Don Matthews returns to the Als

some may have seen this article on today. for those who haven't, i've pasted it below. thoughts on the Don hanging out with the Als as they head towards the playoffs? will this help them advance past the ticats in the opening round? is he grooming Thorpe to be the next head coach of the birds?

It is “Hat Day?, the eve of the 1983 Grey Cup.

Canada’s national TV network has a dream matchup: the Argos are resurgent, and the Lions have newfound roar under the direction of a charismatic head coach who has confounded his critics since jumping from CIS coaching to the CFL’s Eskimos dynasty.

On the field, a 12-year old is about to prove it is not just “who you know?, but how you make the most of your opportunities. A few strings have been pulled. The aspiring football player’s parents are close friends of the CBC’s Don Whitman.

The boy is respectful and reverent. Terry Grier takes the time to play catch. Romps up and down the field will be remembered every time he looks at the autographs he’s politely collected. Noel Thorpe still has no inkling he’ll ever be a coach in the league, let alone work for the man who signed for him – Don Matthews.

“19 years later he hired me,? recalls Thorpe, who jumped from the UBC Thunderbirds to the pros when “The Don? marched into Montreal in 2002.

“I hung on his every word.?

In this up and down Montreal season, it hasn’t just been darkest before the dawn. It has been darkest before the Return of The Don.

Matthews’ first arrival was full-blown saviour mode 6 years into the team’s rebirth. Successes under the guidance of dynamic GM Jim Popp had led only to four-straight Eastern Final losses, including back-to-back beatings at the hands of Matthews’ Doug Flutie-leadl Argonauts in 1996-97.

Montreal’s franchise frustrations had only heightened with a Grey Cup loss in 2000 and failure to capitalize on the possibility of home field advantage in the 2001 title game.

The Don, always innovative and imperious, was the ringleader of a team that was ribald and brimming with reckless abandon.

“Pressure bursts pipes,? middle linebacker Kevin Johnson liked to say of the defensive mayhem the Als unleashed.

Around that time, Anthony Calvillo was reluctantly given the burden to call his own plays and fulfill his destiny with a Grey Cup MOP honour on Edmonton’s frozen tundra – Matthews’ first proving ground.

“I was never intimidated by his reputation,? insists Thorpe. “It was more like a great teacher. How much time we spent watching film, but it was more than just X’s and O’s. ‘Always treat them like pros.’?

“It’s great to have him here again,? Thorpe says after practice one day this week. “On a personal level and to see his support...we’ve shared a lot of memories.?

It has to be therapeutic for Matthews.

The health battles that forced a hasty departure from Montreal in 2006 and that would force him off the CFL sidelines again several years later can no longer prevent him from the joy of X’s, O’s and the club’s comradery.

The former winningest coach in league history has lingered several weeks at Popp’s invitation. He’s sat in on meetings, and walked the sidelines at practice.

Like a PhD student reunited with his favorite professor, Thorpe is all the wiser in his appreciation.

“Don is a great resource for our players and other coaches,? says Thorpe, hired as defensive coordinator just before Marc Trestman left for the Chicago Bears.

“He watches film, offers insightful ideas. He’s great at identifying weaknesses in opponents and self-scouting.?

One recent Molson Stadium gameday, I only half-jokingly asked Popp if The Don would get to send in a play on offence, or dial up an all-out blitz for Thorpe.

“If he wants to,? Popp chuckled.

“No,? claimed Matthews. But after a pause, he offered “maybe I’ll draw something up for special teams next week.?

Coincidentally, rookie Ben Wells got not 1 but 2 partially blocked punts that afternoon.

“Think outside the box, prepare for every practice and game, and always be ready for in-game adjustments,? Thorpe crystallizes the Matthews coaching legacy.

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Coach Matthews hasn’t just been fraternizing with the Montreal coaching staff; he’s worked directly with certain players.

“They’ve gone to see him,? admits Thorpe. “He’s a fresh set of eyes. He offers little tidbits to make them better.?

That the Alouettes have salvaged a playoff berth in 2013 is thanks in large part to the aggressive defensive scheme and the veterans and newcomers who havee unleashed it.

The Als will vie for the team sack crown, highest interception total, and perhaps the fewest yards against.

“Don laid the foundation and let us build on it,? says Thorpe, who some around the league say is proving to be future head-coaching material like his mentor.

“He was so involved on defence and special teams that people don’t realize he has a real good understanding of the offence.?

Like the software programmer developing viruses only to in turn write the protection, Matthews has always been a master at considering how to beat what he’s developed to win.

His eye for talent guided Popp’s vision from their first days together in Saskatchewan, to the only American Grey Cup winning team, the Baltimore Stallions.

One recent cold gray day at practice, I asked Matthews if Troy Smith’s arm strength reminded him of anyone. Without hesitation, he offered the testimonial I’d wondered about myself.

“Warren Moon.?

But can Matthews stay for a playoff run, preferably one that Smith leads to a late November appearance on another frozen tundra?

“He’s in his element,? Thorpe admits with a chuckle, “but that’s up to him.?

Good to see, always liked Matthews.