Give Winnipeggers a roller-coaster ride

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 1:31 PM ET

So the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have turned 75? Funny, the old girl doesn't look a day over 90.

Seriously, this team is a little like the Keith Richards of sports organizations, having defied the odds to survive this long.

Years of living the high life invariably lead to periods in the gutter, but the community-owned organization always seems to come through, a little worse for wear, perhaps, but breathing.

"Resilient," is how Bomber president/CEO Lyle Bauer describes it. "There always seems to be a way."

You can't blame long-time Bomber fans if they feel they're on the world's longest roller-coaster ride, though.

I mean, just look back to the 1960s, which began with the organization hooked on success, thanks to a five-year binge that included four Grey Cup titles.

By the time '67 rolled around, the life of excess had taken its toll, and the Bombers came down hard. The ensuing hangover lasted years, bottoming out with 1970's 2-14 campaign.

Things got so bad, the team needed a transfusion, and a group of local businessmen, the story goes, ponied up enough cash to pump life back into the thing.

It's always been this way, it seems, for the Big Blue -- wild stretches of living in the Canadian Football League's high-rent district, followed by a stint on skid row.

Perhaps the example was set early: Grey Cups in 1935, '39 and '41 gave way to a 15-year drying-out period. That was just a warm-up for the next drought, though.

Because after the team brought home that fourth Cup in five years in '62, Bomber fans would be forced to go cold turkey for 22 years.

Then along came the 1980s, culminating in a taste of champagne in '84.

The team became addicted to winning again, with championships in '88 and '90, and two more trips to the Cup after that.

Well, guess what?

Here we are, going through withdrawal yet again, in the throes of a 14-year famine, the second-longest in the team's modern-day history.

Along the way, fans have watched as the club came closer than it ever has to flat-lining.

Yes, it appears to be on the rebound now, as close to debt-free as it's been in years. But that's no reason to forget about the past.

You know what they say: if you don't learn from history, it's bound to repeat itself.

THE LATE-60'S CRISIS

Kelvin High School grad Paul Robson joined the Bombers out of the University of North Dakota in 1964, just two years after coach Bud Grant and quarterback Ken Ploen had led the team to its fourth CFL title in five years.

"Everybody was expecting that to continue," Robson recalls. "But in 1967, '68, and '69, we had three pretty lean years under Joe Zaleski."

Seasons of four, three and three victories, consecutively, turned fans off and left the Bombers teetering on the brink.

As a player, Robson didn't know how bad things were.

But when he became the assistant to GM Earl Lunsford in the mid-1970s, he heard all about how a group of local businessmen, led by Arthur Chipman, had dug deep into their pockets, some even taking out mortgages on their homes, to help pay the bills.

Within a few years, the white knights would get their money back.

Thanks to an expansion of Winnipeg Stadium, an exciting team led by quarterback Don Jonas and the implementation of a fundraising dinner, it wasn't long before the club had built up a stabilization fund of $1 million.

That was the franchise's first significant turnaround, but certainly not its last, nor its most dramatic.

Robson, who succeeded Lunsford as GM, says the team's status as a community-owned organization was the key to its survival.

"It was huge," he says. "I mean, private owners can't go out into the community and stage a dinner on the basis of fundraising. And I think some sponsorship might be evaluated differently if it weren't community-owned.

"Winnipeg and Saskatchewan have proven that you have a broad, community appeal. And when times get tough you can go to the community and they'll respond, provided you're running a straightforward organization."

Problem is, times would get really tough in the CFL, and the well-run, small-market, community teams would be left footing the bill, time and time again.

To the Rescue

Taking over from Robson in the GM's chair was Cal Murphy, the coach who'd finally brought the Grey Cup back to Winnipeg in 1984.

Led by quarterback Tom Clements and running back Willard Reaves, the win sparked a period of euphoria in the city.

Little did Murphy know trouble was lurking just around the corner.

It began when the CFL signed a lucrative, three-year, $33-million television deal for the years 1984-86, spurring a spending spree that would soon catch up to everybody involved.

Particularly when the TV deal wasn't renewed.

"Everybody lost $1.1 million a year," Murphy says.

The first casualty was the Montreal Alouettes, who folded on June 24, 1987 -- days before the season was to begin.

That sparked a period of collapsing privately-owned teams that would hit the community-owned ones in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Edmonton where it hurt most: in payments of league revenue, which dried up.

"Where the money was lost every year was the fact three teams were supporting the rest of the league," Murphy recalls. "In '91, when we had the Grey Cup, we earned more than $1 million. And we netted $30,000 on that year. We carried Ottawa from September, on.

"It was a case of, 'Do you want to have a league, or don't you?'"

Murphy says at one point the Bombers were helping to carry three teams, simultaneously.

He's convinced the league wouldn't have survived if it weren't for the three community teams in the west, and he's not alone.

"I don't believe there'd be a CFL without community ownership," Bauer says. "This league wouldn't be where it is. Not a chance. Because they are the ones that have been consistently there, year in, year out, regardless of what the crisis is or how much it cost."

Of course, that good will would come in handy when the Bombers, with Bauer at the helm, would find themselves on the brink of collapse at the end of the millennium.

The 2000 Crisis

Like Robson before him, Bauer's Blue Bomber baptism took place in the trenches, as a member of the offensive line.

