Clair will be missed

Frank Clair, who passed away Sunday at the age of 87, was called The Professor, a colourful and...

Frank Clair, who passed away Sunday at the age of 87, was called The Professor, a colourful and somewhat aloof coach who was way ahead of his time. (Ottawa Sun File Photo)

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:29 AM ET

The story was repeated over and over yesterday with only a few of the facts in debate: The best of the absent-minded professor stories.

Frank Clair's wife sent him out one football day in Ottawa to go to the grocery store for a loaf of bread or a pack of cigarettes. On the way to the store, the legendary coach somehow remembered there was a game in Hamilton that afternoon and, without a second thought, he proceeded to the airport to fly to Toronto instead.

As his wife waited at home for the bread or the cigarettes, she turned on the television set to watch the game and, much to her surprise, saw her husband interviewed live at halftime.

"That was Frank Clair," Russ Jackson was saying yesterday, one legend talking about another. "I only played for one coach. That's the way his mind worked.

BY THE NUMBERS

"He never called me by my name. He just called me No. 12. He never remembered names. I would spend more time with him than anyone, watching film. With him, it was always No. 26 or No. 62. He was in never-never land sometimes but he sure knew his football."

The old Professor passed away at the age of 87 on Sunday, but the stories will not go with him.

You can't spend a lifetime in the CFL, 36 seasons in all, win five Grey Cups, lose two more, be a football pioneer, have a stadium named for you, without leaving a trail behind.

Jim Hunt remembered yesterday the time he was invited to Clair's cottage for a relaxing summer day. Hunt was swimming in the lake beside Clair when the coach began wildly sprinting toward the shore.

"It was the damnedest thing," said Hunt, the longtime Sun columnist. "He got out of the water and was looking for a pen and paper. He thought of a play. He wanted to write it down. That's the way it was with Clair.

"That's the way his mind worked."

His mind worked this way: Before other coaches looked at game films, Clair was studying film. Before other CFL coaches explored motion in the offensive backfield, Clair was running a motion offence. In 1965, when the CFL began losing players to the NFL, he trumpeted the idea of the league operating as a farm team.

Frank Clair was not afraid of controversy.

He thought Canadian high schools should hire football coaches and run programs similar to American schools. He thought the CFL needed a salary cap long before anyone knew what a salary cap was.

He gambled that a Canadian could star at quarterback when nobody had previously and nobody has since. He argued that CFL teams should be compensated for every player that leaves for the NFL.

"It irks me when they go south and we get nothing for it," Clair said in 1960s. "We are getting robbed of all our entertainment."

That was pure Clair. Ask him a question and he had a definitive answer. Almost always with slight self-deprecation.

Strange, that for all his success, he would be a career pessimist. Ask him how he was and he'd likely say: "I feel fine now, but I don't know how I'll be tomorrow."

Tell him it's a nice day and he might respond: "How would I know? I'm sitting here in a dark office talking to you on the phone."

When U.S. President Lyndon Johnson instituted the draft in the '60s, Clair said: "You know who they're going to draft? They're going to draft all the best American imports of the Ottawa Rough Riders."

Clair was first an Argo. A Grey Cup winner in 1950. A scout in his final football days. But in between, he made his reputation building the great Ottawa teams.

"I think the offence they had in Ottawa -- with Jackson at quarterback, Vic Washington and Bo Scott in the backfield, Whit Tucker and Margene Adkins at receiver -- was the best in CFL history," Leo Cahill said yesterday.

"That offence would rate with any team that was or has been," Jackson said.

Before getting fired after a lifetime in Ottawa, Clair was ordered by the owner to come up with a new quarterback for the Riders.

Typically, in keeping with the legend, Clair didn't find one, he found two rookies.

Their names?

Condredge Holloway and Tom Clements.


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