Rider Pride's Dubious anniversary

Rob Vanstone’s article in today’s Leader-Post (LP) details the 30th anniversary of the famous ‘Rider Pride game, where the Riders were mired in a sea of debt, unable to muster fans, and during the $200-a-plate bun-toss, Winnipeg sportswriter John Robertson railed at Saskatchewan the way Bluto rallied Delta House to glory in the last reel of Animal House. Robertson didn’t utter the famous quote ‘WAS IT OVER WHEN THE GERMANS BOMBED PEARL HARBOUR?’ But he may as well have.

Like about 28,000 people, my father and I attended the following home game against the British Columbia Lions, and the Riders won and everyone went home happy. But in the end, there was a shift in Roughrider fans’ mentality, and in the mentality of the Roughrider board of directors (The Powers That be). Saskatchewan people stopped being football fans, and became ‘enablers’ in the 12-step sense of the word. (Alcohol Self Help News). Roughrider fans became known for accepting any crap inserted into green-and-white jerseys, no matter how badly the game was played or how little, um, ‘entertainment’ was in the match.

Season ticket campaigns took the “Ol’ Yeller” routine: unless people bought tickets, they would kill the club … and if that threat were raised, there were a lot of businessmen and sportswriters, their eyes drooling like Glenn Beck, crying about The Need To Save An Important Part of Our Heritage. In many ways, it was a con job – the Riders were in better financial shape than some of the teams that folded (Montreal Alouettes/Concordes, Ottawa Rough Riders) and had better connections to its local business community than other teams in Toronto, Hamilton, and Vancouver. The Roughriders’ real problem was that they didn’t use those connections and financial stability (in relative terms, this was the CFL after all) as a springboard to bigger and better things – they used it as a crutch to have the club limp along a road to nowhere, both in the stands and as an organization.

Except for a couple of years during the Bill Baker era, the Roughriders didn’t seem to operate like a football club whose main ambition in life was to win football games. Instead, the Riders seemed to be run like, say, the Weyburn Exhibition Board. A bunch of businessmen would get together, hire a couple of people to run the show, and give them the order Don’t Lose Money. If you could bring in the same number of people to the grandstand with ‘family entertainment’ rather than a legitimate act that will draw in people, get the ‘family entertainment’ even though in a couple of years the kids are going, “Well, this sucks,’ and are going somewhere else.

I would argue that one of the two most important games in the history of the Saskatchewan Roughriders was not that game, but a game on Thanksgiving Sunday in 1999, when the Riders played Montreal (I think it was the only game that year that the CBC picked up involving the Riders). It was a beautiful fall afternoon in Montreal, and Percival Molson Stadium probably never looked better, as just over 20,000 jammed into the stands at McGill University to see one of the finest, best run best-cached, and best supported football teams in Canada. And the Roughriders.

The Riders were still in some form of a playoff ‘hunt,’ even though they had a 3-11 record at the time. Reggie Slack was the starting quarterback, who had come down with substance abuse issues and the whole squad looked dead on its feet. I remember the Riders down 35-0 at the half, then the first play from scrimmage to begin the third quarter – Tracy Ham of the Als had all day, all freaking day, to decide where he was going to throw, and lobbed the ball to a wide receiver who ran for paydirt … even as the camera pulled the shot back, there wasn’t a Roughrider player in range. I was editing the Fort Qu’Appelle Times at the time and thought, ‘the closest person from Saskatchewan on that play was my member of parliament, in a hot tub in the Gatineaus.’

I watched that game in the kitchen of my parent’s home, while my father, who was about to finish off his combining, finished his lunch. A few years previous, I bought for him a gag gift at a sporting goods store that was going out of business – a ball cap with the Montreal Alouettes logo – the one they used in the mid-70s before they went bankrupt in 1986. When the Als scored that touchdown, he shook his head, looked at his lynch-lid, now covered in durum dust and sweat, and quipped, ‘Gonna have to buy another hat.’

Later on, I did an op-ed piece for the CBC (actually a rewrite of my Fort Times column) that pronounced not just Rider Pride but the Roughriders dead. There was no way that the Riders’ Powers That Be had the vision or the guts to make the sort of changes that would be needed to make the team a contender. There was a generation of Saskatchewan residents who had grown up knowing the Riders as nothing but a pitiful, helpless excuse of an organization. Nothing like it is today.

Vanstone can wax as eloquently as he wishes about the Riders’ Good Old Days, as he has in two recent books, (LP) but for the Roughriders, these days are the good old days. The Roughriders, by all accounts, are the strongest and wealthiest franchise in the CFL, with the Leafs and Canadiens as one of the most recognizable sporting teams in Canada, the top draw for road teams and worth at least a quarter of a million extra viewers per TSN telecast. (SLAM Sports/Sun Media) Rider Pride was a celebration of wimpdom, in that the Riders needed pity and fear to sell tickets: for all the grousing about the greater corporate entity that’s now the Saskatchewan Roughriders, it’s hard to argue with success, on and off the field. Even if they’re a little less loveable in a teddy-bear sort of way.

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