HISTORY OF THE HAMILTON TIGER-CATS FOOTBALL CLUB
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats Football Club is a professional Canadian football team based in Hamilton, Ontario, and currently a member of the East Division in the Canadian Football League. The team was formed in 1950 by the merger of the Hamilton Tigers and Hamilton Wildcats. Of the two teams, the Tigers were the older and more established franchise dating back to the late 1800s, while the Wildcats were a much newer club. For most of the period between 1900 and 1950, there were two football teams in Hamilton: the Tigers and one of a string of often short-lived teams that culminated with the Wildcats in 1950.
Since the 1950 merger, the Tiger-Cats have won eight Grey Cup championships, most recently in 1999. The team also recognizes all 15 Grey Cups won by Hamilton-based teams as part of its history since each franchise is connected to the current Tiger-Cats club. The Tigers won five Grey Cups, while the Hamilton Flying Wildcats and Hamilton Alerts each won once. However, the CFL does not recognize these wins under one franchise, rather as the individual franchises that won them. If one includes their historical lineage, Hamilton football clubs won league championships in every decade of the 20th century, a feat matched by only one other North American franchise in professional sports, the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings Baseball Club of the International League. After winning at least once in every decade of the 20th century, neither team won a championship in the first decade of the 21st century.
While the Tiger-Cats were only founded in 1950, football in Hamilton goes back much further than that. In fact, Hamilton has one of the oldest traditions of football of any city in the country. Legend has it that the Hamilton Football Club was formed November 3, 1869 in a room above George Lee’s Fruit Store where the team adopted the colours black and yellow. The Tigers played their first game December 18, 1869 against the 13th Battalion (now Royal Hamilton Light Infantry). In 1872, the Hamilton Football Club began play at the Hamilton AAA Grounds and they became known as the Tigers in 1873.
By 1883, the Hamilton Tigers began play in the Ontario Rugby Football Union playoffs. There was no regular season then, just playoff rounds to determine the league champion. In 1883, the Tigers lost to the Ottawa F.C. 14-9 in the semi-final. The first championship team in Hamilton football history came in 1890 when the Tigers beat Queen’s University 8-6 in the ORFU final. The ORFU began playing a regular season in 1898 and the Tigers finished second with a 4-2 record. The Tigers won two Canadian Dominion Football Championships in 1906 – with a 29-3 win over McGill University – and 1908 – with a 21-17 win over the University of Toronto. The team continued in the ORFU until 1907 when the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union was formed. The IRFU consisted of the Tigers, Toronto Argonauts, Ottawa Rough Riders and the Montreal Winged Wheelers. The IRFU later became known as the Big Four and eventually the IRFU became the East Division of the modern CFL in the 1950s.
The IRFU Tigers faced stiff local competition from the ORFU’s Hamilton Alerts, who in 1912, won the 4th Grey Cup by beating the Toronto Argonauts 11-4 to become the first team from Hamilton and the first ORFU team to win the championship. The following season in 1913, the Tigers won their first of five Grey Cups, defeating the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club by a lopsided 44-2 score. The Alerts were refused re-entry into the ORFU in 1913 with many of its players opting to join the Tigers in the IRFU. The Alerts gave way to the Hamilton Rowing Club who played in the ORFU from 1913 to 1915, and by 1914, the Alerts and Tigers were completely amalgamated and continued playing under the name “Tigers” in the IRFU.
From 1916 to 1918 due to World War I, the IRFU and ORFU suspended play. In the final pre-war season in 1915, the Tigers won the Grey Cup again. At that time, the winning teams were responsible for engraving the Grey Cup which Earl Grey had donated in 1909. Before heading off to war, the Hamilton Tigers had the trophy engraved not just for their 1915 win, but for their 1908 Dominion Championship. In essence, they awarded themselves the Grey Cup one year before it even existed. The escapade escaped notice for many years as the Grey Cup was not the highly prized trophy it is today.
