August 6, 2010

Retro profile: 1970s-era BC Lions

Brian Snelgrove

Following a pair of Grey Cup appearances in the 60’s (1963 and ’64) the BC Lions were unable to claw their way back to the big game in the 1970’s.

The Leos made the playoffs four times in the decade. Three times they finished third and in 1977 finished second – their best overall result – with a record of 10-6.

In 1970, CFL legend Jackie Parker finished his two-season stint as head coach but could do no better than guide the Lions to a 6-10 record and a fourth place finish in the West. Eagle Keys took over in 1971 until he was replaced by Cal Murphy after going 1-5 to start the 1975 season. Murphy (1975-76) and Vic Rapp (1977-82) were in charge for the balance of the decade.

The Lions missed the playoffs the first three years, finally finishing third in 1973. They lost to Saskatchewan 33-13 in the West Semi-Final. The next year was almost a mirror image as the Leos again finished third but lost to the green ‘Riders 24-14.

BC wouldn’t return to the playoffs until 1977 when the Lions fielded their best team of the decade and finished second in the west with a record of 10-6. Quarterback Jerry Tagge was named the Most Valuable Player in the Western Conference as he threw for 2,787 yards. Head coach Vic Rapp, in his first of six seasons at the helm, took home Coach of the Year honours. Centre Al Wilson was named Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman. Wide receiver Leon Bright was Rookie of the Year and had 45 receptions for 816 yards and seven touchdowns. It was the second year in a row that the Lions took home the hardware for best first-year player. Former UCLA All-American quarterback/safety John Sciarra (1976-77) won the award in 1976. Mike Strickland, coming off a 1,119 yard rushing season in 1976, again led the team with 751. In total, the Lions placed ten players on the Western Conference all-star team.

In the West Semi-Final the Lions got by Winnipeg in a 33-32 thriller. Against the Edmonton Eskimos, a team fast becoming another dynasty, the Leos were overwhelmed 38-1 in the final.

Perhaps no player is more symbolic of the Lions of the 1970’s then #30, “Dirty Thirty” Jim Young. Young (1967-79) was one of the all-time great Lions receivers with 522 receptions for 9,248 yards and 65 touchdowns over his 13 year career. Young played in 197 games for BC and led the team in receiving his first nine seasons (1967-75). In 1972, he set a club record of 1362 receiving yards that was broken by Tyron Gray in 1981. His career mark for most career yards receiving stood for nearly 30 years until it was broken by Geroy Simon in 2008. Young’s #30 is one of only eight honoured by the BC Lions in the ring at BC Place. He was elected to the CFL Hall of Fame in 1991.

Jim Evenson (1968-72) rushed for 5,708 yards, second-best in club history behind the legendary Willie Fleming. Evenson led the Lions in each of his five seasons and gained over 1,000 yards every year except 1972 when he ran for 961. A CFL all-star in 1970 and ’71, Evenson led the Western Conference in rushing in 1971 with 1,237 yards on the ground. He finished his career with Ottawa in 1974.

Centre Al Wilson, from Duncan, BC, anchored the Lions offensive line for 15 seasons, from 1972-86. He made seven straight CFL all-star teams (1975-81) and played in 233 games for the Leos. He was the West’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman on three occasions and won the Schenley Award in 1977. His sweater #52 joins Young’s at BC Place. Wilson was elected to the CFL Hall of Fame in 1997.

Johnny Musso, the “Italian Stallion” from Alabama, arrived in BC in 1972 and played for three seasons (1972-74) He was a Western All-Star in ’73 when he led the Lions with 1,029 yards rushing.

Larry Key led the team in rushing in both 1978 and ’79 when he ran for 1,054 and 1,060 yards respectively. Key was a Western All-Star in ’79.

In 1976, kicker/punter Lui Passaglia began his record-breaking 25 year career that would land him in the CFL Hall of Fame (2004). Passaglia has played the most games of any player in CFL history with 408 and has scored the most points in history with 3,991. The Simon Fraser graduate was a nine-time Western All-Star.

The Lions had their share of heroes on the defensive side of the ball in the 70’s.

Ray Nettles was a 6’2”, 220-lb hard-hitting linebacker from the University of Tennessee. Named to the Hall of Fame in 2005, he spent nine seasons in the CFL, five of those with BC (1972-76). A five-time CFL All-Star, including three times with the Lions (1972, ’73 and ’74), Nettles won the CFL’s Most Outstanding Lineman Award in 1973.

Hall of Famer Bill Baker (1994) was a CFL all-star defensive end four times over his 11 year CFL career, including two of his three years with the Lions (1975-76). He won the Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award in 1976.

Defensive back Rocky Long was an outstanding kickoff and punt returner for BC and led the Lions in both categories three straight years (1976-78). He was a Western All-Star in 1977.

Linebacker Greg Findlay played 12 seasons (1962-73) and was a CFL All-Star in 1970. Glen Jackson (1976-87), another outstanding linebacker, was a five-time Western All-Star.

The 1970’s were a challenging decade for the BC Lions. Better times lay ahead as the 80’s beckoned.