The Eskimo Way
We’re No.1 – We did the math: the Eskimos are the best CFL franchise of the modern era – Evan Rosser – Sportsnet Magazine 28-11-2011
Three days shy of his 25th birthday, Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Warren Moon stepped back onto the frozen grass of Commonwealth Stadium, trailing the underdog B.C. Lions 16-15 late in the fourth. It was the Eskimos’ ninth trip to the Western Division finals in as many years, but for Moon – already the owner of three Grey Cup rings – the game was particularly significant. Having split time with Tom Wilkinson for the first three years of his CFL career, he was nearing the end of his first full season as a starting quarterback. It was 1981, and the Eskimos had appeared in four straight Grey Cups, winning the past three. The pressure on Moon to carry on the winning dynasty was tremendous.
“We had a double-move route with [wide receiver] Brian Kelly, where he comes down and makes a move short and then ends up going deep,” Moon recalls. It was a play the Eskimos had tried unsuccessfully several times in the first half, but with receiver Tommy Scott drawing coverage, Kelly managed to beat his man and take off over the snow. Dropping back to pass, “I slipped on the ice,” says Moon, “but I was able to gather my balance and still get back up and throw a strike down the field for a touchdown.” Kelly crossed the goal line at 9:27 of the fourth, putting the Eskimos ahead for good. “I remember coming to the sideline after that play and I almost burst into tears,” says Moon.
“That’s how emotional I was about that particular game, wanting to make sure we got that down at least get back to the Grey Cup.”
To a fan, it’s heart-stopping moments like Moon’s toss to Kelly that defines a team’s greatness. Bur Sportsnet magazine has crunched the numbers, and even without that win, the Grey Cup victory that followed it, or any of the other four league championships Moon won with the club, the Edmonton Eskimos would still be the greatest team in CFL history. It’s a distinction the franchise has earned with tangible results: consistency, selflessness and the shared belief that winning is the only thing that matters.
The pressure that comes along with those intangibles – and threatened to reduce Moon to tears – first started building in 1954, when Jackie Parker returned a Chuck Hunsinger fumble nearly 90 yards to win Edmonton its first Grey Cup. “The mighty Montreal Alouettes, with Sam Etcheverry… [were] playing a two-dollar team from the West,” says Brian Hall, the Eskimos’ play-by-play announcer from 1964 through 2009. “Well, the Eskimos beat them.” The Green and Gold went on to take the next two Grey Cups, under head coach Frank “Pop” Ivy, “and they had great battles with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the late ‘50s” says Hall. “People just ate it up at Clarke Stadium.”
But just as Edmontonians were falling in love with the game and their community-owned team, the club suffered the worst slump in its history. A meddling board of directors, nicknamed the ‘Nervous Nine’ took the team from a Grey Cup appearance in 1960 to a 2-14 record by 1963. There was instability from top to bottom : “in the mid-‘60s, I think they went through 21 quarterbacks before they settled on getting the team,” says Hall from 1960-69, the Eskimos struggled through five losing campaigns and a .419 regular-season winning percentage.
But they were just working the failure out of their systems – racking up another five losing seasons would take the team 41 years. “It was the arrival of Norm Kimball that turned the fortunes of this football organization around” argues Hall. Appointed GM in 1964, Kimball’s approach was methodical and spared no one, as his initial message to the board of directors – distilled to its essence by Hall – indicates: “You are not here to coach the team. You are not to go near the players. You are not to go to the dressing room. You are not be involved in any way, shape or form unless you are asked to by the head coach.”
Kimball brought a sense of community to the Eskimos. While financial problems and changes in ownership prevented other teams from planning for the future, the Eskimos felt secure. “[The club] was operated like it was going to be there indefinitely,” explains Hugh Campbell, who, after being hired as head coach by Kimball in 1977, led the Eskimos to six straight Grey Cup appearances and five straight victories.
The front office stability ran through the club. On the field, it manifested as an ability to retain veteran leadership. It was also apparent in the Eskimos’ mental approach to the game: “What we always said in the locker room was, ‘Don’t worry about things that are voted on. Only worry about the parts where the team with the most points wins,” Campbell recalls. “Through time, [we] focused on the end goal. It was winning.”
Scouting was critical, particularly for top level Canadian players. “Everybody got good American players,” says Moon. “One of the reasons I thought we were so successful was our Canadian talent was so much better.” Offensive linemen like Hector Pothier and Leo Blanchard freed up import spots at skill positions – receiver, QB, defensive back – while veteran Canuck linebackers Tommy Towns and Dale Potter anchored Edmonton’s defence for years.
Ultimately, CFL success (as the Eskmios have shown) is won by taking you time and assembling a deep and stable team, one built to last. Despite the “horses—t downturn of the last few years,” says Hall, the Eskimos still know how to win. “They know what they need to do,” says Campbell. “It’s just hard sometimes to find the right people to do it.” Hall is more upbeat: “Right now, they’re back to being what the Edmonton Eskimos have always been. Championship teams and entertaining football – an organization unlike most others.”