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Hugh Campbell on Edmonton’s ’81 Grey Cup comeback

You have 10 Grey Cup games to choose from, an entire decade’s worth of championship games to watch. Which one would you go to first?

Human nature is a funny thing, in that we seem to gravitate to the extremes in terms of what we consume. With the 1980s Grey Cup games now available on the Grey Cup on Demand Portal powered by Mark’s, some CFL fans may flock to the end of the decade to watch the Saskatchewan Roughriders claim their second-ever Grey Cup.

Others might go in the other direction to watch a dynasty face its greatest test.

In 1981, the Edmonton Football Team was looking for its fourth Grey Cup win in a row. They’d rolled through the regular-season, going 14-1-1 and all that stood between them and a four-peat was a 5-11 Ottawa Rough Riders team that had gotten hot at the right time.

“(Rough Riders head coach) George Brancato was just a great friend of mine and an excellent coach,” former Edmonton head coach Hugh Campbell said this week.

“Talking privately at the hotel he said to me, ‘We’re just so glad to be here, we’re not even thinking we have a chance to win.’ I can’t say exactly what I said to him, but it had something to do with him being full of something. I said, ‘You’re talking to me.’”

Brancato would say the same thing at the CFL’s award show a couple of nights before the game to a room full of people. Campbell remembers nudging his wife, Louise, and whispering to her, ‘We’re in trouble.’

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Warren Moon had a pair of rushing touchdowns for just a yard each in the 1981 Grey Cup, but played a huge part in Edmonton’s second-half comeback win over Ottawa (Photo: The Canadian Press)

So while it stunned just about everyone watching the 69th Grey Cup in Montreal to see Ottawa jump out to a 20-1 halftime lead, Campbell was in the minority. But he wasn’t overly worried.

“We got off to a bit of a lethargic start there somehow and the stage was kind of set as Ottawa had struggled to get into the playoffs. I wasn’t really proud of our first half,” Campbell said.

“But I was proud of how we came back. At no point did we feel we didn’t have a chance to win. But that was part of our problem, probably.”

We all know that it wasn’t a three-in-a-row dynasty and that Edmonton completed a dramatic second-half comeback that night in Montreal. Dave Cutler’s 27-yard field goal with three seconds left on the clock broke the tie and gave Edmonton its fourth of what would be a five-in-a-row run. It’s a mark that likely won’t be duplicated in the CFL or any other pro sport any time soon.

“I don’t think it was (doable) back then, either. Nobody had ever done it. So everything’s doable,” Campbell said.

Now 79, Campbell looks back on those teams as a collection of immensely talented players that was guided by an incredibly talented coaching staff. While Campbell was head coach, the team basked in quarterback depth, going from Bruce Lemmerman to Tom Wilkinson, to Warren Moon and Matt Dunigan.

Campbell juggled talent and egos to make difficult decisions that were in the best interest of his team. As the dynasty moves into its 40s, Campbell appreciates the buy-in he got from not just his quarterbacks, who could easily be called upon to split duties week-to-week, but from all of his players for putting winning above their personal glory.

To juggle that with the mounting pressure to repeat each season was a monumental task.

“(Winning the five in a row) was exactly as hard as it was for us to win that game (against Ottawa),” Campbell said.

“It was a hurdle to get over that and we had a habit of being there. We knew we worked for everything. And we thought we did everything we had to do to win, and we just rose to the occasion, collectively.

“We did have some pretty good players and we all knew we could count on each other. When you have a kicker that you know is going to make the kick, it makes a difference in your decision process,” he said of Cutler. “It makes it a little easier to say ‘OK, we’re going to try a 40-yard field goal or whatever it is with all the money on the table.”

Campbell left Edmonton after that fifth Grey Cup win to coach the L.A. Express of the USFL and then took the reins for the Houston Oilers, who were in the process of signing Warren Moon out of Edmonton. Campbell returned to Edmonton as the team’s general manager in 1986 and spent 20 years in that role, working as president and CEO of the team from 1998 until his retirement in 2006. In total, he’s been a part of nine Grey Cup teams in Edmonton. He won one Grey Cup as a player, with Saskatchewan in 1966. It was the Riders’ first-ever time lifting the Grey Cup.

Despite winning the ultimate hardware in the league so many times, Campbell was only named the CFL coach of the year once, in 1979, when Edmonton was defending the first of its eventual five championships. Voters were likely spoiled by Edmonton’s success and came to expect it, which is something that tends to surround habitually successful teams. It’s the same reason that more Edmonton players weren’t all-stars, Campbell argued. It was something that bothered those teams, to the point that they broke their huddles talking about winning the only award that wasn’t voted on.

Hugh Campbell runs through strategy with QB Tom Wilkinson during the team’s five-in-a-row run from the late 1970s into the early 1980s (Photo: CFL.ca)

“(The voters) get on to somebody because he sounds good in the media and they’ll vote for him for the coach of the year. I don’t want to take anything away from any of (the past winners),” Campbell said, noting that over history every once in a while the voters do get it right.

“My son’s been voted coach of the year. I thought that year they made a great decision,” he said of Rick Campbell winning the award in 2015 with Ottawa.

Before he got on the phone with a couple of writers this week, Campbell’s daughter Molly, who is the football administration director with the Calgary Stampeders, showed Hugh the links to all of the games in the Grey Cup Portal. He glanced at a few to jar some memories and intends to watch many more games.

“It was fun. There was one team, to me the whole deal,” he said of that group that played in six straight Grey Cups and won five.

“But there’s a drastic difference between how we looked in the first two Grey Cups versus say the last two Grey Cups. We got better and better and better. And we were a pretty difficult team to be because of that.”

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