“Bud Grant is a Blue Bombers icon who set the standard.” | WFC mourn the loss of Bud Grant
Bud Grant passed away at the age of 95 on Saturday, and on the day the iconic Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach took his last breath, patches of snow had settled on the arms, shoulders and the brim of the hat of the bronze statue of his likeness at IG Field.
It could be said that’s a perfect representation of the legend, a man who not only led the franchise to four Grey Cup championships and remains the winningest head coach in Blue Bombers history but built his teams around the principles of mental and physical toughness.
Grant’s Blue Bombers squads won, and they won a lot, whether the games were held in the scorching summer heat, or in rain and wind, snow and fog. As the face of the franchise during those days, the proud product of Superior, Wisconsin — who first came to Winnipeg as a receiver and defensive back in 1953 — came to perfectly represent the prairie grit and spirit.
“Bud Grant is a Blue Bombers icon who set the standard as a coach in the Canadian Football League in Winnipeg and later became a Pro Football Hall of Famer in the same role with the Minnesota Vikings,” said Winnipeg Football Club President & CEO Wade Miller in a statement. “His teams were tough, disciplined, intelligent and won consistently, as evidenced by the Grey Cup championships won during his tenure.
“The WFC offers its deepest condolences to the Grant family and his many friends and former players, both here in Winnipeg and in Minnesota.”
Harry Peter Grant, Jr. was born on May 20, 1927, in Superior and during his youth his mother Bernice called him ‘Buddy Boy’, with ‘Bud’ sticking for the rest of his life. Grant contracted polio at the age of eight, but still became an exceptional three-sport star – baseball, football and basketball – in high school before joining the U.S Navy in 1945, just before the conclusion of World War II.
Grant played all three sports at the University of Minnesota and was selected in both the NFL and NBA Drafts – by the Philadelphia Eagles and Minneapolis Lakers — where he was a member of the latter’s 1950 championship squad.
Grant then turned to football and suited up for the Eagles as a defensive end in 1951, before switching to receiver. Following the 1952 NFL season Grant signed with the Blue Bombers – the club offered him $10,000, more than the $7,000 pitched by the Eagles — and was named an all-star three times, in 1953, 1954 and 1956, and still holds the CFL record for interceptions in a playoff game with five, set in a win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders on October 28, 1953.
Grant’s ascension from player to head coach in Winnipeg is the stuff of legend. He was selected to play in the CFL’s East-West All-Star game in Vancouver following the 1956 season and then changed his travel plans to return home earlier than some of the other players, including teammate Calvin Jones. The flight he was scheduled to be on – Trans Canada Air Lines Flight 810 – crashed into Mount Slesse in B.C., killing all 62 passengers, including the five CFLers.
Just days after that tragedy Grant, then still just 29, got a phone call from then-Blue Bombers president Jim Russell.
“They said they wanted to see me when I got back to Winnipeg,” Grant told bluebombers.com back in 2016 upon the announcement of his induction into the club’s Ring of Honour.
“My family had already gone to Minneapolis, and I was anxious to get home… but they didn’t tell me what they wanted to talk to me about. I thought I had probably been traded. Who knows what goes through your mind.
“But it ended up that they asked me if I was interested in coaching. I was not prepared for that question. I had just had a good year; I was on top of my game, and I was just 29 years old. I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to let me think about that a little bit. I’ll go home and talk to you in a couple of days.’ I started to think about how long I could play. I was still in good shape and had won a receiving title but decided to give it a try. They said they would give me a two-year contract and told them I only wanted one. I said, ‘If I don’t like coaching or I’m not any good at it, this would allow me to still play.’
“They said, ‘Well, we like that better, too.’ I got a one-year contract for $1,000 more than I was making as a player.”
The Blue Bombers went 12-4 in Grant’s first year as head coach, knocked off defending champion Edmonton in the Western Final before falling to Hamilton in the Grey Cup. He continued to add all-star import talent while building a foundation of outstanding Canadian players — and from the first day he traded his helmet for a headset, the Blue Bombers ‘Glory Years’ era began.
