The Don

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

You'll find plenty of players who love him, a few who don't.

One CFL executive compared working with him to having root canal surgery.

Most members of the media just wish he'd go away.

Whenever he does -- and don't bet on it happening any time soon -- he'll swagger into the sunset as one of the most confounding, conniving and controversial personalities in CFL history.

Not to mention the league's most successful head coach.

We're talking about Montreal's Don Matthews, of course, the five-time coach of the year patrolling the east sideline against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Saturday.

You might not see it, but Matthews throws a shadow that's larger than life.

In the six cities that have been graced by The Don's presence, he's left his share of carnage, a trail littered with questions about his health and personal life, bitterness over his domineering style and, yes, more than a few Grey Cup celebrations.

"Don Matthews is the second-best head coach I've worked with in all my years in football," B.C. Lions president Bob Ackles, with more than 30 years of front office experience in both the CFL and NFL, once said. "Jimmy Johnson is the best, but Matthews is certainly second."

Check the record books, and it's hard to argue with Ackles' claim.

Only four head coaches in pro football history have piled up more regular season victories than the CFL record 223 Matthews had posted going into this season.

They are Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry and Curly Lambeau, all NFL legends.

Here in Canada, Matthews is without peer, leading the league in Grey Cup appearances (nine), seasons in the playoffs (18) and first-place finishes (11).

Three other men have matched his five Grey Cup wins, but remember, Matthews isn't done -- his Alouettes remain the favourite in the CFL East. And nobody has won Grey Cups in four different decades.

When it comes to ending championship droughts, Matthews is as good as any rain dance.

He ended a 25-year dry spell in Montreal, a 21-year drought in Vancouver, even brought the Grey Cup to the U.S., leading the Baltimore Stallions to the '95 title.

Still, his name is often uttered with a mixture of reverence and contempt.

Few, if any, coaches in any sport have managed to pile up equal amounts of victory and vitriol.

Here, then, is a look back at the best and worst of The Don.

THE EGO

"Everyone knows that he has an ego bigger than the Yukon," former CFL GM Eric Tillman once said. "Working with him was about as much fun as having root-canal surgery every day."

Tillman's comments came after he worked with Matthews in Toronto in 1997.

Matthews has fallen out of favour elsewhere, like most coaches do.

But because he wins, he always resurfaces. That success has also created a confidence some call arrogance.

His 10 Grey Cup rings (five came when he was an assistant with Edmonton from 1978-82) also give him unprecedented leeway for a head coach who doesn't hold the dual GM's title.

"Anyone and everyone in Camp Matthews is in a subservient role," Tillman said.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say Matthews wields more power in Montreal than GM Jim Popp. But the two obviously co-exist like Matthews and Tillman couldn't.

We can only presume different personalities are at work. Either that, or Popp enjoys the feeling a daily root canal brings.

THE REBEL

"If you're not cheatin', you're not tryin'."

Whoever uttered that line could have had Matthews in mind.

Who'll forget the Spy Games of '04, when The Don was accused of having a member of his staff videotape the signals of opposing coaches in order to help prepare for his next opponent.

It should be pointed out the CFL doesn't actually have a rule in place forbidding such practices. Most coaches, though, wouldn't do it.

It was the Blue Bombers who ratted Matthews out.

Confronted with the accusations here on Aug. 25/04, Matthews was the picture of arrogance.

"The one thing that I've finally figured out is that I'd rather be at the top of the mountain as a hated person than at the bottom of the mountain as a loved person," he said. "And that is my last word on the subject."

THE MENTOR

No less than Argonauts head coach Pinball Clemons counts Matthews as his mentor.

"When you look at the whole spectrum, playing and coaching, Don Matthews is probably the most significant influence that I've had," Clemons said on the eve of last season's East Final.

Bomber boss Doug Berry worked under Matthews the last four seasons, and admits to having taken a few of the boss' ideas with him.

"I wouldn't say I'm trying to be Don Matthews, but I've certainly learned a lot from him," Berry said. "Most of it has to do with his ability to get the attention of the players, the respect of the players, how to handle men."

For instance, Berry has adopted The Don's approach to practice, allowing his players to go without pads and full contact much of the time, the idea being to save their energy for game day.

"Don's a good man," Berry concluded. "He's done a great job. And he helped me become what I am today."

THE BRAIN

He doesn't win by accident.

One of the reasons Matthews always seems to have an edge is his keen football mind, a mind that never stops looking for new ways to exploit an opponent.

Even if it means making last-minute changes to his game plan.

"He'd come up with ideas hours before the game," Berry said. "Something will come to him and he'll implement it. Sometimes that was frustrating as a position coach. You'll say, 'But we haven't even worked on this.' But then you'll realize, 'Gosh, it can work.' "

Matthews may have a reputation as a my-way-or-the-highway guy, but Berry -- offensive line coach, then offensive coordinator in Montreal -- says the boss listened to his assistant.

There's no doubt, though, who had the final say.

