Don Matthews - Head Coach -1990, 1996-98, 08
A new game plan for famed coach - Kerry Eggers- The Portland Tribune, Feb 11, 2010
On a clear day, you can see forever from Don Matthews’ perch on a ridge up above Murrayhill in Beaverton — Mount St. Helens viewable on one side, Mount Hood on the other.
It’s not in the country as is Colton, where Matthews and his wife, Stephanie, lived in 2007 and ’08. But it’s pretty close.
“Deer across the street, coyotes barking at night … we get a bit of the wildlife,” Matthews says. “It’s close to not being around people — it’s the best of both worlds.”
It’s a nice retirement home for Matthews, 70, who surely would have become one of Oregon’s all-time great high school football coaches had he stayed longer.
Matthews coached in the state only three years — but what a three-year run it was.
Taking over a Sunset High program that had gone winless in 1973, Matthews went 3-6 in 1974, then coached the Apollos to the state Class 3A championship in 1975.
Though he lost many key seniors from that team, Matthews was undaunted. Asked before the 1976 season about his team’s chances, he said boldly, “If we stay healthy, we’ll win them all.”
Indeed, Sunset went 12-0 and successfully defended its state title.
Then Matthews left for Edmonton, where he began a three-decade coaching reign that made him a legend in Canada.
When he retired in 2008, Matthews was the winningest head coach in Canadian Football League history with a 231-133 record (since passed by British Columbia’s Wally Buono). He experienced only three losing seasons in 22 years and was coach of the year five times. Matthews holds a CFL record with nine Grey Cup appearances as a head coach and is tied for the most with five Grey Cup titles. When you add five straight Grey Cups as an assistant coach with Edmonton from 1978-82, they might as well retire the cup in Matthews’ name.
“We won Grey Cups in four decades — the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s,” says Matthews, who won cups as head coach with B.C., Baltimore, Toronto and Montreal. “It was a lot of fun.”
Matthews grew up in Amesbury, Mass., as one of six children in a lower-class family. His father, Fred, worked in a foundry.
“Dad had an eighth-grade education, Mom a sixth-grade education,” Matthews says. “I had a funny childhood. I quit high school my senior year right after football season and joined the Marines. I had to get away from my environment, or I thought it might swallow me up.”
After three years in the Marines, Matthews returned to Amesbury and earned his high-school diploma. Then he walked on at Idaho, where he wound up his career as a star linebacker and team captain under a man familiar to the state’s football fans — Dee Andros.
“He was a special man,” Matthews says. “The middle name of one my sons (Mark) is Dee. My senior year, we went 5-4, the first winning record at Idaho since 1938. That helped propel Dee to Oregon State.”
In 1964, Matthews served as a grad assistant at Idaho, working with Andros and secondary coach Bud Riley, who had a young son named Mike, the current OSU coach.
“I’ve known Mike since he was a toddler,” Matthews says.
Matthews moved on to an assistant coach job at a high school in Ely, Nev., in 1965.
“My salary that year was $5,200, and I moonlighted as a lifeguard at the local pool,” he says.
Matthews became head coach the next year and, in 1967, took Ely to the state title.
The next year, he accepted a job at Ferris High in Spokane, Wash. Taking over a winless program, Matthews’ second team was undefeated.
Matthews then served three years as an assistant coach at Idaho before taking over the Sunset program in 1974. On his staff were such names as Ron Linehan, Jeff Basinski, Rich Davis, Mike McLaughlin and Terry Durham, who helped coach players such as Bob Fronk, Scott Tiesing, Larry and Paul Van Pelt and Don Fox to successive state crowns.
“I had some really great kids,” Matthews says. “Overachievers just like their parents.”
In 2008, the championship teams held a reunion at Fox’s Portland home. More than 30 players traveled from across the country to be on hand. Fox showed an old film of one of the championship games. Their grizzled, tough-as-nails coach — “it was tough love,” he says now — gets misty-eyed when he relives the night.
“High school football has such great rewards,” Matthews says. “They talked about how that was such an important part of their life, that their accomplishments in other things don’t match up to that time in their lives. When you’re going through it, you don’t realize the impact you’ve made. That was what was special about that night.”
Matthews was a tough-guy coach at Sunset, but also a bit of a renegade, wearing his hair long in the style of that era. So did many of his players. He recalls a playoff game at Roseburg, early in the coaching era of the Indians’ Thurman Bell.
“They’re a pretty conservative community, and some of their fans are screaming at us during warmups,” Matthews says. “So (the Indians) are stretching before the game, and I gather our players and tell them, ‘Get in single file. I want you to run around their team and come back and get in your end to warm up.’ So the Roseburg players are watching us as we’re circling them, trying to intimidate them a little. I’m not sure it had any impact at all, but we won the game like 48-6.”
Matthews spent the 1977 season coaching the defensive line and linebackers for Hugh Campbell at Edmonton, then served as D-coordinator on teams that won Grey Cups all five seasons.
