March 9, 2024

“He was more than just a football coach; he was a great friend”

Former Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Dave Ritchie – a man who was adored and respected by his players during his five-plus years at the helm of the team – passed away today at the age of 85.

His family contacted the football club to indicate he died peacefully at his home in Rumford, Rhode Island with his wife Sharon and his family at his side.

The Blue Bombers issued a statement not long after, with President & CEO Wade Miller, who played for Ritchie during his days as coach from 1999-2004, offering sympathies on the team’s behalf.

“Dave Ritchie was a respected leader during his days as Blue Bombers head coach and in his other coaching positions across the Canadian Football League, in the NCAA and in Europe,” said Miller in the statement. “He had a passion for his players and his teams and led both to great success. The Winnipeg Football Club offers our deepest sympathies to his wife Sharon, Dave’s family, and his many friends.”

Ritchie had two stints on the Blue Bombers coaching staff, first joining Mike Riley’s staff as a defensive line/special-teams assistant in 1990 – earning the first of his three Grey Cup rings that season – and then becoming head coach in 1999.

The club enjoyed a massive turnaround under Ritchie’s watch from 1999-2004, improving from 3-15 before his arrival in 1998 to 6-12 in his first season, a 7-10-1 record in 2000 and a berth in the East Final to a 14-4 mark and divisional championship in 2001. He was named the CFL’s Coach of the Year in 2001.

Ritchie’s teams posted a 52-44-1 record during his Blue Bombers days, that win total now ranking fourth in club history after Bud Grant (102), Mike O’Shea (96) and Cal Murphy (86). He also served as head coach of the B.C. Lions (1993-95), winning a Grey Cup with the team in 1994 and again later in 2006 as an assistant, and with the Montreal Alouettes (1997-98), retiring with 108 career wins – seventh-most in CFL history.

He was inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 2014 and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2022.

“It’s sad, sad news, but I have nothing but great memories,” said Blue Bombers legend Milt Stegall when reached by Saturday. “He was more than just a football coach; he was a great friend. He made sure the players understood that, yes, this is a football team, but it was also a family. That’s what made those years so special. He helped the Winnipeg Blue Bombers get out of that dark place when he got there in ’99. Players loved being around Coach Ritchie and the atmosphere and culture he created there was something special.

“I guarantee you every single player who played for him – whether they were there for his entire time or were only there for a couple weeks – understood how special the atmosphere was that he created there.”



Ritchie’s death comes in a winter that has already seen the Blue Bombers lose legends Ken Ploen, Gerry James, and Jim Heighton, along with alumni like Kelly Malveaux and Craig Roh.

“This is a real hard time for historic Blue Bomber figures and players who have passed way too young,” said Doug Brown, the hall of famer when reached on Saturday. “But what a run he had an what a distinguished individual as a hall of famer.

“He had all the ingredients for the best recipe for what you would want in equal parts for you head coach. He obviously had that compassionate and caring side to him, which was evidenced by how he and Sharon would hold Thanksgiving dinners with open invitations to any players that were outside of Manitoba that wanted to be with him. He had a religious side. He had charisma. He was hilarious and said things that would make you scratch your head and wonder if he was messing with you or not.

“He could tear a strip off you, put his arm around you and then invite you over to his house for Thanksgiving dinner all within a 24-hour cycle. Who else could pull that off but Coach Ritchie?

“That was his nature, and he was true to it.”

The Blue Bombers best season under Ritchie came in 2001, when the club rolled to a 14-4 record and was prohibitive favourites in the Grey Cup that November before being upset by the Calgary Stampeders.

The team went 12-6 and 11-7 in 2002 and 2003 and Ritchie was replaced by Jim Daley in 2004 after a 2-5 start.

“We didn’t win the big dance at the end, but he was a master motivator,” said Brown. “It wasn’t ever overly complex or profound – it was a chip on our shoulder, a Rodney Dangerfield ‘We can’t get no respect’ approach. But the buy-in was tremendous because he was authentic. He was a gregarious, warm character who was also extremely competitive. He could perceive a slight and then pull the strings of his football team to motivate you to no end. It’s cliché to talk about coaches you would ‘run through a wall for’, but I’ve never been as angry on a football field as I was when he was fiery because of the emotion he could bring out in his players.

“You had better be quiet on the bus or the airplane after a loss because it had to be as important to you as it was to him. And if you had enough guys who had that mindset – who hated losing as much as he did – that’s how you were successful as a football team.

“When he stood up, he had such a presence it would quiet a room and you would dial in right then and there.

“He had that twinkle in his eye, that little smile, but he could be a bear.”

Ritchie was also known for his entertaining sessions with the media from his office at old Canad Inns Stadium. Sitting on his desk was a framed quotation: ‘If I ever need a brain transplant, I’ll know to get one from a sportswriter because I know it’s never been used.’

“Oh man, some of the answers he gave you… man, they weren’t from left field, they weren’t even from in the ballpark,” said Stegall with a chuckle. “But he sure made every day interesting. He sure gave you some tidbits you could put in the newspaper that most folks wouldn’t understand. But it was special being around him.

“You didn’t want to let him down. He was like that good old man who sat on the porch as you walked to school every day and always said good things to you or gave you some lemonade or great advice. That’s how it was around Coach Ritchie. He was tough when he needed to be, but he was such a great individual you didn’t mind those times when he had to kick you in the butt because you knew it was for the betterment of the team. He just wanted you to be a great individual and the best football player you could be.

“As I said, sad day, but I’m going to remember all those great times we had under Coach Ritchie even though we couldn’t win the big one,” Stegall added. “That was unfortunate, but the relationships that were formed, the friendships and everything Coach Ritchie brought to that organization was greater than any Grey Cup could have provided.

“A lot of people will mourn at his passing, but a lot of people have benefitted from the opportunity to be around such a great man.”