Johnson: Dinos legend Connellan headed into Hall
Former head coach led U of C to four Vanier Cup wins over 13 seasons
His pre-kick-off introduction into Vanier Cup football at Toronto’s 21,000 seat Varsity Stadium on that November 19th, 1983, did, it be must noted, leave a little something to be desired.
“We were running out on the field to start the game,” recalls Greg Vavra, the University of Calgary’s Hec Crighton Trophy-winning quarterback from that year. “Everybody’s all fired up, ready to go. You know the way it is. And (head coach) Peter (Connellan) tripped over a tool box.
“Yes, a tool box.
“Down he went, papers flying. But he got himself up, shook himself off, a little smile, regrouped and called a pretty good game.
“That was classic Pete. He could laugh at himself. He could laugh with us.
“When you get to know Peter Connellan, two things stand out. His willingness to prepare himself and prepare the people around him and his ability to use humour to motivate.
“All of his players picked up on that, rallied around that. He could take the edge off things. We were well prepared for our opponent, always. But we had a balance in our preparation that was laden with humour that came from Peter Connellan. A lot of times that made the difference.”
This weekend in Winnipeg, Connellan will be inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame alongside Jack Abendschan, Damon Allen, Eric Lapointe, Milt Stegall, Tyrone Jones (posthumously) and David Braley.
Connellan’s influence at both the high-school and collegiate levels, the standards he established, go beyond the gaudy 70-32-2 regular-season record out, those eight Canada West titles, four Vanier Cup appearances, the Frank Tindall trophies in ’77 and ’85 as CIAU coach of the year, a magnificent 16-6 playoff record and his foresight in launching the Fifth-Quarter Club to raise needed monies to fund a program, a game, that remains near and dear to his heart.
All these years later, Connellan can close his eyes and remember growing up in Regina, heading off to Saskatchewan Roughriders’ games (“My claim to fame is that I never paid for any of them”) as a kid, starting in 1947. His voice still softens at kindness of a running back named Gabe Patterson, who swept a big green cape around a starry-eyed moppet for a tour around Taylor Field before a game, giving him the chance to meet his heroes.
He can still see the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the Saskatchewan dressing room; recalls charting plays at Riders practices with a pal and then implementing them during pickup games he spearheaded (no organized minor football at the time) in the city’s north end.
Those touchstone moments were the beginning to this Hall of Fame end.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” says Connellan, “but at the same time there’s a little bit of, uh . . . apprehension? You do have to get up there and say something. The good thing is, they don’t give you much time.
“I’m really leaning on that fact.”
Truth being, this is a man who really shouldn’t have to utter a word. It’s all been said. The list of fine collegiate players he transformed into fine pros or — more importantly — fine people, is limitless. His influence on the amateur coaching fraternity immense, and far-ranging.
“In the two years I was just a guest coach for him, you could see why his program was successful,” says Calgary Stampeders’ boss John Hufnagel, one of those who sent the Hall a letter outlining Connellan’s vast contributions. “Very good football mind. Very well organized coach. Good motivator. Just a great motivator for young kids. His record speaks for itself.
“I was out of football for those two years and I truly enjoyed being around the game again and I appreciate him giving me that opportunity. And of course I had a pretty good guy to work with, Bobby Torrance. An extremely enjoyable experience for me. And, as I said, being on the inside, you could see why that was a very successful program: The guy driving the bus.”
All these years later, that bus will be pulling up outside the Hall in Hamilton.
“I tried,” says Connellan, “to be as open as I could with the players, as far as them knowing what their roles were on the team and how they could contribute to the program. I really tried to include everyone.
“I also felt you had to see the humour in certain things. You can’t be one-dimensional, always demanding or always smiling. They have to see a different side of you at different times. I felt that was important. They’re making a huge commitment, after all, giving up all that time. So it has to be a worthwhile experience and they have to come out of it with something. And one of the things they’ve got to come out of it with is a degree.”
This weekend, Peter Connellan — teacher, motivator, humorist, football coach — joins a club he so richly deserves entry into. He opened with a bang — a 31-21 Vanier Cup victory over Queen’s back in that ‘83 game, and closed as a head coach the same way, 12 years later, after his and the Dinos’ fourth national title.
They’ve been waiting for No. 5 ever since.
“I think,” says Vavra, “that the one characteristic that sets Peter apart is his passion. For football. For everything in his life. He’s also an incredible father and husband. He’s got his priorities very much lined up. And he does everything the same way.
“He just brings a passion and a love and a light to everything he does. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have very high praise for Peter, both as a man and as a football coach.”
After running afoul of that tool box on his Vanier debut 29 years ago, he rarely put a foot wrong in piecing together one of the great legacies in all of Canadian collegiate sport.
“I dunno, a Hall of Fame . . .,” Connellan says, a trifle uncomfortably, “Well, you just never think you’re in that kind of class.”
Canvas anyone in this town, particularly out university way, who was there and you’d get a quick, sharp rebuttal to that remark. For what he accomplished, what he left, what he meant, they’ll tell you that Connellan doesn’t only belong in the class of 2012.
He’s in a class by himself.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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