Saskatchewan Roughriders | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Saskatchewan Roughriders

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are a team that plays in the Western Conference of the Canadian Football League. They are the oldest continuously operating professional football club in western Canada, and second only to the Toronto Argonauts of the Eastern Conference in length of history. One of only three community owned football teams in the CFL, they play their games in Regina, the least populated sports market in Canada; only the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League are based in a smaller centre. Like the Packers, however, the Roughriders are famed for the intensity of their supporters, known as “Rider Nation,” many of whom live well beyond the borders of Saskatchewan.
Quick Facts about the Saskatchewan Roughriders
Date Founded: 1910
Venue: Mosaic Stadium
Team Colours: Green and white
Grey Cup Victories: 4

Saskatchewan Roughriders: The Early Years (1910–45)

The Roughriders were created as the Regina Rugby Club at a meeting on 13 September 1910. Many of the players had been drawn to the economic boom in the west and wanted to play the North American rugby football they had known in eastern Canada and the United States. City businessmen, seeing sporting success as a powerful advertisement for their growing community, began the long tradition of providing financial support and organizational skill. Within two weeks they had created a four-team league, the Saskatchewan Rugby Football Union, and the following year saw the formation of the Western Canadian Rugby Union (WCRU), comprising teams from Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and Regina.

The Regina Rugby Club quickly became a formidable organization, dominating western Canadian football until the late 1930s. It won its first WCRU championship in 1912 and went on to claim 15 of the first 21 title games. In a seven-year stretch in the late 1920s, the Club was undefeated in western competition, outscoring the opposition 662 to 75; in the process, it held its opponents to an average of an astonishing two points a game. Its goal, however, was to beat the more experienced eastern Canadian teams, and to win the Grey Cup, created in Ontario in 1909 to signify national football supremacy. The Regina Rugby Club had played and lost to the touring Hamilton Tigers in several exhibition matches, the first occurring as early as 1913, and by the 1920s it was challenging for the Grey Cup.

Western teams faced a difficult struggle in Grey Cup games. The contest was always played in the east, usually on the home field of the eastern team, and this meant a tiring two- or three-day train trip for the western champions. In addition, the match was conducted according to eastern rules enforced by eastern officials. The Regina Rugby Club discovered how difficult victory would be when it was beaten 54–0 by the students of Queen’s University in 1923, and then lost five consecutive championship matches from 1928 to 1932 and another in 1934. Such play improved the Rugby Club, and it even taught the eastern teams something: in the 1929 game, Regina players shocked everyone by throwing the first forward passes in Grey Cup history (in rugby, only backward passes are allowed). Within a year eastern rules makers adopted what became the sport’s most exciting play.

Many observers considered the 1936 Regina Rugby Club to be the best team ever assembled in western Canada, and it might well have won its first Grey Cup had it not been for one of the many procedural wrangles that plagued early football competition. Winnipeg had won the West’s first Grey Cup in 1935 with seven players imported from the United States, but a year later the Canadian Rugby Union refused to allow Regina to play in the championship game with its own newly recruited five imports. When the Rugby Club refused to play under such conditions, the Grey Cup went uncontested and was awarded to the Sarnia Imperials, who had defeated the Ottawa Rough Riders 26–20 in the Eastern final. Within a year, import players were permitted to play in Grey Cup games, and they became a key component of football teams across the country.

Saskatchewan Roughriders Name and Colours

The Second World War, like the Great War before it, halted all organized civilian football competition. However, as late as 1943, the Regina Rugby Club was continuing to play as the “All-Services Roughriders,” with players from local army, navy, air force and RCMP units. The “Roughrider” name had been adopted years earlier. In 1924, the Ottawa team, termed the “Rough Riders” after the lumberjacks who worked on the Ottawa River, abandoned the name in favour of the “Senators.” The Regina club quickly seized the opportunity to call itself the “Regina Roughriders,” a term used to describe the rugged officers who broke the broncos for the RCMP. By the 1931 season, Ottawa was again known as the “Rough Riders,” and for the next 65 years, Canadian professional football had two teams with virtually the same name. The Ottawa franchise folded in 1996 and was resurrected briefly as the “Renegades;” and when new owners were denied the right to use the “Rough Riders”, they adopted “Redblacks” in 2013, a name that paid homage to the colours of the original Ottawa teams.

The Redblacks might well have been denied the right even to wear red-and-black had it not been for a quirk of fate. In the summer of 1948, a Roughrider executive on a business trip to Chicago wandered into a war surplus store selling sets of green-and-white nylon football sweaters at giveaway prices. Seeing a bargain, he took two sets back to Regina and, because they were obviously superior to the tattered red-and-black uniforms left over from the pre-war years, the Club adopted the new look. There was surprisingly little objection from its fans, and the Roughriders have worn some form of green-and-white or green-and-black ever since.

