December 4, 2021

FRASER: On the 1971 Eastern Final

Fifty years ago this year, the Toronto Argonauts clinched first place in the CFL Eastern Conference after a long drought and were faced with the daunting task of defeating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Eastern Final if they were going to play in the 1971 Grey Cup game.

Sounds familiar, eh?

Losing the Labour Day Classic in Steeltown, their second loss in three starts, seemed to light a fire under that Double Blue squad. They responded by reeling off five straight wins; and by Thanksgiving coach Leo Cahill’s team had clinched first in the East for the first time since 1960.

Then, sitting pretty with a 10–2 record and having earned their ticket to the Eastern Final, the Double Blue went off the boil. They brought the regular season to a close with back-to-back home losses, wrapping things up with a 23–15 defeat on Hallowe’en at the hands of the Cats.

“Meaningless” games? Anybody who knows anything about Toronto knows that this town doesn’t do “meaningless” games.

Milt Dunnell accused the Boatmen in the Star of clinching first place and then becoming too busy “admiring the image they created as the best football team in the country” to actually live up to it.

Ken McKee worried that the offence had gone “pass-happy” after rookie running back Leon McQuay’s September knee injury. The kid from Tampa had only missed two games, but since his return he hadn’t been able to do much of the bewitching stutter-stepping and impossible cutting back which had made him the talk of the season.

Rex Macleod at the Globe and Mail suspected that the broken finger that had sidelined quarterback Greg Barton had done more to derail the Argos’ running game than McQuay’s injury. Cahill had been platooning Barton and rookie Joe Theismann all season; and Macleod thought it was Theismann who was “pass-happy”.

Then there was the bone condition that had forced veteran defensive end Ed Harrington to retire. Defensive captain Marv Luster himself had told the press during the season that the whole Double Blue defence took its lead from the front four: left DE Jim Corrigall, left defensive tackle George Wells, rookie right DT Jim Stillwagon and Harrington. Now Harrington was gone; and Stillwagon — the CFL lineman of the year according to Cahill and his staff — was playing on a bad knee like McQuay.

Then there was the knee injury that had sidelined rookie tackle John Trainor since Thanksgiving. To replace him Cahill persuaded thirty-seven-year-old Danny Nykoluk, who had hung up his cleats the previous November after fifteen years in Double Blue, to come back in place of his young successor on the offensive line.

Then there were the dizzy spells that all-star Canadian receiver Mike Eben was still experiencing weeks after being struck down by food poisoning.

While the Toronto press were wringing their hands about such worries, up the QEW in Steeltown the Ticats had their own troubles. Their Hallowe’en victory at the Ex having cost them the services of starting quarterback and regular punter Joe Zuger, GM Ralph Sazio re-signed journeyman Wally Gabler. Released by the Cats earlier in the season, Gabler returned to engineer a convincing 23–4 Hamilton win over Ottawa in the Eastern Semi-Final.

This encouraging result for the home team at Ivor Wynne Stadium set up an Eastern Final between the Ticats and the Double Blue to be played across two, home-and-home legs, the points from both games being tallied to determine the series winner. A normal part of every post-season in the East since 1936, this format would be shelved for the 1973 playoffs.

Leo Cahill found the bye week hard. Asked how he planned to get his players “up” after the lay-off, the coach answered with his characteristic, almost vulnerable frankness: “I don’t know; I’ve never been in this situation before.” After the Final, Cahill would admit to finding the pressure of the build-up almost unbearable.

The first game, played on the artificial turf at Ivor Wynne, could hardly have started better for the Argos. Corrigall sacked Gabler for a safety before receiver Jim Henderson, left wide open when defensive back Al Bremner slipped and fell, took a Theismann pass 52 yards to the end zone. Teenager Ivan Macmillan’s 41-yard field goal added three more points to the Double Blue tally before veteran Tommy Joe Coffey cut into the Toronto lead with a field goal from 25 yards.

“The pressure was tremendous,” Macmillan told Jim Proudfoot after the game. “In a total-points series, you just can’t afford to miss.”

Down 12–3 after fifteen minutes, the Cats took control of the game, but the Boatmen stood firm on defence, limiting the home team’s scoring chances to three short field goal attempts, all of which Coffey missed for singles. In fact, that 25-yarder in the first quarter proved to be the last field goal the thirty-five-year-old would kick in his Hall-of-Fame career.

The third quarter saw Toronto punter Zenon Andrusyshyn score a single after receiver Tony Moro recovered a Hamilton special-teams fumble on the hosts’ 33-yard line. Macmillan added a field goal from 29 yards before a 34-yard scamper by Theismann, onto which fifteen yards were tacked for face-masking, set up a touchdown dive by fullback Bill Symons.

Trailing 23–6 after three quarters the Ticats managed just a pair of singles before the final gun. At the same time Hamilton’s defence held the Argos scoreless, an important achievement in a total-points series.

As far as Leo Cahill was concerned, a 15-point playoff win in Steeltown was nothing short of “a miracle.” However, there were causes for concern in the Double Blue’s offensive performance and the Toronto media could be counted on to find them. Hadn’t the offence only really made two big plays, both fortunately producing touchdowns? Hadn’t Theismann been picked off four times if you counted the one nullified by a penalty?

“I don’t give a damn what it looked like,” Cahill snarled after the game, stung by the press reaction. But he did admit to disappointment that his team had been shut out in the fourth quarter, adding, “I was in this league when a lead of eighteen wasn’t enough for the Argonauts.”

The ominous reference here was to the 1961 Eastern Final, in which the third-place Boatmen stunned the first-place Tiger-Cats 25–7 at CNE Stadium, only to drop the second leg 20–2 in Hamilton, setting up an overtime session in which the Cats scored 28 unanswered points.

