an atmosphere in which self-motivated people can succeed. Then I try to choose self-motivated people."

Two of the football people who influenced him most are Dee Andros, his college coach in Idaho, and Hugh Campbell, who coached the Edmonton Eskimos to five straight Grey Cup titles with Matthews as his defensive coordinator.

In fact, had Campbell not left Edmonton to join the Los Angeles Express in the U.S. Football League in 1983, Matthews said he might still be an assistant with the Eskimos. "I was very content with what I was doing," he said.

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