Hamilton Tiger Cats

Ralph Sazio - Mr. Ti-Cat

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Tom Hawthorne - Special to Globe and Mail 30-10-2008

Ralph Sazio was teaching high school and moonlighting as a football player in Pennsylvania when he was lured north to Canada by his college coach.

Canadian football paid top dollar for imported talent at a time when the Canuck buck was equal to the Yankee greenback. Mr. Sazio, a block of a man at 6-foot-1-inch and 250 pounds, joined the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a hard-nosed tackle.

He later became the team's coach, general manager and president, his success making him a hero in Steeltown.

Top teams south of the border tried to hire him, but he refused their offers. Instead, in 1981, he stunned Hamilton by taking a job with the arch-rival Toronto Argonauts. It was as though a Hatfield announced he was becoming a McCoy.

Soon afterward, the long-suffering Argos ended seasons of futility by winning a Grey Cup championship. The triumph cemented Mr. Sazio's reputation as a football savant.

The U.S. Air Force veteran looked and sounded like a career football man. He worked hard, spoke in a shout and demanded much of his players.

He could also be gruff and did not hide his disdain for certain reporters. This newspaper greeted his arrival in Toronto with a headline describing him as an “irascible leader.”

To his credit, Mr. Sazio credited his success here to his belief in hiring homegrown athletes. “I was a strong believer in Canadian talent,” Mr. Sazio told reporter Denis Gibbons nine years ago. “If you had enough Canadian talent, you could be a winner. I think that was one of our pluses.”

Born in Italy to a barber, Mr. Sazio arrived in the United States as an infant. He grew up in South Orange, N.J. He graduated from Columbia High School in 1941, his play for the Cougars earning him a scholarship to the College of William & Mary at Williamsburg, Va.

Carl Voyles, coach of the school's Tribe football team, built a team known for its stingy defence. In Mr. Sazio's freshman season, William & Mary surrendered an average of just five points a game in an 11-game season, while scoring 245 points. The Tribe took the Southern Conference Championship with a record of 9 wins, one loss and one tie.

After the United States entered the Second World War, Mr. Sazio interrupted his studies and exchanged his football uniform for a military one.

He returned to campus after the war. The Tribe once again won a conference title with a 9-2 record. Mr. Sazio shared the team's captaincy. In the Dixie Bowl at Birmingham, Ala., William & Mary lost 21-19 to Arkansas on New Year's Day, 1948.

The team had success a year later in winning the Delta Bowl 20-0 over Oklahoma A&M at Memphis, Tenn.

Scouts took note of the tackle. Mr. Sazio was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League in the 28th round (258th overall) of the 1947 draft. Instead, he wound up playing in New York. Branch Rickey, the owner of baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, had launched a team by the same name to play in the fledgling All-America Football Conference, a rival to the NFL. Mr. Rickey hired Mr. Voyles as coach and he, in turn, signed his old college tackle.

Mr. Sazio transferred to Columbia University, where he would graduate with a masters degree in education (signed, he would later note proudly, by university president and future U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower), and played at Ebbets Field. He started eight of the 13 games in which he would play in the 1948 season, one of several rookies taking spots on a front line seen as a weakness.

The season opener was played at home against the crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees. The Dodgers' offence sputtered under the guidance of Hunchy Hoernschemeyer, as the visitors rolled to an easy 21-3 victory.

The game captured the spirit of the Dodgers' season, as the club finished with a disastrous 2-12 record. The Dodgers were disbanded afterward, with much of the roster merging with the Yankees. Mr. Sazio's rights were transferred to the Chicago Hornets.

Meanwhile, Mr. Voyles wound up in Hamilton with the Ticats. He asked his old tackle, who was by then teaching high school at McKeesport, Pa., to come north. The clincher was the promise of a day job selling insurance, which he would keep until becoming a full-time coach in 1963.

Starting in 1950, Mr. Sazio spent four seasons on the field with the Ticats, also contributing as an assistant coach. He lost his spot in the line to American import Bobby Cross during the 1953 season, which ended with the Ticats winning the Grey Cup.

Hamilton then embarked on several frustrating seasons in which a berth in the championship showdown failed to result in victory. After Hamilton lost consecutive Grey Cup games to Winnipeg, Mr. Sazio replaced Jungle Jim Trimble to become head coach for the 1963 season.

