The playoffs - from Fred Ritter to the age of Twitter
From firebrand Fred Ritter in 1911 to ill-fated Corey Chamblin in 2014, 29 different men have coached the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the post-season.
They’ve done a fair-to-middling job of it, all things considered — an 80-73-2 playoff record through a century-plus. If you count Grey Cups as your currency, things turn grimmer: Just four of them, with the years burned into Saskatchewan’s collective memory – 1966, 1989, 2007, 2013.
As the 2017 version prepares for another run at the Grey Cup, as Chris Jones grips that Coach No. 30 baton, everybody — fans, coaches, players — owes a debt of gratitude to the men who carved a football team out of nothing. Supporters and stubborn executives kept this thing alive through wars, depressions, migrations and droughts.
The last surviving fan to have witnessed the Roughriders’ first-ever playoff game — a 21-11 win for the Regina Rugby Club (as they were then called) over Moose Jaw in the 1911 Saskatchewan final — has most likely passed away sometime over the last few decades.
The team outlived them all.
That 1911 clash was a game of massive historical importance, as unlikely as it seemed then. It kick-started the love-hate relationship Roughriders fans have with post-season football. Hate’s a steady companion, with dollops of love keeping things light.
One thing we’ve learned, though grief and hard knocks, is that as rabid as the fan base is, playoffs aren’t a necessity in Saskatchewan. If you came of age in the late 1970s and most of the ’80s, you endured a stunning 11 seasons without a single playoff game. They’ve landed 36 playoff berths since the CFL’s official founding in 1958, and missed out 24 times. But it’s sure a nice provincial mood-booster when it happens.
A few months ago, this 2017 playoff run looked dead on arrival. A 2-4 start ran Jones’ overall record in Saskatchewan to 7-17, and left wide open the question of whether he was more likely to be the next Rueben Berry than the next Eagle Keys.
But a funny thing happened en route to the hangin’: The Roughriders absolutely demolished B.C. and Edmonton, beat Winnipeg in the Labour Day Classic, and made everybody re-think the team, and its progression.
It goes without saying that this team is different than its 2015 and 2016 predecessors.
They got better and more confident as the season moved along, which tells us just how well Jones has done his job this season. There’s only one trajectory you want, and those guys are on it.
The 2017 Roughriders have both grit and flair. They’ll get down and dirty, but they’ll also beat you with the pretty play.
With the enigmatic Duron Carter, they’ve even offered up a throwback to those long-ago Riders teams, where certain players would contribute both on offence and defence.
And they’ve done it in a brand-new ballpark those players of 1911 would have regarded with a blend of shock and awe. That team played out of Dominion Park, a much humbler grounds, soon to be laid to waste by the great and deadly cyclone of 1912.
Who could have seen, through 1911 eyes, the miracle these Roughriders have become — this team that grips a province, with green in every closet, cloaking themselves in a palatial stadium and 100-plus years of history?
They’ve played a post-season game here and there along the way, chasing that Grey Cup, like they have since they lost their first one in 1923. Some post-season appearances are spaced well apart, others clumped together. Rider fans are happiest when the clumps happen.
Jones summarized Saskatchewan’s perpetual quest during a pre-season conference call with reporters.
“Unfortunately,” Jones said, “we didn’t get to where we wanted to be last year, so you go back to the grindstone and you keep grinding, and doing all the things you’ve always done. We’ve won everywhere else (as coaches), so just keep on grinding.”
Which they’ve done this year, and throughout their history. It’s why they’re back in the playoffs, one more time.