Ottawa franchise rides out a rough period

September 25, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

Still digging out from the rubble of the previous regime, the Ottawa Rough Riders began looking down the road last week.

They introduced their 1995 season-ticket plan with special discounts for fans who pay in full by Nov. 5.

Such is the state of a Canadian Football League franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 1979, and barely lasted through the Bernie Glieberman era, which stretched from 1991 until this year.

The Rough Riders, who face the Baltimore CFLs in Ottawa today, have already cut ticket prices three times this season, and they've seen one potential investor pull out. Now, they're borrowing on next year's ticket revenues.

Despite an average home attendance of 17,835, team president Phil Kershaw suggested the worst is over.

"We're in good position," he said. "We had to reinvent things from scratch when we took over. There was a lot of animosity left behind, and we had to rebuild the season-ticket base."

Kershaw arrived last February with new owner Bruce Firestone after Glieberman left for Shreveport. One of Kershaw's first moves was to hire Adam Rita, the offensive coordinator in Edmonton, as head coach.

Kershaw, who lured Don Matthews to Saskatchewan in 1991 when he was there, has entrusted Rita -- a Matthews protege -- with reviving the ailing franchise.

"He's here as long as I'm here," Kershaw said. "The way to build a winning franchise is through stability. You don't want to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic every six months. Adam is the right guy."

To reshape the Rough Riders, Rita brought in a new quarterback in Danny Barrett and a new running back in Michael Richardson. He promptly lost Richardson for eight weeks with an injury; he returned for last week's 40-32 win over Toronto.

Rita refuses to use the Rough Riders' long list of injuries as a crutch. "No excuses," he said. "We're doing it a little left-handed, but basically it's a wonderful opportunity for the guys who did get to play."

Still, he had to feel snakebitten last week when he lost three defensive backs to injury and had to finish the game with two receivers playing in the secondary. Fred Ward and Nick Mazzoli became two-way players.

Ottawa has found enough defensive backs to patch up the secondary, but Rita acknowledged the obvious in talking about today's game against the CFLs.

"Their problem is, who are they going to pick on?" he said. "They'll want to test the new guys. Hopefully, we'll get them out of their plan."

For all their difficulties, the Rough Riders (4-7) are still in the playoff picture in the sad-sack CFL East. When Ottawa defensive end John Kropke looks across the line of scrimmage, he will be tempted to think about what might have been. He re-signed with Ottawa last summer, turning down an offer to join the CFLs.

"I made the right decision," Kropke said. "If I got a fair offer from Ottawa, I was going to stay. I'm happy with the situation.

"I'm happy for Baltimore, too. I knew Don Matthews was going to do what he's doing right now. He's a great CFL coach. It's no surprise Baltimore is doing so well . . . . We have our work cut out for us."

In more ways than one.

MEET THE ROUGH RIDERS

History: The Ottawa Football Club was formed in 1876. On Dec. 11, 1909, at the invitation of the New York Herald, the Rough Riders played the Hamilton Tigers in an exhibition game at Van Courtland Park in New York City and lost, 11-6. The team changed its name to Senators in 1924 after a merger with St. Brigit's and won Grey Cups the next two years. In 1926, the team reclaimed the name Rough Riders. Ottawa has won seven titles since then, the last in 1976.

Ownership: Bruce M. Firestone, chairman and governor, purchased the Rough Riders last winter when Bernie Glieberman departed for Shreveport. Firestone also owns Bretton Woods Entertainment Inc. of Ottawa, and is an avid art collector. He brought the NHL Senators back to Ottawa in 1990 and served as chairman until 1993.

Key players: QB Danny Barrett, 33, acquired last March in a trade with the B.C. Lions, has thrown for 2,509 yards and 14 touchdowns; he has 10 interceptions. He has also run for 379 yards. RB Michael Richardson, who led the league in rushing with Winnipeg his first two seasons, missed eight weeks with a torn quadriceps muscle. He returned to the lineup last week, rushing for 65 yards. LB Daved Benefield leads the team with seven sacks, and LB Brian Bonner, an ex-Washington Redskin, leads in tackles with 42.

Strengths and weaknesses: The Rough Riders have been crippled by injuries in Adam Rita's first season as coach, the most serious of which was the loss of Richardson. Ottawa leads the league in rushing yards and rushing attempts, yet is next to last in pass offense. Inconsistency is the Riders' trademark. Although they are averaging 30 points a game, they have been kept out of the end zone on three occasions. Defensively, they play a pressure, man-to-man defense that has broken down often. They have given up the most touchdowns in the league (48), and rank 11th in total defense and 11th against the pass.

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