The Blue Bombers would appear in six Grey Cups from 1957-65, winning in ’58, ’59, ’61 and ’62, as Grant’s clubs compiled a record of 102-56-2 in the regular season – more wins than any coach in franchise history.
“Some of these guys were older than I was when I became the coach, but I had a good relationship with them,” Grant told bluebombers.com in 2016. “We hunted together, we went fishing together, we played poker together, we drank beer together. I knew them well enough to think they had some respect for me as a person.
“It wasn’t easy. I also had to become the No. 1 recruiter. I knew we had Americans that just weren’t good enough and you’d never cut a Canadian. Having played American football and college football I did have a few contacts and so I started calling everybody I knew asking about coaching and players. I remember I went to Denver and a friend of mine had recommended a player. The first player I signed was Ernie Pitts (a member of both the WFC and Canadian Football Halls of Fame). I had never heard of Ernie Pitts until I got down there.
“The key player, of course, was Kenny Ploen. But we also signed Frankie Gilliam, Ray Jauch, Bill Whistler, Sherwyn Thorson. But Kenny was the ambassador and he helped get a pipeline into Iowa (where he had starred at the University of Iowa).
“Plus, I knew our Canadian contingent was as good as anybody. We had (George) Druxman and (Ed) Kotowich and (Cornel) Piper and Gerry James, (Cec) Luining and (Lorne) Benson, (Keith) Pearce, (Norm) Rauhaus, Gordie Rowland and Nick Miller… we had 12-15 that were as good as anybody.
“I always say, ‘Coaches don’t win football games; players win football games.’ I was smart enough to know that to win, you’ve got to have the best players.”
Grant left Winnipeg for the Minnesota Vikings after the 1966 CFL season – the Vikings had first approached him in 1961 – and he guided that team to their first playoff appearance in 1968 and, a year later, to the first of four Super Bowls appearances. He remains the Vikings all-time coaching wins leader after coaching the team from 1967-83 and again in 1985. He maintained an office at the Vikings facility up until his death, serving as a consultant, and kept up with one of the great passions in his life, hunting and fishing, and regularly returned to his favourite spots in Manitoba even after leaving for Minnesota.
“When Bud came to the Vikings, I read in the paper he worried about missing the great duck hunting he had in Winnipeg,” long-time friend Norb Berg told The Minneapolis Star-Tribune in a 2018 story. “I had a place in the Minnesota River Valley where I hunted, and when I bumped into him at a gathering, I told him if he ever wanted to hunt ducks, to let me know.
“He said, ‘Tomorrow.’”
In 2016, Grant was asked to help christen U.S. Bank Stadium when it opened and it was not long after that moment — and after the announcement of his addition to the Blue Bombers Ring of Honour – when he recalled his long life in the game.
“The thing is, I’m 89 years old now and I’ve lived through all these transitions, from Osborne Stadium to this stadium. That’s an interesting thing to have in the back of your head. Fortunately, my mind is somewhat clear, so I can remember all this stuff.
“But to answer your question about what it means… it means I can sit here today and entertain myself. I can think of the first day I walked into the airport in Winnipeg. I can think of the first game I played. I think of all the fiends I had up there and all the experienced I had.”
Grant was the first person elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (1983) and Pro Football Hall of Fame (1994) and no matter where he went, always raved about his days in Winnipeg as a player and a head coach.
“I made a lot of friends up there, I loved it up there,” Grant said in our conversation back in 2016. “The whole experience left quite an imprint on me. I enjoyed playing so much. I enjoyed Winnipeg so much. I enjoyed my teammates so much. I enjoyed the atmosphere around the Bombers, Canadian football… everything. The town, the people. It wasn’t only the football; it was the whole experience.”
Rest in peace Harry Peter Grant, Jr – May 20, 1927-March 11, 2023.