Al Bruno will forever be remembered for delivering one of the
biggest upsets in Grey Cup history.
He guided the upstart Hamilton Tiger-Cats into the 1986 final against the heavily favoured Edmonton Eskimos, who had posted a league-best, 13-4-1 record. Many football pundits had predicted a lopsided affair, and they were right as the 9-8-1 Ticats captured a stunning 39-15 victory.
Mr. Bruno died Sunday at the age of 87, the Ticats announced late Monday. Jason Riley, a former offensive lineman with Hamilton’s ’86 championship squad, credited Mr. Bruno for the surprise victory.
“He was a master of bringing people together and building the chemistry of a team,” Mr. Riley said.
“Everybody thought the ’86 Eskimos would blow us out in the Grey Cup but actually it was the other way around because our chemistry was so good that everyone just played for each other and didn’t worry about the hype.
“Al had a way of bringing the guys together … that’s what made the difference.”
The cause of death was not divulged but Mr. Riley said Mr. Bruno, a native of West Chester, Pa., entered hospital in Port Charlotte, Fla., initially due to a kidney issue but passed away peacefully of heart failure. He said Mr. Bruno had only one kidney due to previous cancer treatment.
Mr. Bruno came to the CFL in 1966 as an assistant coach with the Ottawa Rough Riders before taking a similar job with Hamilton in 1968.
He served as the offensive co-ordinator at Harvard University from 1971-1981 before returning to Hamilton as its player-personnel director in 1982.
Mr. Bruno was named head coach during the 1983 season after Bud Riley was dismissed and got the job permanently, leading Hamilton to a 2-1-1 record.
He suffered a mild heart attack during the 1987 season and was replaced for six games by defensive co-ordinator Ted Schmitz before returning.
Mr. Bruno was fired during the 1090 campaign after Hamilton lost five straight to drop to 4-8. He worked as a scout with both the B.C. Lions and Buffalo Bills before serving as McMaster University’s head coach from 1994 to 1996, bringing Mr. Riley aboard as the offensive line coach, a position he still currently holds.
Mr. Bruno was a receiver at Kentucky, where he played for legendary head coach Paul (Bear) Bryant.
The Philadelphia Eagles selected him in the third round of the 1951 NFL draft, but he signed with the Toronto Argonauts instead and played on their Grey Cup-winning team in 1952.
He spent two seasons with Toronto, then played briefly with Ottawa before finishing his CFL career with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (1955-1956).
“Al was a big, dependable receiver and I don’t ever remember him dropping a pass,” said former Argos teammate Nick Volpe.
“He later became a coach who was known to be one of the best around; he understood the game very well. Al had a great way with people. He was always very calm, friendly and efficient.”
Mr. Riley, now a full-time teacher and football coach at a Burlington high school, spent 10 seasons with Hamilton before retiring after the 1993 season.
A four-time East all-star, he was named to the Ticats’ Walk of Fame in 1995 and said he owes it all to his former coach: “I don’t know where I’d be in life right now if it wasn’t for Al Bruno.”
Mr. Riley figured he was done with football in 1984 after being released by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
A former defensive lineman who helped the University of British Columbia capture the 1982 Vanier Cup, he was taken in the first round of the 1983 CFL draft by Winnipeg before being dealt to the Riders.
“When Saskatchewan released me I was ready to go back to school and pursue other things because I was pretty discouraged,” Mr. Riley recalled.
“But Hamilton called and Al assured me I’d be playing within the next few weeks.”
Longtime CFL executive and scout Mike McCarthy was Hamilton’s player-personnel director and assistant GM during Mr. Bruno’s tenure on the sidelines and called him a player’s coach.
“He cared about his players,” Mr. McCarthy said.
“It didn’t matter if they had a bad day or a bad game, he always believed in them. There wasn’t a guy loved more by his team than Al Bruno because of what he did for those guys.”
Mr. Riley agreed. “He wasn’t an ‘Xs and Os’ guru, although he was around the game all his life and knew it very well. His forte was bringing people together and building the chemistry of a team.
“It was all about family,” he added.
“He would get guys who were released from other teams like myself, Paul Bennett and Miles Gorrell and make it so that it was fun. A lot of us had young kids at the time and to him you were a person first, and a player second. That kind of gets lost with some professional coaches and organizations.”