The Ticats were loaded with talent from A to Z — from Angelo Mosca to Joe Zuger. Add the skills of Garney Henley, Bernie Faloney and Hal Patterson, and the new coach knew he had to deliver a championship or suffer the same fate as his predecessor.

The Sazio-led Ticats once again won the Eastern championship before travelling to Vancouver for a Grey Cup showdown against the hometown Lions. Before the game, the coach indicated the Lions offence depended on the running of Willie Fleming. Late in the first half, Mr. Fleming suffered a concussion after being hit by Mr. Mosca. The Lions star left the game.

The Hamilton coach's blueprint guided the team to a comfortable 21-10 triumph, a victory made easier by Mr. Fleming's absence. After the game, as delirious Ticat players slurped champagne from the Grey Cup, Mr. Sazio said, “I'm happy to say we're taking it home.”

As coach, Mr. Sazio led the club to four Grey Cup appearances in five years, winning three titles.

In 1964, the Lions avenged the Fleming hit and the loss by defeating Hamilton, 34-24, in the Grey Cup.

The Ticats regained the title in 1965, by at last overcoming Winnipeg, 22-16.

By the 1967 season, Mr. Sazio had the Ticats purring like a well-oiled engine. The team did not surrender a touchdown in the final six games of the season, before demolishing the Saskatchewan Roughriders, 24-1, in the Grey Cup game. The Ticats shut down a usually potent offence designed by coach Eagle Keys, featuring quarterback Ron Lancaster (obituary, Sept. 19) and brawny fullback George Reed.

The final scoring play happened when Hamilton's Billy Ray Locklin picked up a Saskatchewan fumble before romping 43 yards for a touchdown late in the game. “That,” Mr. Sazio said afterwards, “is the whipping cream on the custard.”

In the off-season, Mr. Sazio left the sideline for the front office, becoming general manager for the 1968 season after Jake Gaudaur left to become league commissioner.

A stellar coaching record of 49 wins, 20 losses and one tie earned Mr. Sazio a deserved reputation as one of the league's greatest chalkboard masterminds. In five years, he had won four Eastern Conference titles and three championships.

By 1981, he was vice-president and general manager of the club, which was at this point owned by the unpredictable Harold Ballard, better known for his erratic handling of hockey's Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mr. Sazio shocked the league with his midseason leap to become president of the Argonauts. His son, upon returning from a fishing trip, needed to be shown a newspaper article before believing his father had changed teams. The move after 32 years in Hamilton was seen as little less than treacherous by the Ticats' ardent supporters.

“I'm taking this job mainly because I need a challenge,” Mr. Sazio told The Globe and Mail after an introductory news conference. “It's like a second career for me.”

The Argos certainly offered a challenge, and lingered in last place with an 0-5 record. Mr. Sazio soon hired Bob O'Billovich as coach and the Argos advanced to the Grey Cup game the following season, losing to Edmonton. They returned to the championship game in 1983, defeating the B.C. Lions in Vancouver. The championship ended a 31-year drought.

Success on the field did not limit disputes with denizens of the press box. A chief target was Globe football writer Marty York.

“York is poison,” Mr. Sazio told Earl McRae for an article published in Toronto Life magazine in 1983. “He wants to destroy the team. He never has anything good to say. I'd like to drive him through the wall, the little twerp, but then I'd make a martyr out of him.”

Mr. Sazio retired as Argos president in 1990, two years after he had been inducted as a builder into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame at Hamilton.

In 2003, the Cats Claws – as the Ticats booster club is called – elected Mr. Sazio to the Walk of Fame at Ivor Wynne Stadium.

By coincidence, the tickets for the first home game played in Hamilton after Mr. Sazio's funeral included an image of his bust from the hall. Many family members attended – “A Sazio grieves at a football game,” son Mark Sazio said later – and the home side eked a victory over the favoured Montreal Alouettes.

On the game's final whistle, a jubilant Ticat player tossed the ball blindly into the stands, where it was caught by a 17-year-old linebacker for the Westdale Warriors high school football team. The receiver was Jake Sazio, grandson of Hamilton's great coach.
 

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