Hamilton did have a football team in 1916 as the Hamilton 205th Battalion played in a military league. The Tigers and the Hamilton Rowing Club returned in 1919 when the IRFU and ORFU resumed play. Things were rather unsettled for the second Hamilton team in the ORFU. After not playing for two years, the Hamilton Rowing Club returned from 1922 to 1925. In 1926, the team was called the Hamilton Tigers II. The club got a slightly more dignified name in the Hamilton Tiger Cubs in 1927. The Tiger Cubs lasted from 1927 to 1936. Over that stretch, the Tigers from the IRFU won three more Grey Cups in 1928, 1929 and 1932, and were finalists in 1935. The cat-themed names continued with the Hamilton Panthers who played one season in the ORFU in 1937. There was no Hamilton ORFU team in 1938 and 1939 before the Alerts were revived for one season in 1940.
In 1941, amidst World War II, the Hamilton Tigers folded largely because a number of players had gone into the armed services. In a ripple effect, the failure of the Tigers caused the IRFU to be dissolved, and the Eastern Rugby Football Union was formed. The ERFU consisted of the Toronto Argonauts, Ottawa Rough Riders, Montreal Bulldogs and Toronto Balmy Beach, the latter moving over from the ORFU. In Hamilton, the Hamilton Wildcats were formed to play in the ORFU and were given permission to use players from the Hamilton Tigers, but not the traditional black and yellow colours of the Tigers. The red and white Wildcats played in a three-team ORFU with the Toronto Indians and the Kitchener Panthers, and the team played out of Civic Stadium (later renamed Ivor Wynne Stadium in 1971).
The ERFU lasted only one season leaving only the ORFU for the duration of the war (1942-44). The ORFU consisted of some of its traditional teams such as the Toronto Balmy Beach, and some military teams like the Toronto RCAF Hurricanes. The Wildcats would go on to win the Grey Cup in 1943. Officially, the team name for the 1943 champions was the Hamilton Flying Wildcats, as they were stocked by RCAF personnel. The Flying Wildcats were led by coach Brian Timmis and one of the greatest players in Canadian football history, Joe (King) Krol. In 1944, the navy got bragging rights over the air force as the Montreal-based St. Hyacinthe-Donnaconna Navy team beat the Flying Wildcats in the Grey Cup game played in Hamilton at Civic Stadium.
Things started to return to normal in 1945 when the IRFU and the Hamilton Tigers resumed play while the Wildcats (without the Flying) continued on in the ORFU. In a strange twist, the Tigers and the Wildcats switched leagues in 1948 with the Tigers moving to the ORFU and the Wildcats to the IRFU. The switch was largely prompted by a dispute between the Tigers and the IRFU over the salary of Frank Filchock. In 1947, the Tigers signed Filchock, a star quarterback who had been suspended by the National Football League over some (unproven) gambling issues. Filchock’s high (for the times) $7,000 salary caused problems for the Tigers who wanted the other IRFU teams to help pay for it. The Tigers felt that the other IRFU teams were benefiting from the increased attendance that Filchock inspired, but the Tigers were prevented from benefiting because of their small stadium size. The other IRFU teams didn’t agree and refused to help pay Filchock’s salary, which prompted the Tigers to leave the IRFU and move to the ORFU, which did agree to such a salary sharing proposal to help try to reverse its fortunes. Naturally, the Wildcats moved from the ORFU to the IRFU to replace them.
That switch lasted two years (1948-49) and things didn’t go well. The Tigers lost Filchock to the Montreal Alouettes of the IRFU and the Wildcats weren’t doing well in the IRFU. The Tigers wanted to return to the IRFU, but the Wildcats didn’t want to leave. The IRFU solution was to merge the two clubs and create the Tiger-Cats, with the team calling Civic Stadium home. With the Alouettes having been formed in 1946 and the Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa Rough Riders already in place, the modern CFL was complete.