Cahill was hardly alone in finding his thoughts turning to that traumatic memory after the big win in Steeltown. The Star’s game report the next morning appeared under the headline “Spectre of 1961 Collapse Haunts Argos,” and most other reports referred to it too.

Still, the mood in Toronto media circles between legs was not entirely blasé about the victory at Ivor Wynne. The defence, coached by Gord Ackerman (front seven) and Jim Rountree (secondary), came in for its usual praise. Up front the star of the game was Jim Corrigall, the sophomore Canadian. Rookie of the Year in the East in 1970, “Country Jim” was now an all-star, but his edgy play had been attracting a lot of flags. “I’m going to play my game,” he told Rex Macleod. “I’m paid to play football for the Toronto Argonauts, not for some official; and I only know one way to play.”

In the secondary Canadian DB Chip Barrett, with an interception, and perennial all-star safety Marv Luster had also stood out in Hamilton. Even so, the Toronto press became distracted by reports out of Steeltown that the Ticats had plans up their sleeves to exploit the weaknesses of Toronto’s secondary in the second leg.

On a field at CNE Stadium which Cahill called “pretty bad”, but which Rex Macleod called “a hog wallow”, the series resumed with another early safety, this time scored by Hamilton. Then rookie linebacker Gene Mack recovered a Gabler fumble caused by a Corrigall sack, and the Argos pounced on the scoring opportunity created by their defence, Symons scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a twelve-yard draw.

As they had at home, the Ticats responded to the early Toronto lead by dominating the second quarter. This time their efforts were rewarded by a touchdown scored on Gabler’s gutsy third-down gamble, Max Anderson scoring from four yards on an end-run.

When the Cats subsequently extended their second-quarter lead to 10–7 on a single, reducing their series deficit to twelve points, that familiar feeling of impending doom began to descend like fog off the Lake upon the 33,135 spectators in the stands.

Unfortunately for the visitors Joe Theismann chose that pivotal moment in the match to put together the drive of the series.

With halftime looming and the big crowd growing jittery, “Joe the Throw” marched the Double Blue seventy-two yards down the muddy field to Hamilton’s thirteen-yard line. From there the rookie hit all-star tight end Mel Profit in the end zone with a pinpoint pass that grazed the outstretched fingers of all-star DB Garney Henley.

With Hamilton shoulders sagging, Theismann quickly prepared to deliver the coup de grâce, marching the Argos right back down to the visitors’ one-yard line. But as he was handing the ball to Leon McQuay it was jarred from his grasp by a bump from teammate Dave Cranmer and the Ticats recovered.

Hollywood couldn’t foreshadow the Grey Cup’s “slip in the rain” any better than that if it tried.

Trailing 14–10 at the half, with Theismann now under strict orders to play things safe, the visitors scored a single, and then a touchdown by FB Dick Wesolowski at the end of a drive mostly made up of Toronto penalties. However, trailing 17–14 in the fourth quarter the Boatmen held the dreaded Spectre of 1961 at bay, a late Macmillan field goal sealing a tie game and an Argonaut victory in the Eastern Final for the first time since 1952.

Although team captain Mel Profit awarded the game ball to Coach Cahill, on the field it was a toss-up for the outstanding performance between Corrigall, with four sacks and a forced fumble to his name, and fellow defender Gene Mack. The “weakness” that Hamilton had identified in the Double Blue secondary turned out to be a tendency for veteran cornerbacks Dave Raimey and “Tricky” Dick Thornton to drop back a little too quickly into coverage. Gabler tried to exploit this with passes to the flats, but Mack broke up most of these plays from his linebacker position.

“Helluva job,” said “Tricky” when asked about the rookie’s performance. “Well executed, that’s a hard thing to cover.”

In the winners’ locker room after the game, the coaches and players were treated to a congratulatory speech by club director “Young Joe” Wright. Now in his sixties, Mr. Wright had played centre for ten seasons in Double Blue, retiring as a Grey Cup champion in 1933, and had remained associated with the club ever since. “It’s been nineteen years since we last won this Dixon Trophy as champions of the East,” said “Young Joe”, whose father “Big Joe” had captained the very first Argonaut team to enter league competition in 1898. “You’ve proven you are the best goddamn team in this league; and remember, we’ve played for the Grey Cup ten times and won ten times.”

Okay, so Mr. Wright got that last bit wrong; but at least he was looking ahead to the next game.

So was Joe Theismann. “I’m bubbling with joy inside,” he told reporters who were poking fun at his apparent lack of emotion. “But I’m not going to start jumping around yet.”

So was Gene Mack. “This Grey Cup has to mean something,” he said. “Guys like Charlie Bray, Marv Luster, Dave Raimey, they showed me that today. Everybody tried so hard. It makes a guy like me suck it up and play better.”

Elsewhere in that jubilant locker room, however, there were signs that would have worried “Young Joe”: signs that winning the Eastern Final was being treated as “job done.” Many players were said to be “broken up by the emotion of the win”. Some veteran leaders “unashamedly wept.” Such was the pressure under which these men had been asked to perform.

Even some cynics in the press got in on the act. “The drought has ended,” declared Ken McKee in his game report in the Star.

Maybe most dangerously of all, Leo Cahill himself allowed himself to get caught up in the euphoria. For someone of his disposition, and with his job reportedly riding on the outcome of the series, it would have been hard to rein things in.

“The Grey Cup game is anti-climactic,” he said in his post-game comments — possibly the most astonishing remark any head coach ever made about the title game. “Sure, I’d like to win. But this one was the big hurdle. This one wipes out all the scepticism that has grown like a cancer for almost two decades.”

Coach Cahill certainly wasn’t the only person in Toronto who felt this way. Whether such feelings had any bearing on what happened in the “anti-climactic” Grey Cup game eight days later is a debate for another day.