"He lets you have input, and if he doesn't think it's going to work, he would tell you," Berry said. "And he would always have input into what you're doing."

PLAYER'S DREAM, OR NIGHTMARE?

"I've seen all sides of Don Matthews," Bomber O-lineman Aaron Fiacconi said.

Fiacconi was an Alouette from 2002 until he was traded to Winnipeg last July. His description of Matthews matches that of most players you talk to.

"He's a no-nonsense coach, but he's a fun coach," Fiacconi said. "That's the one angle that's kept him in such high regard with most of the players. He gave us our freedom and our down time, which a lot of coaches at times don't do. It was a pleasure to play for the guy."

As long as you don't mess up.

Matthews is legendary for keeping players on edge, using the threat of losing their jobs as the ultimate motivation.

"It's interesting," Fiacconi said. "If you play well, you'll play again next week. If you don't... he's going to really evaluate you and then you'll be sitting. Or worse."

Even if it's the championship game.

Bomber defensive back Omar Evans, an Alouette in '03, suffered the indignity of being benched by Matthews for the Grey Cup.

"He thought I wasn't playing with the same confidence I'd been playing with earlier in the year," Evans said. "And he was right. That's the way coach Matthews is. He either likes you or he doesn't. You can't have too many bad games in Montreal, or you're gonna be replaced. Immediately."

Tough as that is, Evans says at least you know where you stand.

"He will not bull-- you. He'll tell you straight up... I respect that."

You get a different perspective from retired Alouette Neal Fort.

Under Matthews tutelage in Baltimore and Montreal, the former O-lineman says it was a guessing game finding out what the boss thought of you.

"It always came through the grapevine," Fort said. "It was never straightforward. It's a head game with him. Always was. You ask anybody who ever played for him, that's what it was all about.

"You win, but ... it's not fun."

Fort does have a Grey Cup ring to show for his time with The Don.

"You do respect that about him," he said. "You can leave it at that: he's a great coach."

BANE OF THE MEDIA

Let's face it: Matthews' biggest detractors are in the media.

He'll humiliate, intimidate and exasperate seasoned veterans, treating interviewers like they wouldn't know a blitz from a blintz.

The man's disregard for the press -- and another example of the power he's achieved -- is in plain view every day: his is the only CFL team that bans reporters from the locker-room.

"Every year the Football Reporters of Canada address it," Montreal Gazette football writer Herb Zurkowsky said. "It seems they can do whatever they want."

Zurkowsky has gone eyeball-to-eyeball with Matthews, and says the man can be an imposing figure.

"Have there been times when I've been intimidated by him? Sure I have," he said. "The guy was a Marine. He's tough. He almost has Popeye-like arms on him. And you can't argue with the record."

TSN isn't so much intimidated by Matthews as fed up with him.

The CFL's primary TV partner decided last season to terminate doing halftime interviews with him.

"It was Don who brought up that he had concerns about the quality of the questions at halftime," then-executive producer, the late Paul McLean, said. "We said, 'That's interesting, because we have some concerns about the quality of the answers.' "

Touche.

THE MAN BEHIND THE HEADSET

Matthews personal life has been the subject of considerable speculation, largely because it seems to be as colourful as the coach.

Married at least four times (the joke is he has 14 rings: 10 Grey Cup, four wedding), the Don has a reputation as something of a Don Juan.

The grandfather of six always has a girl, it seems, prompting a hilarious quote from former Alouette and current Hamilton lineman Adriano Belli.

"I miss the press in Montreal," Belli began. "I miss speaking French and the city's joie de vivre. I even miss Don -- but I don't miss him stealing my girlfriends."

Those who've been to The Don's home -- a modest townhouse overlooking the St. Lawrence River in un upscale neighbourhood on Montreal's Nun's Island -- say it's surprisingly simple.

You wouldn't even know the guy's an award-winning football coach: no photos or trophies decorate the walls-- just Matthews and his beloved Rottweiler, B.J. (short for Blackjack).

"He always says football is what he does, not what he is," Als media relations director Louis-Philippe Dorais said.

That contradicts what Matthews told Sun columnist Jim Taylor in a rare display of reflection last year.

"Coaching consumes me," Matthews said. "There's no question the same reasons I've sometimes had success have cost me failures in other parts of my life. Other people have been able to juggle it better. Me, even when I'm not at the office, I'm at the office."

THE END?

Now 67, Matthews should be slowing down.

Five years ago, when he was abruptly fired by Edmonton in training camp, word was he was burning out and battling health problems.

The next season he resurfaced in Montreal, and he's been proving his doubters wrong ever since.

"When I'm done coaching, you'll have to drag me off the field," Matthews said back in '01.

Good luck getting volunteers to do the dirty work, because this guy continues to be the CFL's most imposing presence.

More than one person interviewed for this piece expressed concern about being portrayed as too critical. Nobody wants to step on The Don's toes, it seems.

Maybe because he's been kicking everybody else around for so long.


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