The ORFU and the IRFU co-existed until 1960 when the ORFU disbanded. The ORFU, however, had been excluded from the Grey Cup playoffs after 1954, and really had become a development league for the IRFU since the end of World War II. For most of the years between the formation of the IRFU in 1907 and the amalgamation that formed the Tiger-Cats in 1950, Hamilton tended to have two football clubs, one in the IRFU and one in the ORFU. The IRFU team was, except for the “hiccup” in the late 1940s, the Hamilton Tigers, while a succession of Hamilton teams played in the ORFU after the Tigers left in 1906.
If there is one word that characterized the early Tiger-Cat teams, it was “tough.” Hamilton was the “Steel Town” and that was the way the city liked its football team to be. The early 1950s were good to Hamilton as the team finished first or second in every year from 1950 to 1953 under head coach Carl Voyles, winning their first Grey Cup in 1953. The team also broke down barriers as Bernie Custis became the first black starting quarterback in professional football history in 1951. Custis immediately earned all-star status in the IRFU and is considered one of the great pioneers in pro sports history. Big and tough head coach Jim Trimble arrived on the scene in 1957, uniting with rugged defensive linemen Vince Scott and Pete Neumann, and leading the Tiger-Cats to their second Grey Cup win. For five of six years between 1957 and 1962, it was Hamilton and Winnipeg in the Grey Cup Final. Unfortunately for Hamilton, Winnipeg won the last four of those meetings, after losing the initial one in 1957. During those years, the Tiger-Cats were led on offence by Bernie Faloney and Tommy Grant.
After the 1960 season, Hamilton attempted to trade Faloney to Montreal for Sam Etcheverry, but the deal fell through when Etcheverry, and later the courts, declared his contract broken and he was off to the NFL. During this era, the Tiger-Cats also became (and remain to this day) the only Canadian team to have ever defeated a current National Football League team. On August 8, 1961, the Ticats defeated the Buffalo Bills by a score of 38-21 (at the time, Buffalo was still a part of the American Football League).
Ralph Sazio took over as head coach from 1963 to 1967, leading Hamilton to the Grey Cup game in four of his five seasons before taking over as general manager. With Faloney still at the helm and a stout offensive line anchored by Ellison Kelly, the Tiger-Cats broke their four-game losing streak in the Grey Cup with a 21-10 win over BC in 1963. While Faloney led the offence, the defence was led by a pair of prototypical Tiger-Cat tough guys in John Barrow and Angelo Mosca. It was a hit, that some say was late, by Angelo Mosca on BC star running back Willie Fleming that put him out of the 1963 game, which is often credited as being the turning point in that game. There was some revenge, however, for the Lions in 1964 when they defeated the Tiger-Cats to win their first Grey Cup. The Tiger-Cats won two more Grey Cups in the 1960s, with wins in 1965 and 1967. The winning combination was a tough defence and a touch of offence brought by outstanding players like Garney Henley, Joe Zuger, Willie Bethea and Tommy Joe Coffey.
The early-to-mid 1970s saw the debut of Tony Gabriel, the final years of Ticats greats Bill Danychuk and Bob Krouse, full-scale renovations to Civic Stadium which was renamed Ivor Wynn Stadium in 1971, and another Grey Cup win in 1972 in front of a hometown crowd in Hamilton. The 13-10 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Ivor Wynne Stadium was led by two sensational rookies, Chuck Ealey, who had an outstanding college career at the University of Toledo, and Ian Sunter, a 19-year-old kicker who booted the deciding field goal that gave Hamilton the championship.
In 1978, Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard assumed ownership of the Tiger Cats. Ballard claimed to be losing a million dollars a year. The Tiger-Cats contended on and off during the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, reaching the Grey Cup final in 1980 and winning the East Division in 1981 with an 11-4-1 record under head coach Frank Kush. However, they were upset by the Ottawa Rough Riders, who finished a distant second at 5-11, in the Eastern Final.
