Little General, giant loss

Ron Lancaster, shown in 1997 when he was the head coach of the Eskimos, died at the age of 69. (Sun...

Ron Lancaster, shown in 1997 when he was the head coach of the Eskimos, died at the age of 69. (Sun Media/Walter Tychnowicz)

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:28 AM ET

For almost five decades of Canadian football, a lifetime and then some, you couldn't miss Ron Lancaster.

He was everywhere.

He was playing quarterback in my youth on a black and white television screen: In the park, we all tried to roll out and throw on the run like the Little General. He was coaching some of the best and worst teams anyone had ever seen. He was a friendly face and friendly voice in almost every press box.

He was in the broadcast booth alongside Leo Cahill -- the greatest team of analysts and entertainers the Canadian Football League has ever known. He was the coach who answered his own phone, unless he was busy, and then he would apologize for being that when he called you back.

A LIFE TO CELEBRATE

He was all that, and now he is gone. On Hall of Fame weekend in Hamilton of all things. A legend succumbed to lung cancer and an apparent heart attack yesterday at the age of 69 while we celebrate those who came after him. And hopefully, we celebrate the life Lancaster brought to everything he touched. A life worthy or celebration and remembrance.

Lancaster was a smile on the worst of days, hanging on to a bankrupt franchise in Hamilton. He was a story waiting to be told. There was always a happy greeting, a joke to pass on, a firm handshake, a piece of wise analysis. He was comfortable in and around the CFL, like an old piece of furniture, an antique you were always proud of.

You were proud and in his aw-shucks, semi-humble, non-quarterback kind of way, he was proud, as well. He just didn't show it much. He didn't have that air about him. He didn't have to.

There was a certain CFL humility to Lancaster: The essence of why we still grasp on to this game when there is every reason to turn elsewhere. He didn't walk around telling people who he was or what he had accomplished. As he once told me in a lengthy interview a few years back: "I didn't expect any of this ... I've had a ball. I couldn't have had a better life...

"Whatever happens, I've had a great run and enjoyed every minute of it. I've been fortunate. I've never had to get a job. The jobs have always come to me."

The Canadian part of the story began in Ottawa 48 years ago, when Lancaster kissed his young wife, Bev, goodbye, and told her he would be home "when they send me home." But the opposite happened: They never sent him home. He sent for his wife. And a few years later, they sent him to Regina.

"Russ (Jackson) was the quarterback (in Ottawa)," Lancaster once said. "I returned punts, kickoffs, played defence, did whatever they told me to do. When Russ got hurt, I played the rest of the season. The second season, we shared time. The next year, they traded me for what I call a broken helmet."

It wasn't actually a trade. The Roughriders had claimed Lancaster on waivers from the Rough Riders.

For a man who later became synonymous with this franchise, Lancaster wasn't exactly open to the idea of going to Regina.

"It was different than any place I'd been," he said. "You come from the Steel Valley part of Pennsylvania and go to Ottawa, you can handle that. But Regina, there's a town that took some getting used to. The first year, I didn't bring my family. I hated that. I didn't like it after the second year, either.

"But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I played there for 16 years and spent three more coaching there."

Upon retirement, Lancaster owned virtually every passing record in Canadian football. He went from legend on the field to legend in the broadcast booth -- skipping only a few beats and tripping when he tried to coach the terrible Saskatchewan team he had retired from. But he hit the trifecta later, coaching both the Edmonton Eskimos and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to Grey Cup titles, which made him a champion player, champion analyst, champion coach. A man who did everything imaginable in the CFL. Except live forever.

"Our league has lost its Little General," CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said yesterday. "And our country has lost a giant of a man."

Or, to repeat Lancaster's own words: "I've had a ball. I couldn't have had a better life."


Videos

Photos