Edmonton Eskimos a launching pad for former head coach Neill Armstrong
Gerry Moddejonge Edmonton Journal August 18, 2016
You could say his time with the Edmonton Eskimos was one small step for Neill Armstrong.
While he only spent a portion of his 28-year coaching career in the city, Edmonton was always more than a simple footnote in a life that spanned 90 years – one that came to an end last week in the Texas retirement community of Trophy Club.
While head coaching the Eskimos in the ’60s doesn’t carry nearly the same nostalgia as the championship clubs from the three-in-a-row champions from a decade earlier or the Warren Moon-led dynasty that followed, Armstrong still managed to reach playoffs for three straight seasons during his six years with the club.
From 1964-69, his Eskimos endured a record of 37-56-3 (or .398), while making post-season appearances from 1966-68.
“Even though his tenure in Edmonton wasn’t as successful, obviously, as he wished it was, I think a lot of that was attributed to the fact it was when the AFL and the NFL were having that war,? said Armstrong’s son, Dave, 66. “And it was really tough to go out and find a quarterback if you didn’t already have one.
“Ronnie Lancaster was in Regina, Kenny Ploen was at Winnipeg, Joe Kapp was in B.C., and they never really did find that great quarterback until just after he left and Norm Kimball brought in Tommy Wilkinson and the Eskimos took off from there.?
And so did Armstrong’s career on the sidelines, which followed a seven-year playing career as a wide receiver and defensive back with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, where he won back-to-back championships in 1948-49. After retiring as a member of the Blue Bombers following the 1954 season, he joined the coaching ranks as an assistant with the NFL’s Houston Oilers in 1962, before returning north to take over as head coach of the Eskimos.
“I know he really enjoyed his time in Edmonton and the people on the board of directors, and Bryan Hall and all those people were really good,? said Dave, who was 14 when the family moved to Edmonton, where he remained to attend the U of A before going on to have a 33-year teaching career in the province. “So he only had great memories of Edmonton. In spite of the fact that things didn’t always work out like he wanted, he never sulked or felt like he had been hard done by.?
Quite the opposite, in fact, as it opened further doors in the NFL, where he joined legendary Blue Bombers coach Bud Grant with the Minnesota Vikings from 1970-77, before head coaching the Chicago Bears from 1978-81. He finished off as an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys from 1982-89.
“Jim Finks was the general manager with the Calgary Stampeders, and then got the general manager’s job with the Vikings and he brought Bud Grant down,? Dave recalled. “Those two always had a close relationship and he was defensive co-ordinator for Bud with the Vikings when they had all that success.
“Then Finks took over as general manager of the Bears and he took my dad over there as the head coach. That was that CFL connection between those three men and any inroads they made in the NFL, they kind of looked after each other. So the CFL was a launching pad for those guys.?
But Edmonton remained a part of the Armstrong family along the way.
“A few years ago, my son , Quade, went up and played quarterback for the Golden Bears,? said Dave, who lives in Claresholm. “So it was fun to have that connection again with Edmonton.?
But for as much as football played a role in the Armstrong family, it was family that came first for Dave, his older brother, Neill Jr., sister, Gail Iacobucci, and their mother, Jane.
“He celebrated his 70th anniversary earlier in the summer, so he had 70 great years with my mother. He had a great life,? Dave said, adding his parents met at what is now Oklahoma State University. “He was 20 years old when he got married. He had to get permission from his mother and he had my older brother when he was 21.
“He got an early start on things and got married young and had a great life with my mother.?
A memorial service will be held Saturday at Fellowship United Methodist Church in Trophy Club, Texas, where Dave has been since June.
“We could see that the end was drawing close,? he said. “He was under hospice care, so he was able to be at home right until he took his last breath.
“Because he played in the NFL, the 88 Plan allows you, if you have any dementia they think might be related to playing football – and who can disprove that when you’re the age he was? – to have home care here around the clock for the last few months.
“So it was really just a perfect situation for all of us just to be here with him and be able to share that time together.?