CFL's elder statesman

JULIE HORBAL -- For the Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:17 AM ET

There are many in the Canadian Football League who have watched the sport through ups, downs and hairpin turns.

None, however, have been through as many passes as Ron Lancaster.

And when Lancaster leads his 1-6 Hamilton Tiger-Cats into Winnipeg on Friday, he does so as the longest standing member of the CFL -- who one month ago was not planning on making the trip at all.

In fact, when the 46-year CFL veteran retired as the fourth-winningest coach in league history he was not even planning on hitting the sidelines again.

Ever.

But with Hamilton sitting at a disappointing 0-3 on the season when July 10 rolled around and the 77-year-old Lancaster sitting in the role of Senior Director of Football Operations, the Ticats organization had different ideas.

Then-head coach Greg Marshall was out and Lancaster -- who retired from coaching three years ago after five years as the Ticats bench boss -- was in on an interim basis.

And that in itself is making this time around a whole new ball game -- literally.

"I've seen the league in pretty much every way, shape and form, except for this one," says Lancaster, who is only on contract until the conclusion of the 2006 campaign.

"This is a unique situation, but this time it's only for 12 games. We're just trying to get the football team on its way. It's hard to be really successful when you change the coach in the middle of the season, but we're all on the same track and that's to start winning some games."

The two-time CFL Coach of the Year has seen time with Ottawa Rough Riders, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Edmonton Eskimos and Hamilton.

He played the better part of 19 years with Ottawa and Saskatchewan between 1960 and 1978 and coached with the latter from 1970 until 1980 and then joined Edmonton in 1991, where he stayed for six years before moving on to Hamilton in 1998.

Between his stints with the 'Riders and Eskies, the former quarterback did colour commentary with CBC and has decidedly seen it all -- though he admits the CFL has not changed that much as he has watched the years go by.

"The athletes just continue to get bigger, faster and better," he says. "The collisions are getting a little more nasty. I've seen a lot of collisions for a lot of years, but with the speed and size, they're getting worse. By the same token, the guys are in better shape all the way up the ladder, so they're better equipped to handle the hits."

As players have gotten larger and speedier, more and more have gone through the ever-increasing coaching ranks and that has changed the look -- though not the heart -- of the game, according to Lancaster.

"It's much more competitive and complex. It's definitely gotten harder to recognize the style of different defences and the like," he says. "The speed of play, the play itself, running and throwing never change. But over the years each coach has added his own touch and the game has changed its face a little."

While not active in a coaching role over the past three years, Lancaster has kept at his directorial duties and feels that combined with his more than extensive stint in various coaching positions made him a shoe-in for turning the timid Ticats around.

He says the fact he was "there, available and in the organization" made the transition for the players and the team as a whole very easy -- though being thrown into the fire came as a huge surprise for the coach who never thought to be called that anymore.

"I did not. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would be coaching again. But I won't be coaching again after 12 games," Lancaster says, making no secret of his lack of desire to retain the position into the 2007 season and see the league through another decade of growing and quickening.

"This move had the least amount of turmoil set loose in the locker room. I don't plan on going any further than picking up the team and winning some games."

Hamilton has gone 1-2 under Lancaster's most recent watch and, while the coach is not necessarily impressed with the record, he admits the entire organization is taking a step in the right direction.

"If experience in this league has taught me anything it's that everyone in that building needs to accept some sort of blame for what happened to coach Marshall. It certainly wasn't just his fault. The players weren't playing to win and the coaches weren't coaching to win," Lancaster says. "Everyone was too worried about everyone else. We're not here to make friends; we're here to win football games. And that's not happening."

Lancaster stands firm to his coaching methods -- the same methods he began fostering nearly three decades ago -- simply because time has proven they work.

The Pennsylvania native has two Grey Cups under his belt and is third on the league's career list in pass completions, pass attempts and yards passing. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1982 and maintains he couldn't have changed many of his methods even then.

"You become who you are in football and, whatever role you're thrown into, you just have to be yourself," he says. "I always coached my way and I'm going to continue to coach the only way I know how. It's too late for me to start changing things and it's been that way for a while. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel at my age."


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