While they may not have owned the decade, the Edmonton Eskimos could certainly lay claim to a good-sized piece of it.
With six trips to the Grey Cup and three victories in the 10 year span they were the class of the Western Conference. Edmonton made the playoffs nine out of ten seasons in the 1970s. They finished in first place six times and second on three occasions.
The Eskimos and their Eastern rivals the Montreal Alouettes would clash helmets five times in the decade for the right to hoist the Grey Cup.
Head Coaches Ray Jauch (1970-76) and Hugh Campbell (1977-82) were the principal architects of the Eskimos on field success. Campbell guided the Esks to a first place finish all six seasons he was at the helm – including five Grey Cup victories (1978-82). Jauch led them to three Grey Cup appearances and one championship (1975).
The decade kicked off by honouring two all-time Eskimo greats as Johnny Bright (1970) and Jackie Parker (1971) were inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
The Esks captured their first Cup of the 70s on their third appearance. On a bitterly cold November 23, 1975 in Calgary, Dave Cutler kicked three field goals – including one from 52 yards out in the third quarter - as Edmonton beat the Montreal Alouettes 9-8. Neither team scored a touchdown in the defensive struggle.
Three years later the Esks and Als locked horns for the fourth time in the decade and Edmonton prevailed 20-13. Tom Wilkinson was named the game’s Most Valuable Player while running back Angelo Santucci took home the hardware for Most Valuable Canadian.
The two great clubs from the 70s met again in 1979 and the Esks, in another defensive battle, emerged victorious by a score of 17-9. Wilkinson and Warren Moon both threw touchdown passes for Edmonton.
The game marked the fifth meeting in six years between the two rivals with the Esks holding a 3-2 winning margin. The Eskimos beat Montreal in 1975, ’78 and ’79 while the Als beat the boys in Green and Gold in 1974 and ’77.
The Eskimos were led by three outstanding quarterbacks in the 70s. The tandem of Wilkinson (1972-81) and Bruce Lemmerman (1971-79) were fixtures for most of the decade, while Moon (1978-83) helped usher in a new era in the 80s.
‘Wilkie’ was a three time CFL all-star (1974, ’78 and‘79). In 1974 he was the league’s Most Outstanding Player and was MVP of the 1978 Grey Cup. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
Cutler (1969-84), entered the Hall of Fame in 1998, following a 16 year Eskimo career. Generally regarded as one of the best field goal kickers in CFL history, Cutler led the Western Conference in scoring six times in the 70s and is in second place on the Eskimo all-time scoring list with 2,237 points.
Wide Receiver George McGowan (1971-78) was a CFL all-star in 1973, ’75 and ’76. He was chosen the league’s Most Outstanding Player in 1973 and thirty years later entered the Hall of Fame. He ranks fourth in Eskimo receiving history in both receptions with 424 and in yards with 6,356.
Two other receivers launched their careers in Edmonton towards the end of the decade. Both Hall of Famers, Tom Scott played with the Eskimos from 1978-83 and Brian Kelly from 1979-87. Kelly was the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 1979.
Roy Bell (1972-76) was an outstanding running back and two-time CFL all-star (1973 and ’74). He ran for 4,667 yards in his five year Eskimo career. Later in the decade, Jim Germany was a star backfielder for the Eskimos (1977-83) and ended his career as the fourth all-time leading rusher with 5,730 yards.
Hank Ilesic (1977-82) joined the Eskimos straight our of St. Joseph’s High School in Edmonton in 1977. Ilesic was two-time all-star punter and outstanding kicker in the CFL for 19 seasons. He retired with seven Grey Cup rings to his credit in 2001.
Mike Eben, the winner of the first Hec Crighton trophy while a wide receiver at the University of Toronto in 1967, played with the Esks in 1970 and spent ten seasons in the CFL.
Centre Bob Howes played 14 seasons in the CFL, ten of them (1972-81) with the Eskimos.
Some of the finest defensive players in Eskimo history made their mark with the franchise in the 1970’s.
Dan Kepley (1975-84) was a hard-nosed linebacker from East Carolina University and punishing tackler. Kepley along with defensive tackle Dave “Dr. Death” Fennell were part of the vaunted “Alberta Crude” defence in the late 70s. Both were CFL all-stars five consecutive seasons (1977-81) and both are members of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Kepley won the Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award three times including 1977 and was inducted in1996. Fennell, was named Most Outstanding Defensive Player in the 1978 Grey Cup and was selected Most Outstanding Canadian in 1979. He entered the Hall in 1990.
Ron Estay played for ten years with the Eskimos from 1973-82. The two-time CFL all-star joined the Hall of Fame in 2003. Defensive Back and kick return specialist Larry Highbaugh (1972-83) was a three-time CFL all-star and was inducted in 2004.
Defensive Tackle John LaGrone was a six-time Western Conference all-star (1967-74) who spent eight seasons with the Eskimos. Linebacker Dave Gasser played from 1967-72 and was a CFL all-star in ’72. Defensive Back Dick Dupuis played from 1968-76 and was a CFL all-star in 1971.
For Eskimo fans the success of the 70s would immediately spill over into the 80s as the Edmonton run of Grey Cups continued.
The ’78 and ’79 Grey Cup wins were the start of an unprecedented five consecutive championships for Edmonton. Most of those teams owe a large part of their success to the Edmonton Eskimo players of the 1970s.