Johnson: Sig Gutsche remembered as a generous owner who saved the Calgary Stampeders
‘What would have happened to the Calgary Stampeders without Sig Gutsche? He was there when nobody else wanted to be.’ — Wally Buono
Former Stampeders Jeff Garcia, left, and Rudy Linterman went onto the club’s Wall of Fame with owner Sig Gutsche, right, last September.
Photograph by: Calgary Herald/Files, Calgary Herald
As someone who made a nice living, found fame, playing pitch and catch, Jeff Garcia appreciates a trustworthy pair of hands.
So what he was remembering most Monday was Sig Gutsche’s sure-handed, hands-on approach.
“That connection an owner sometimes has with his players, that Sig had with us back then . . .,” said the former Calgary Stampeders’ and NFL Pro-Bowl quarterback from his home in California. “Well, it doesn’t happen often.
“It’s a rarity.
“If you want to compare it to the NFL, and yes we are talking totally different magnitudes, (former San Francisco 49ers’ owner) Eddie DeBartolo was that kind of guy. He genuinely liked being around his players, providing for his players, kept it light, kept it fun, created a certainly chemistry.
“That was Sig’s style, too.
“Sig was always right in the middle of everything, enjoying himself as much as anybody.
“He brought an attitude, an atmosphere that knit the entire team together. Which allowed us to live in that moment.
“And because of it we were able to have a lot of fun, and a lot of success, on the football field.”
The passing of Sig Gutsche on Sunday at the age of 64 shocked those in this community who remember, who lived and breathed Stampeder football from the mid-90s to 2001. Who anxiously watched a local businessman emerge from all the moneyed silence and foot-shuffling to ante up and assume a large amount of financial debt to save a cherished local keepsake from extinction.
“Sig,” said executive VP Stan Schwartz, hired by Gutsche as the team’s president back in ’96, “was the first one to admit that he didn’t know if a football was stuffed, was puffed, had feathers in it or what . . . but he gave the reins to Wally (Buono) and I and we were fortunate to be successful. He allowed us to run the team.
“His support for the club and his spirit of generosity certainly had no boundaries. A good owner, probably one of the best owners we’ve ever had.”
Current Stamps head coach John Hufnagel was part of Buono’s staff of 18 years ago when Gutsche took control.
“I’m very saddened to hear what occurred over the weekend,” he said. “I know how much he meant for the survival of this football team and it’s not good news.”
Out on the west coast, B.C. Lions’ general manager Buono credited Gutsche with “keeping the tradition alive.” The club had fallen on dire times when he bought it out of receivership court for $1.6 million.
“Say what you want about whoever, when the opportunity arrived to bail out the Calgary Stampeders for, what?, the 15th time, nobody in the city was willing to step up,” said Buono, who won three Grey Cups as Stampeder coach and coach/GM. “Nobody except Larry Ryckman and Sig Gutsche.
“So whether you liked Mr. Ryckman or Mr. Gutsche or not, at the end of it you look at the sports environment, the sports tradition, in that city, and those two guys have to be given a lot of credit. Especially Sig.
“I liked him. I respected him. A blue-collar guy. A really good guy. It was never about him. He had no ego that way. He just said ‘Run the team. I trust you.’ ”
Ryckman, Buono is quick to remind, bought the Stamps at a time when the Alberta government was into a huge marketing promotion with both provincial CFL franchises, the Stamps and Edmonton Eskimos, meaning a substantial amount of money in the piggy bank.
“When Sig Gutsche bought it, there was nothing. Nothing but a lot of debt and a lot of red tape.”
Nevertheless, over six seasons of Gutsche ownership, the Stampeders clawed their way back from the abyss and re-scaled the heights, posting a 67-40-1 record, collecting two Grey Cups on three trips to the big game and began attracting regular sellout crowds to McMahon again.
But manoeuvering down the middle of the road was never anything less than a tricky procedure.
Buono laughed softly recalling Gutsche walking into his office one day with a blank contract.
“He hands me the paper and says ‘OK, Wally write in how much how much you want?’
“And I said ‘Sig . . . if I told you what I want, you couldn’t afford it. And I know you don’t have any money anyway so just pay me what you think best.’
“No, seriously. A blank contract. Put in what you want.
“But, I mean, that’s Sig, right?”
Jeff Garcia, who was enshrined on the Stamps’ Wall of Fame last September along with Gutsche and four others, hadn’t heard the sad news when contacted Monday.
“My condolences to his family and all his friends. I just remember Sig as a great person. A fun-loving guy. He really enjoyed owning the football team. No matter what his personal situation may have been.
“I remember that Grey Cup run in 1998 was very memorable because everything that we accomplished on the field, we had fun off the field. And often, that was with Sig. When I look back, it was great how he involved us in his life. He really opened his doors to us, welcomed us.
“That was the kind of owner, the kind of person, he was.”
As has been mentioned, Sig Gutsche’s name is up on the McMahon Stadium Wall of Fame for all time. And for good reason. Others may have more high-profile, or stayed longer.
Still . . .
“What,” asked Wally Buono pointedly, “would’ve happened to the Calgary Stampeders without Sig Gutsche?
“He was there when nobody else wanted to be.
“If that’s not said, then a lot of people don’t know the truth, right? He found a way to get it done, whether it was orthodox, unorthodox. People got paid. At the end of the day, it was not easy.
“But he made it happen.
“So God bless Sig.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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