The year 1948 saw a much more significant change to the Roughrider identity. Several years earlier, sportswriter Tom Melville had pointed out to Club executives that interest in their team had long ago spread far beyond Regina, and that it had attracted more provincial fans than any other football organization in the country. Realizing that a club explicitly identified with the province would attract even more supporters, the executives voted to change the name to the “Saskatchewan Roughriders.” The change was made with little fanfare, and, indeed, it was many years before commentators adjusted to the expanded name.

In the decades since 1948, the inclusive name and the large “S” on all of the Club’s logos have become iconic for Roughrider supporters. Roughrider jerseys and caps are proudly worn by fans in Saskatchewan and around the world, including on Mayan pyramids, London streets, and even at a remote outpost in Afghanistan. It is a sight that often evokes a cry of “Go Riders” from a bystander. Through a process of evolution, as well as skilful marketing in recent years, the green sportswear and the “S” have come to represent not just a sports team, but an entire province. So warmly have the Club’s followers embraced this phenomenon that, even in losing seasons, sales of its memorabilia make up more than half of all the merchandise sold by CFL teams. After nearly a hundred years of being the league’s poor cousin, the Roughriders have become one of its most financially secure clubs.

Saskatchewan Roughriders: The Modern Era (1945–2000)

In the decades between the end of the Second World War and 2000, however, the loyalty of Roughrider followers was frequently tested. The creation of the Calgary Stampeders in 1945 and the Edmonton Eskimos in 1949 provided increasingly stiff competition for western football supremacy, and the Roughriders had to work hard to compete with the larger, more affluent centres. For a while they did so, getting to the 1951 Grey Cup game under the leadership of the charismatic Glenn Dobbs, an American star quarterback who turned down a contract with the Chicago Bears in order to play for Saskatchewan. However, a gruelling three-game Western final series against the Eskimos had left the Roughriders battered and injured, and they lost the championship game 21–14 to Ottawa.

The Roughriders continued to field competitive teams until disaster struck in 1956. Returning from the All-Star game in Vancouver, four of their best players were killed when their plane crashed into the side of a mountain in the Rockies. As if the heart of the club had been ripped out, the Roughriders went into a tailspin, winning only 13 games in the next four seasons. The lowest point ─ indeed, the worst season in its history ─ was reached in 1959, when they won only one of 16 games.

The Roughriders began to show the results of a rebuilding program in 1962, but it was the 1963 season that saw the most important recruiting in the Club’s history. Its shrewd general manager, Ken Preston, acquired Ron Lancaster from Ottawa for $500 and recruited George Reed fresh out of Washington State University. Known as “the Little General,” Lancaster went to become one of the CFL’s greatest quarterbacks over the next 16 seasons, while Reed became arguably the best running back in the league’s history. Surrounded by skilled local and imported players, Lancaster and Reed anchored a team that won more games in the decade between 1966 and 1976 than any other football club in North America.

This strength took the Roughriders to four Grey Cup games, but did not bring them as many championships as it should have. In 1966, they won the first Cup in their history, beating the heavily favoured Ottawa Rough Riders 29–14. They lost their title to Hamilton the following year and were defeated by Ottawa in 1969. In 1970, they enjoyed their greatest regular season, winning 14 of their 16 games, but they failed to advance to the Cup game when Calgary beat them 15–14 on a field goal in a blizzard on the last play of the third and deciding game of the Western final series. In the 1972 Grey Cup game, the Roughriders seemed to be in control in the dying minutes, but were beaten 13–10 when Hamilton kicked a 34-yard field goal on the last play. Even more painful was the conclusion to the 1976 Cup game, when Tony Gabriel got behind Saskatchewan defenders and, with seconds left on the clock, caught a 24-yard touchdown pass to give Ottawa a 23–20 victory.

The Roughriders had been the favourites going into the 1976 Grey Cup game, but 1977 was the first of 11 consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, the beginning, in fact, of more than two decades of futility. Reed had retired in 1975 and Lancaster followed in 1978, but the Club was probably more damaged when its formidable Canadian lineman Bill Baker played out his option and went to the BC Lions in 1974. This was the beginning of free agency in the CFL and, in an age without a salary cap to level the playing field, Saskatchewan found it difficult to compete with wealthier clubs in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.

The Roughriders, in fact, found it increasingly difficult even to survive as a club. They had always relied on extraordinary community support, from the initial call to form a club in 1910 to the public campaign to rebuild after the Great War to the massive Depression era fundraising drive conducted under the newspaper headline “THE RIDERS NEED HELP!” As the losing seasons ─ and the club’s debts ─ mounted up in the 1970s and 1980s, management was forced to adopt desperate measures to stay alive. In 1979, former Regina sportswriter John Robertson returned from Winnipeg to lead a fundraising campaign, and in the process coined the enduring phrase “Rider Pride.” An annual Friends of the Riders lottery was created in 1985, contributing about $20 million to the coffers in the years since, and, in 1987, a province-wide telethon led by Lancaster, Reed, and dozens of former players and coaches, sold enough tickets to enable the Club to continue to field a team.

