Bennett’s Breakdown: Legendary Western Mustangs head coach Larry Haylor

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By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TVPersonality

Follow Donnovan on Twitter:@donnovanbennett

I remember it vividly. I was a senior in high school and I got acall from a 519 area code. Since it was long before the days ofcall display I remember questioning whether I should pick it up orlet it go to voicemail.

On the other end was a man with a twang inhis voice that I’d never heard before and couldn’tpinpoint geographically. That’s because it was a formerPrairie boy calling from London, Ontario.

On the other end was the leader of the Western Mustangs, LarryHaylor. Neither of us knew at the time that the man calling me wasa future Canadian football hall-of-famer and this was the first ofmany life altering conversations I’d have with him. ThisSaturday the conversation rightfully turns to honour him along withfellow CIS stalwart Neil Lumsden, and CFL standouts Wally Buono,Charles Roberts, Ben Cahoon, Uzooma Okeke, and Maurice Racine.

Western was relatively late in the recruiting process as I hadonly received an aggressive push from them after I was OFSAA bowlco-MVP with my St. Andrew’s teammate, Michael Faulds. Becauseof that, I was jaded and wasn’t initially buying what Haylorwas selling. He seemed too smooth, almost like a used car salesman.Could anybody truly be that rosy or unflappable? I eventually gotover my skepticism and added Western to the list of schoolsI’d consider because it checked all my proverbial boxes andjust so happened to have a coach that seemed like a politician. Itwas, however, my relationship with that coach that swung thependulum in Western’s favour.

Other coaches talked about denigrating Western. All Haylor didwas speak to what his program offered. Playing defence against thecompetition wasn’t part of his spiel, critics weren’ton his radar and talking about what other schools were lackingwasn’t part of what he did. All of that was why it was hardto tell Haylor that although Western was my top choice in the CIS,I was taking my talents south to the NCAA. He was cordial andcongratulatory. He vowed to keep in touch and wished me well. Lessthan a year later it was my 416 number calling him, telling him Iwas ready to come back to Canada, and this time no recruitment wasneeded.

Now if that sounds like normal behaviour for a coach who haslost a teenaged recruit, I can assure you it isn’t.Recruiting is a highly competitive marketplace and Haylor was selfassured enough not to take it personally. A coach I won’tname once refused to shake my hand post-game the first time Iplayed his school after not committing. I soon learned this wastypical behaviour for him – treating all players whodidn’t commit to his program the same way.

Though it may seem like I worship Haylor, it wasn’t alwayssmooth sailing. He was an incredibly hard man to play for. He wasdemanding and confrontational. He was a perfectionist andunrelenting. He would bark in your face, smack you on the butt.Simply put, playing for him is not for everyone. You have to be acertain breed, but if you are, you will come out the other end,tougher and more durable.

Early in my tenure as a Mustang I found myself in his officeoften, asking him in great detail what I needed to do to get higheron the depth chart. I didn’t always get the answer I wantedand I didn’t always agree with his methodology, but I alwaysrespected him because winning was his chief priority. No hiddenagenda, no ambiguity. His loyalty was to the scoreboardalone.

That’s not to say he put his morals on pause to field thebest possible team he could. Disciplinary actions were dealt withswiftly. During his tenure, there were very few legal or ethicaltransgressions. No cheating or testing scandals. No academic fraud.In comparison to the void of leadership we’ve seen in thepress of late, his ability to steward players from all differentbackgrounds into productive citizens in the greater communitywithout compromising his team’s competitiveness might be hisgreatest accomplishment.

There are so many fond memories I have of playing for the man myclass affectionately dubbed “L-Doggie”. The moniker wasclearly ironic. Haylor was not a hip-hop man.
I think of his hand written ready sheets and cursive penmanship,his lambasting of sideline officials, the Gatorade dunk we gave himwhen he became the all-time winningest coach in 2006, the liquidmessing up his hair just in time for the photo-ops.

