50TH VANIER CUP INTERVIEW SERIES: Jim Donlevy, Alberta (1980)



A conversation with…

Jim Donlevy, head coach, University of Alberta Golden Bears

In Vanier Cup XVI, at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, the Alberta Golden Bears dominated the Ottawa Gee-Gees 35-0 in the first half en route to a convincing 40-21 win and the third national title in program history. Golden Bears legend Jim Donlevy was part of all three Alberta triumphs, first as an assistant coach in 1967 and then as head coach in both 1972 and 1980.

The Golden Bears beat Western Ontario 14-4 in the Western Bowl in Edmonton to advance to the 1980 Vanier Cup final. That was quite the shock to the programs in Eastern Canada.

Western was a powerful team. Greg Marshall, who won the Hec Crighton Trophy that season, was their star running back, and they had a number of other all-stars, along with a huge reputation as a great team and program. I think they might have been a little over-confident coming to Edmonton to play us. It reminded me of the 1963 “Golden Bowl” when Queen’s, which was another powerful team from Eastern Canada, had to come out West to play the U of A in Edmonton, and the Bears won.

In 1980, our staff did a great job breaking down the Mustangs’ systems, and particularly Greg Marshall’s role. Western had been chewing up everyone in the OUAA, but Clarence Katchman and his defensive staff of Larry Dufresne and Dan Syrotuik did a masterful job preparing for Western. There is a classic picture of defensive lineman Blake Dermott and linebackers Nereo Bolzon and Stew McAndrews crushing Greg Marshall in the off-tackle hole. That picture epitomized the defensive preparation.

What is your major memory of the entire Vanier Cup weekand the overall experience?

The best memory, of course, was actually winning the Vanier Cup. That’s not something that happens every day of the week. I was fortunate to be part of six Golden Bear teams that played in the Vanier Cup. Great groups of players, coaches and support staff that managed to win three of them, but the 1980 win was something special.

When we got to Toronto for Vanier Cup week, we couldn’t get on the field at Varsity Stadium to practise. We managed, however, to get on a side field nearby. At the end of practice, we managed to get into Varsity Stadium and the team gathered in the north end zone. It was such a great, historic stadium; the 1954 Grey Cup was played there, when the great Jackie Parker ran about 90 yards on a fumble recovery for the Eskimos’ game-winning touchdown on a fumble recovery. Standing in the end zone, in the dark, I told the team, ‘Look around. There is a lot of history in this stadium, on this field.’ I think that was pretty special, and pretty important for the players.

What is your one major lasting memory of the actual game?

Our coaching staff had done a lot of film breakdown on Ottawa and we knew that they liked to use safety blitzes. Relatively early in the game, our quarterback Forrest Kennerd checked off to a special pass play. Peter Eshenko, playing wide receiver, ran a post pattern that absolutely screwed the defensive back covering him into the ground. Forrest, who wasn’t the tallest guy in the world, was about to be absolutely buried on the safety blitz. He simply knew where Peter was going to be, tossed it up but never saw the completion. Peter caught the pass for the touchdown. This was a critical play for us and set the stage for a solid victory.

Ottawa outmanned us. They were a very good team. We only had one all-Canadian selected that year – defensive back Gord Syme. But I’ve always said about that Golden Bears team, ‘We didn’t have a team of all-Canadians; we had the All-Canadian Team.’ It was a beautiful group of people that really blossomed as a team throughout the year.

(Note: Kennerd’s 316 passing yards in the game were a Vanier Cup record at the time, while his four touchdown passes and Eshenko’s three TD receptions tied Vanier Cup marks that still stand today)

Did anything unusual or out of the ordinary happen during the game or during Vanier week?

At our first practice at U of T, the bus never showed up after we were done to take us back to the hotel. So, as a team, in full gear, we ran back to our hotel, through downtown Toronto. I think that really helped us. Arriving in Toronto, many players for the first time, it would have been easy for the team to be overwhelmed by the city itself, as well as the pressure of the game. So I think when that bus didn’t show, and we ran back to the hotel, in full equipment, through downtown Toronto, past all the skyscrapers, through rush hour, it really helped us settle down, eliminate all the outside distractions and just focus on football.

Did the coaches do anything different from normal routine in the preparation for the game?