And, like Robson, Bauer made the leap from the huddle to the front office, becoming Murphy's assistant in 1992. Three years later, he'd leave the organization to get into the grain business, but the pull of the game was too much for him to ignore.

Had he known how bad things were, you wonder if Bauer would have returned to take the reigns of the team in early 2000.

Years of neglect, on and off the field, had resulted in a $1.5 million loss for '99, the worst year in team history.

But that was only part of the story.

A soaring debt had reached a staggering $5.5 million, and there wasn't a politician around who felt like pouring good money after bad.

You see, the Bombers had received all kinds of breaks over the years, both from the civic and provincial governments. The public appetite for another bailout was limited, to say the least. It didn't matter that the Bombers weren't to blame for a good chunk of the debt.

"There were money crises all through the 80s... and that's sort of what led to a big component of the debt," Bauer says. "Over $3 million of it could be directly attributed to saving or bailing out other franchises."

Bauer paints a bleak picture of early 2000, saying the team wasn't far from closing the doors and declaring bankruptcy.

"There were people that hadn't been paid in over a year, for services and things like that," Bauer recalls. "Any one of those people could have put it to lights out. But they didn't. And we paid everybody off. There was well over $1 million in trade creditors. They hung in there. But they also all did get 100 cents on the dollar."

The saving grace was the vision put together by Bauer and his staff, along with a demanding, yet generous, debt-relief plan hatched with the city and province: for every dollar the club raised, the governments would match, up to certain thresholds.

The CFL also got in the act, the other teams agreeing to forgive a $500,000 loan.

The Bombers, with a streamlined board of directors and a strong CEO in charge, began chipping away, and today carry a debt of some $200,000.

"This is the 20th year I've been associated with the club," Bauer says. "In those 20 years this would probably be the best position the club has been in, from a financial standpoint -- and we still have a debt. But it's certainly moving in the right direction."

2005, and Beyond

Perhaps it's inevitable -- after several years in the black, the Bombers got off to a rocky start this season, on and off the field.

But the club has begun to establish a rainy-day fund for times like this.

The key, long-term, is to increase revenue sources. That's what taking over management of the Stadium, and possibly partnering with the Red River Exhibition to build a new one, are all about.

One thing is certain: the community-ownership model that has got the Bombers through crisis after crisis isn't about to change.

"There are a lot of people who have a vested interest in the football club," Bauer says. "A lot of emotion and passion in the fan base, in the province. There's a lot invested over time. That's the strength. That's what keeps us going. It's attributed to the fans who keep coming, regardless of the outcome. They ride the good times and they suffer the bad times, just like the rest of us."

Robson puts it another way.

"It is clear the community has emotional ownership of the team -- whether they're booing or cheering," he says. "It's when nothing's said that you know you've got a problem."

That seems unlikely. After all, 75 years of history is hard to ignore.

It hasn't all been pretty, but whose history has?

For each one of 10 Grey Cup titles, there's been at least one financial crisis. For every good year, a bad one. For every Ken Ploen, a T.J. Rubley.

"The football club has been there through thick and thin," Bauer says. "The thin times are tough. And there have been some very, very good times."

Perhaps the greatest victory is still being around.

Happy 75th, Big Blue.

KEY DATES IN BOMBER HISTORY:

JUNE 10, 1930 -- The Winnipeg Winnipegs Rugby Football Club was founded with Dick Mahoney as president, and wore green and white.

1933 -- The Winnipegs and St. John's united, adopting the colours blue and gold.

1935 -- Winnipeg Tribune reporter Vince Leah dubbed the Winnipegs "the Blue Bombers of Western football."

Dec. 7, 1935 -- Winnipeg became the first western team to win the Grey Cup, beating the Hamilton Tigers 18-12. Fritz (Golden Ghost) Hanson was the star of the game.

1936 -- Winnipeg registers its nickname as the Blue Bombers.

Dec. 11, 1937 -- Toronto Argonauts nip Winnipeg 4-3 in the Grey Cup after Greg Kabat's 40-yard field goal attempt sails wide for a single point. Hec Crighton was the referee.

1938 -- Toronto Argonauts shell the Bombers 30-7 in the Grey Cup, with Red Storey the hero of the day.

1939 -- Bombers beat Ottawa Rough Riders 8-7 in the Grey Cup. Art Stevenson punted the winning single from the Ottawa 10.

1941 -- Winnipeg beat Ottawa 18-16 in the Grey Cup, with Ches McCance booting the winning field goal from the 38. George Fraser blew the tying field goal from the 17, settling for a single.

1945 -- Toronto Argonauts shellack Winnipeg 35-0 in the Grey Cup, with Royal Copeland the star of the match.

1946 -- Toronto Argonauts blast Winnipeg 28-6 in the Grey Cup, with Joe Krol and Copeland doing most of the damage.

1947 -- Toronto Argonauts nip Winnipeg 10-9 in the Grey Cup, with Krol kicking the winning point on the last play of the game.

1950 -- Toronto defeats Winnipeg 13-0 in the Grey Cup in what has become known as 'the Mud Bowl' because it was played on a quagmire at Toronto's Varsity Stadium. That was the game where Bomber lineman Buddy Tinsley was lying face-first in a puddle of mud when referee Hec Crighton quickly turned him over to prevent Tinsley from asphyxiation.


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