Despite being a bitter rival, Haylor was revered by his peers.At East West Bowls, there was always a flock of other coachesaround him, soaking up his football knowledge. During his finalseason, his tour of the league rivalled Derek Jeter’s. Thetour de force of appreciation may have been respect or it may havebeen the appreciation that they’d know longer have to playagainst him. Likely both.

Later that same year, after Haylor’s last ever game – asemi-final loss to Laurier, Duane Forde interviewed him on TheScore and was nearly brought to tears on air. This from a man Ididn’t even know had tear ducts. That’s how thetoughest of men feel about the toughest of coaches. It’smoments like that which truly illustrate what Haylor meant to hisplayers.

It’s not the film sessions or the on field instructionthat sticks with me. Not the relaying of his play calls with whichoften changed three times before I reached the huddle. It’shis habit, his character and two quotes in particular.

The first quote he loved to put on our game-day itinerary andrecite by memory in his final address to the team Friday nightafter walk-through.

“It’s not the critic who counts. It’s not the man whopoints out how the strong man stumbled. Credit belongs to the manwho really was in the arena, his face marred by dust, sweat, andblood, who strives valiantly, who errs to come short and shortagain, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. Itis the man who actually strives to do the deeds, who knows thegreat enthusiasm and knows the great devotion, who spends himselfon a worthy cause, who at best, knows in the end the triumph ofgreat achievement. And, who at worst, if he fails, at least failswhile daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with thosecold and cruel souls who know neither victory nordefeat.”

Nothing like Theodore Roosevelt to get you fired up for afootball game. I doubt it made an impact on how any of us playedthat weekend but I can certainly say it impacted how we view life.Football wasn’t the only game Haylor was concerned with uswinning.

The other was very simply, “Dare to be great”. Itwas on the sign that every Mustang player touches as he leaves thelocker room.

Haylor wasn’t concerned with public perception. Hewasn’t concerned with his outward image. He didn’t carewhat referees thought of him. He didn’t care what otherprograms were doing. He didn’t bother to make baseless claimsto recruits. He cared about striving to be great and was willing todo what he thought was right in his pursuit.

It’s a sentiment I reference often in my post-playingcareer and keep in mind in my interpersonal relationships andprofessional career. Haylor is among the Mount Rushmore of men thathave left a lasting impression on me.

Haylor always joked with me when I left his office, saying,“DJ, you should be an investment banker and just sit back andwatch your money grow.” I laughed because I knew thatwasn’t in the cards – math was my Achilles Heel. But I can dosimple math and it’s obvious to me what Haylor’s legacyadds up to. It’s not the eight Yates Cups or two Vaniertitles. Not the 178 wins and seven OUA Coach of the Year awards.It’s the investment he’s made in the game of footballand how well into retirement he can take solace in seeing thatgrow. He can turn on a CFL game any given night and see a player orcoach he’s impacted – broadcasters Duane Forde or PierreVercheval and current players, Andy Fantuz and Jeff Keeping.

He has impacted the chain of CIS coaches, too, including GregMarshall and Michael Faulds. Both Haylor facsimiles in their ownways. Watching Faulds pace the sidelines back and forth evokesmemories of Haylor. Seeing Marshall play good cop, bad cop with hisquarterback is familiar. Marshall once told me that, afterfollowing Haylor, his job was to pick up the flag and continue tocarry it up the hill.

Haylor dared to be great. Even at the end of his run, he stillshowed great energy and ingenuity in all he did. After all thoseyears his passion burned brighter than ever.

What makes him a hall of fame contributor to the game offootball in Canada is his ability to pass on that spirit to so manypeople he’s touched in the game. He’s a groundbreakeras the first modern-day CIS coach elected to the hall, trailblazingthe path for others, likely to include Brian Towriss, GlenConstantin, Gary Jeffries, Stef Ptaszek – the list goeson.

My fondness for Haylor is more the rule than the exception inthe CIS. There are, across the nation, great coaches shaping greatmen. Haylor dared to create exceptional people and exceptionalwinners. That’s what the CIS mantra is all about. ThisSaturday I raise a glass to you, Larry Haylor. And whenever youcall on me, I’m answering the phone.

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