Al Bruno took over as head coach from 1983 to 1990, and the team returned to four more Grey Cups. Bruno’s defence during his tenure, led by standouts Grover Covington, Ben Zambiasi, Less Browne, Howard Fields and Mitchell Price, was very stout, talented and hungry. They were complemented well on offence by quarterback Mike Kerrigan throwing to Rocky DiPietro and Tony Champion, which led to three-straight trips to the Grey Cup in 1984, 1985 and 1986, the latter resulting in winning the title over the Edmonton Eskimos. In 1986, Ballard publicly called the Tiger-Cats a bunch of overpaid losers. After the Tiger-Cats beat the Toronto Argonauts in the 1986 Eastern Final, Ballard said, “You guys may still be overpaid, but after today, no one can call you losers.” A few days later, the Tiger-Cats won the 1986 Grey Cup by beating the Edmonton Eskimos 39-15. Ballard said it was worth every penny.
Hamilton businessman David Braley bought the team in 1989 and he would eventually sell the team to a community-based group in 1992 due to continued poor attendance (Braley would later buy the BC Lions in 1997). Hamilton returned to the Grey Cup in 1989 (making their fifth appearance in the Grey Cup game in the 1980s), but were on the losing end of a 43-40 thriller to Saskatchewan.
The 1990s were marked by financial instability and constant struggles on the field. Quarterback consistency was a weak spot for the Ticats, as the first half of the decade had names like Don McPherson, Damon Allen, Timm Rosenbach, Matt Dunigan, Lee Saltz and Todd Dillon taking their turns at the pivot for brief tenures. Despite the excellent play of all-star Earl Winfield rewriting the team’s record books for pass catching and prolific placekicker Paul Osbaldiston in the prime of his lengthy career, Hamilton struggled to attract crowds to Ivor Wynne Stadium. It was not until 1998, with the arrival of head coach Ron Lancaster and the pitch-and-catch duo of Danny McManus and Darren Flutie, plus the pass-rush abilities of Joe Montford, that Hamilton returned to the CFL’s elite, reaching the Grey Cup game in 1998 and winning the title in 1999.
In 2003, Hamilton entrepreneur Bob Young was introduced by the CFL as the new owner and caretaker of the Tiger-Cats, purchasing the team out of bankruptcy. Under Young’s leadership, the Tiger-Cats regained the trust of their loyal supporters and restored financial stability off the field.
Playing out of an aging Ivor Wynne Stadium, Young was instrumental in brokering a deal for a new permanent home for the team. The success of that project resulted in the construction of Tim Hortons Field, which was built on the very same land formerly occupied by Ivor Wynne Stadium. To facilitate the demolition of the old stadium and construction of the new one, the Tiger-Cats played their home games during the 2013 season out of the University of Guelph’s Alumni Stadium and started 2014 playing home games at McMaster University’s Ron Joyce Stadium before moving into their new home at Tim Hortons Field on Labour Day 2014. The 23,218-seat multipurpose stadium has over 1,000 club seats, 30 private suites and social viewing areas that facilitate out-of-seat viewing experiences in both the north and south end zones.
On the field, the club gradually returned to respectability. In December 2012, the team hired Kent Austin as Vice President of Football Operations, General Manager and Head Coach. Under Austin from 2013 to 2017, the Tiger-Cats enjoyed their best years in the Young era to date, culminating with back-to-back Grey Cup appearances in 2013 and 2014. With Austin at the helm, the club also earned two East Division titles and three Eastern Final appearances, and finished top-two in the East in four consecutive seasons (2013-16), marking only the second time (1998-2001) the Tiger-Cats had done so since the 1960s. Notable players brought in by Austin included quarterbacks Henry Burris, Zach Collaros and Jeremiah Masoli, receivers Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker, and defensive stalwarts Simoni Lawrence and Ted Laurent.
After a brief stint with legendary coach June Jones at the helm in 2017 and 2018, current head coach Orlondo Steinauer will usher in a new era in 2019. Steinauer and his staff, that includes coordinators Mark Washington (defence), Tommy Condell (offence) and Jeff Reinebold (special teams), will look to help the Tiger-Cats claim its first Grey Cup championship since 1999.