Less than two years before Don Matthews led the Baltimore Stallions to the Canadian Football League Grey Cup title in 1995, he baited his staff into a contest.
Matthews, along with his assistants and general manager Jim Popp, had lugged tables into Memorial Stadium and set up phone lines to start signing players to the expansion franchise.
Whoever garnered the most commitments, Popp remembered Matthews proclaiming, would receive $1 million — paid out over a million years.
The coach’s humor, grit and tenacity to form the Stallions’ championship-caliber bunch is one of Popp’s greatest memories of Matthews’ career, which spanned four decades and included an induction to the CFL Hall of Fame in 2011.
One of the league’s all-time winningest coaches, Matthews died Wednesday at age 77. The Toronto Argonauts said Matthews died of pneumonia in his hometown of Beaverton, Ore.
“He was a brilliant mind,” said Popp, now the Toronto Argonauts general manager. “I just don’t know of any other coach who’s had that much influence on the Canadian Football League.”
After Matthews formed the roster in 1994, his passion and tough coaching tactics shined as the Stallions, then called the CFLs, reached the championship game.
A year later, he ensured that the Stallions claimed the title. It marked his second of five Grey Cups as a head coach, tied for a CFL record.
A five-time CFL Coach of the Year, Matthews received the honor in each of his two seasons in Baltimore before the franchise relocated to Montreal, when the Ravens moved to Baltimore before the 1996 season.
Mike Gathagan, the Stallions’ public relations director, said Matthews’ high expectations propelled the success.
During the 1995 season, Gathagan remembered, the Stallions once played three games in eight days. The players labored through the trip that spanned from Birmingham, Ala., to Edmonton, Alberta, to Montreal.
They lost the final game, though, so when the Stallions returned to Baltimore, they found Matthews holding a tryout for potential replacements.
“That got the players’ attention,” Gathagan said. “Regardless of whether we were in first place in the division and had gone to the Grey Cup the year before and were pretty much the favorites that 1995 season, anyone was expendable.”
After leaving Baltimore, Matthews joined the Argonauts and won two consecutive Grey Cups. He coached in a total of nine CFL championship games, which ties a league record, also hoisting the trophy with the BC Lions in 1985 and the Montreal Alouettes in 2002.
Matthews retired from coaching in 2008 with a 231-132-1 record, then the CFL’s all-time wins leader. The mark ranks second after BC Lions coach Wally Buono surpassed it in 2009.
“I know now he’s second all-time on the win list in CFL history,” Gathagan said, “but I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s the best coach that league has ever had.”
Matthews, born in 1939 in Amesbury, Mass., played football at Idaho from 1960 to 1963 and coached at the high school and college level until becoming a CFL assistant in 1977 and head coach in 1983.
In a statement from the CFL, Jim Lawson, the chair of the league’s board of governors, commended Matthews’ “bold, brash and confident” nature as a reason for his professional success and connections with his players.
“Don Matthews had a style and swagger and passion for life as well as football,” Lawson said. “The CFL was more colorful, more compelling and simply better because he was a part of it.”
Matthews, who lived with his wife, Stephanie, in Beaverton and had four sons, continued to assist CFL teams with front office consulting after retiring from coaching. He’s credited with forming a pipeline to promote and mentor coaches still contributing to the league.
Aside from Matthews' jokes and enthusiasm while building the Stallions' platform, that legacy is what Popp appreciated about his "brother."
“I don’t think there’s ever been a better coach in the CFL,” Popp said. “He was a real innovator.”