We didn’t do anything unusual or different, and I think that was key for us. How the athletes approached that game was really important to our success. We had set that stage all year long, but in reality, this team mentality evolved going back two seasons before that.

What are your memories of the post-game celebrations on the field and/or in the dressing room?

There’s a classic picture of the coaching staff gathered around the Vanier Cup in the dressing room. All are in their coaching duds except for one of us dressed only in a towel!

One of the special things that happened after we won happened in the hotel reception room. Dr. Myer Horowitz, University of Alberta President at the time, wanted to address the team. Not being very tall, a couple of players lifted him onto a chair where he congratulated the team. After his speech, Dr. Horowitz took all the coaches and their wives out to a very upscale Italian restaurant where we had a celebratory dinner together. Dr. Horowitz was a special person and President. He really understood the importance of university sport in Canada. He followed all of the U of A teams very closely.

What was the reaction in Edmonton and on campus when the team returned?

I remember radio personality Wes Montgomery telling me when we got back to “stay humble”, and that’s what we tried to do. We had some great athletes, but no egos and no one player or one person could win games alone. We were a team through and through.

I think there was a party on campus, but it was only for athletes and girlfriends. There was no big parade for us, nothing at City Hall in downtown Edmonton, and who needed it? Not us. I can’t remember anything special being done to celebrate the Vanier, and that was fine. We didn’t need it. The team and now lifelong friendships –– that was enough for us.

What was the coaching staff like in 1980?

That coaching staff might have been one of the best I had the pleasure of working with. Jim Lazaruk, Clarence Kachman, Dan Syrotuik, Larry Dufresne and Murray Smith, who was huge in what he brought to our team. Murray, of course, was a professor at the U of A, and a former U of A head football coach and swimming coach. He was also my mentor and undergraduate advisor as a student at the U of A. When I asked him to be on the staff, he suggested that, ‘the game has passed me by.’ But the game never had passed him by. He brought such a unique perspective to all aspects of our game. He was so good. He simply brought another dimension to our coaches and players.

Really, everyone brought something important to that coaching staff, and it became one fluid, integrated operation. I’m an X’s and O’s kind of guy. You can kind of X and O yourself to death and not be very successful. I remember our first meeting of the year. I was excited about what schemes and systems we were going to run on offence, defence and special teams. It was Jim Lazaruk who said “Hold it, what about focusing first on a team philosophy?” Both he and Murray Smith were big proponents of team principles and philosophy as a first chapter of any playbook. We had a great division of labour on the staff; everyone contributed. We’d go into the coaches room, argue and fight over what to do, but then we’d step onto the field as one unit. There were no egos and everyone was in it together. That’s what team sport is really all about.

You had previously won the Vanier Cup as an assistant coach in 1967 and as a head coach in 1972. Where does the 1980 win compare with the other two? What was different about the 1980 win compared to 1972?

Being an assistant coach for Clare Drake in 1967 was pretty damn special. I remember when we won it, Don Barry, who was a line coach with us for a number of years, said to me, carrying a big chunk of the Varsity Stadium goal post, ‘to the victors go the spoils, and now it’s time for some of them spoils.’ That was pretty special.

In ’72 we were fortunate to get some subtle help from Frank Morris, who was with the Edmonton Eskimos at the time. He really worked with our defensive coaches and showed them a lot of helpful defensive coaching strategies. From my perspective, although we won the Cup, I felt we were a bit fortunate, and maybe lucky. After the win in 1980, however, I had a better handle on why we won and understood more clearly how we achieved the Vanier Cup victory. In 1972, we had great athletes, great preparation and great commitment, but there was some luck involved. In 1980, it was clearer to me how we won, and why we were the better team that day.

How often to you reminisce about your Vanier Cup wins?

Clarence Kachman and Larry Dufresne are special friends of mine, and we get together every once in a while and reminisce about it, but we don’t dwell on it. We had a great reunion a few years ago that was pretty special, and quite a few guys came out for it – even Jamie Crawford from Montreal, our big left-handed back-up quarterback, among others. It was special to see that gang again, and talk about those times. But that was it. We did it and moved on. Maybe we’ll celebrate again when the 40-year reunion hits.

Scott Harrigan
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