This is the sixth in a series of off-season “Blue Bomber Stories,” that are actual excerpts from the next football book written by the authors of Quiet Hero: The Ken Ploen Story. Scott Taylor and Roy Rosmus provide young fans with an opportunity to learn a little about the history of one of the greatest franchises in CFL history…
By Roy Rosmus (with some help from Scott Taylor)
We’ve all heard about the great Blue Bombers coaches. Bud Grant who won four Grey Cups, Cal Murphy who won in ’84 and went to win two more as the team’s GM and Mike Riley who won the last two Bombers’ Grey Cups in 1988 and 1990. However, the first great Blue Bombers coach was a guy many Winnpeggers have long forgotten.
Reg Threlfall came from Purdue University via the University of South Dakota – although, he was born and raised in Newton, Mass. — took over the Bombers in 1938 and won two Grey Cups and six Western championships in seven years at the helm. His teams won 68 of 78 games.
Vince Leah, the great Winnipeg journalist who named the Winnipegs, the Blue Bombers, called Threlfall, “One of the most colourful American coaches to ever come to Canada.” He was loguacious, liked to have a drink or three, smoked more than he should and loved sitting around the table with the boys, dealing some poker and talking football.
“Not only did he have such fun-loving and rollicking characters as the late Ches McCance, Fritzie Hanson, Bill Ceretti and Bud Marquardt to keep him occupied, but Reg enjoyed living it up himself,” wrote Smith. “But while Threlfall and his teams were a carefree lot, they always managed to deliver and Winnipeggers loved watching them perform as much as they enjoyed hearing and reading about their off-field escapades. In other words, football was fun back then.”
It was during one these nights with a few of the Bombers board members that Threlfall suggested the team try to sign a gifted tight end from Minnesota who was unhappy with the Philadelphia Eagles, a guy named Harry Peter (Bud) Grant.
Friendly, outgoing, always fun, Threlfall was one of the most popular coaches in Bombers history. And he was good at his job, too. He loved Canadian players and held players such as McCance, Jeff Nicklin, Les Lear in very high regard.
In his first year with club he took Winnipeg to the Grey Cup against the Argos. It was here that our intrepid coach made the bold prediction: ”We’ll cut ‘em off at the knees and they’ll look like Boy Scouts.”
Nice thought, but the Argonauts had a different idea. Playing at home, Toronto crushed the Western invaders 30-7.
But that didn’t deter Threfall. He challenged the East for the 1939 Cup and on a snow-covered field at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa, the Bombers won a squeaker.
In fact, it was 7-7 and overtime looked like a possibility, when Bombers quarterback Arthur Stevenson kicked the ball to to Ottawa’s Orville Burke. The ball eluded him and was recovered by Winnipeg’s Jeff Nicklin deep in Ottawa territory. Stevenson then attempted a single point, but Burke kicked the ball out of touch near the Ottawa 10-yard line. Stevenson then made good on his second attempt, kicking the ball to the deadline for the winning point. Winnipeg 8, Ottawa 7. The Winnipeg Football Club had become the first team from Western Canada to win multiple Grey Cups.
In 1940, there was a rules dispute that ultimately forced the West out of the Grey Cup game as Ottawa beat Toronto Balmy Beach in a two-game series to claim the trophy, but in 1941, the Bombers were back and they were back with a vengeance.
In 1941, Ches McCance booted a 38-yard field goal (it was called “a placement” in those days), to give the Bombers an 18-16 win and the third Grey Cup in Winnipeg history. Jim Lander picked off a pass late in the game that gave the Bombers the victory.
At the end of the game, members of a Manitoba regiment jumped onto the field and not only tore down the north end goal posts, they carted them away as Winnipeg celebrated Threlfall’s second Grey Cup as the team’s head coach. The 19,065 fans at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium had set an all-time Grey Cup attendance record as Winnipeg became the first three-time Grey Cup winner from the West.
There was no professional football per se in Canada from 1942-44. Our servicemen provided the nation’s competitive teams in those three seasons and here in Winnipeg, our team was the RCAF Bombers. Threlfall remained as head coach and his teams played well but lost a pair of Grey Cup appearances; In ’42 to the Toronto RCAF Hurricanes and in ’43 to the Hamilton Flying Wildcats.
Threlfall retired from coaching in 1945 to go into the insurance business. He was only 41. Maurice Smith, in the Free Press on Feb. 18, 1971 called Threlfall, “Reg is still regarded with more affection than any other coach in the history of football in this city.”
As time has passed, people in Winnipeg have forgotten Reg Threlfall, who passed away at his home in Sun City, Arizona in 1971. That’s a shame.