“When Hugh first called, I asked, ‘Where’s Edmonton?’ ” Matthews says. “He said, ‘You know Montana? Due north from there.’ ”
Edmonton’s quarterback through much of the run was Warren Moon.
“His first year, he was backup to Tom Wilkinson,” Matthews says. “Then Wilky pulled a hamstring, and Warren went in and Wally-Pipped Wilky. Warren never gave up the starting job after that. The story about how you can’t lose your job to an injury — you know who made that up? An injured player.”
After playing a big part of the Eskimos’ dynasty, Matthews was hired as head coach at B.C. in 1983. The Lions made the Grey Cup for the first time in 19 years the first season; two years later, Matthews coached them to the Grey Cup title. With a staff that included Rocky Long and Greg Newhouse, Matthews went 56-23-1 in five years with the Lions.
When B.C. changed general managers, Matthews was fired in 1987. He moved to San Diego and sat out a year before getting a phone call one day.
“It was (Dallas Cowboys coach) Tom Landry,” Matthews says.
The Cowboys’ vice president/player personnel was Bob Ackles, who had served the same position when Matthews was with B.C. He had recommended Matthews for the Cowboys’ vacant defensive line coaching position.
“They flew me to Dallas, and Tom was waiting to pick me up,” Matthews says. “The following week, he told Bob, ‘I’m going to hire Don Matthews.’ ”
But the Cowboys had recently been sold to Jerry Jones, and the weekend before the announcement was to be made, the new owner fired Landry and hired Jimmy Johnson.
Matthews worked the next two seasons as D-coordinator with Edmonton, then spent a season as head coach with Toronto. He served a season as head coach with Orlando in the World League, then moved back to the CFL as head coach with Baltimore. During his two seasons there, the Stallions reached the Grey Cup twice, winning the second year.
The franchise folded, and Matthews moved on to Toronto, taking the Argonauts to Grey Cup championships his first two years there. He later won another Grey Cup with Montreal and two other times got to the Grey Cup finals with the Alouettes.
Matthews resigned from his job in Montreal late in the 2006 season, citing an anxiety disorder.
“Burnout, I guess,” he says. “At midseason, I started feeling this anxiety that was very debilitating. I went to my owners and said I’m having issues just going to work. They asked me to finish the season, but I couldn’t.
“It took doctors a year and a half to get me on a medicine that completely knocked out my anxiety. Now I’m back to normal, but it was a long, involved process.”
Matthews had one other stab as a CFL coach, taking over Toronto at midseason in 2008. The Argos finished 0-8 under Matthews.
“I took over an old team, a bunch of players who were good in their day but not anymore,” Matthews says. “I wasn’t capable of taking them anywhere.”
Matthews says Doug Flutie — whom he coached at Toronto — “was the best difference-maker I ever coached. That Flutie magic, it’s real. I’ve lived it. Teammates all figure Flutie will find a way to win. We were 15-3 both years I had him. We’d be behind in the fourth quarter, but there was no panic — Flutie will get it done. It was so real, fun to be part of.”
Moon, Matthews says, “was the best pure passer I coached. He threw such a beautiful ball. Warren would have put up even bigger numbers in the Canadian game now, because the league is more wide open with its offenses.”
In 2005, Matthews was downtown in Montreal when he saw a woman he couldn’t take his eyes off of.
“He grabbed me and said, ‘You are the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen in my whole entire life. What do I have to do to get to know you?’ ” says Stephanie, then a model and fitness trainer. “And then he went after me like a Grey Cup.
“For the next two years, he asked me to live with him. I didn’t. He had a moving company on standby to wait for me. He tried everything. It was really sweet. He said it was love at first sight, and he wanted to be with me.”
Stephanie, now 30, consulted her mother, “to make sure she was OK with the age difference. She was like, ‘You’re extremely mature, so this actually might work.’ When I had my mother’s blessing, we started dating.
“Don told me on our first date, ‘I’m an honest guy. I’ll tell you everything in my life, but I’ll never tell you my age.’ Little did he know if you Google him, you can find that out.”
The Matthews moved to Colton in 2007, then were married the following year. Don says he returned to Oregon to be near his children — Mike and Patrick live in Portland, Mark lives in Seattle — and his six grandchildren.
“Football is what I did; it’s not who I am,” he says. “Football consumed me for so long, it didn’t allow me to enjoy my family life. This is a second chance. I’m very close to my boys, so coming back to Oregon has been great. I’m fortunate Stephanie was willing to take this magic leap with me.”
Matthews admits there is a side of coaching football he misses.
“I don’t miss the daily grind of practice,” he says. “I miss the thrill of the sideline, the rush that you can only get by being there. That part of it is pretty amazing.”
Three months ago, Matthews had knee replacement surgery. On Feb. 19, he’ll have more surgery, a joint replacement in his hand.
“They’re going to make me bionic,” he says.
Little does he know, to the players he has coached over the years, he always has been.