Occasionally the Roughriders offered their supporters reason to remain faithful. Though there was little team success, a number of outstanding players donned the green-and-white uniforms, and on two occasions they made it to the Grey Cup game. After a 9–9 season in 1989 put them in third place, they upset Calgary with a 33–26 come-from-behind victory in the dying minutes of the West Division semifinal. Their opponents in the Western final were the Edmonton Eskimos, who, with a 16–2 record, were probably the best CFL team ever assembled, yet the Roughriders beat them 32–21 in Edmonton. A week later, Dave Ridgway kicked a field goal with two seconds left to give Saskatchewan a 43–40 victory in what most observers regard as the most exciting Grey Cup game ever played.

In 1997 the Roughriders followed the same route to the Grey Cup game, though with a much less talented team. Finishing third in the West with a modest 8–10 record, they then upset Calgary and Edmonton in the playoffs, but lost the championship game 47–23 to a strong Toronto team led by stars such as Doug Flutie and Pinball Clemons. A better gauge of the Roughriders’ strength was its 5–13 season the following year, and in 1999 it ended the century with a dismal 3–15 record.

Saskatchewan Roughriders: 2000 to the Present

The beginning of the new millennium was the start of a rebirth of Roughrider fortunes, but the years since then can best be described in Charles Dickens’ famous lines: “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Since 2000, Saskatchewan has been in the playoffs 12 times, appeared in four Grey Cup games and has won the championship twice. It has also missed the playoffs five times, on several occasions ─ notably 2011 and 2015 ─ enduring very poor seasons. At the same time, winning or losing, the Club has enjoyed a greater financial health than at any time in its history.

The Roughriders’ renewed competitiveness in the CFL is in part due to the enforcement of a salary cap, which has leveled the playing field for both rich and financially weaker clubs. Their resurgence has also resulted from some shrewd management, beginning with the appointment of Roy Shivers as manager late in 1999. A gifted recruiter, he quickly began rebuilding the team, and, by 2004, the Riders were in the Western final, losing to the BC Lions 27–25 in overtime. In 2007, the Riders were back in Vancouver for the final, this time with Eric Tillman as general manager, Kent Austin as coach and Kerry Joseph, a quarterback drafted from the defunct Ottawa Renegades. They defeated the Lions 26–17, and went on to win the Grey Cup 23–19 in a defensive struggle in Toronto.

In 2008, despite being badly crippled by an unprecedented seven broken legs across the team roster, the Roughriders took second place, but lost to BC in the Western semifinal. In 2009, however, they won the West and faced the heavily favoured Montreal Alouettes in the Grey Cup game in Calgary. For 48 minutes, the Saskatchewan stymied the Montreal offence and, led by quarterback Darian Durant, ran up a 16-point lead. The game completely turned around in the final 12 minutes, however, with the Roughriders unable to score and the defence surrendering 17 points. Saskatchewan was actually ahead when time expired, but a penalty on the final play gave Montreal a second chance at a winning field goal, and the Alouettes won 28–27. It was the bitterest blow for Roughrider fans since Gabriel’s catch in the 1976 Grey Cup game, and they filed out of McMahon Stadium in stunned silence as if leaving a funeral rather than a football game.

Saskatchewan had a chance to avenge this humiliation in the Grey Cup game the following year, but again lost to Montreal ─ this time 21–18 ─ and it wasn’t until 2013 that the nightmare in Calgary was somewhat exorcized. Quarterbacked by a ferociously determined Darian Durant, the Roughriders beat BC and Calgary to win the West, and then faced Hamilton in the Grey Cup game in Regina’s Mosaic Stadium. Nearly all of the approximately 45,000 spectators were Saskatchewan supporters, most of whom arrived an hour and a half before game time, and the atmosphere was electric. Fielding perhaps the greatest team in their history ─ running back Kory Sheets set a new Grey Cup game record by rushing for 197 yards and Geroy Simon caught the last two touchdown passes of his illustrious career ─ Saskatchewan won 45–23. For most people, it was the greatest experience in a lifetime of following the Roughriders.

The following year, however, the Roughriders fell to the Edmonton Eskimos in the West semifinal. The next two seasons were among the worst in team history, as Saskatchewan missed the playoffs with a 3–15 season in 2015 and a 5–13 record in 2016. In 2017, the Roughriders will play in a new stadium, which fans hope will see the birth of a new golden age for the Club.

Saskatchewan Roughriders Stadium

The Regina Rugby Club’s earliest home games were played at Dominion Park, which had been constructed for baseball and included a grandstand and bleachers, but was demolished late in the First World War. From 1921 on games took place on a soccer field called Park Hughes on the site of what became Mosaic Stadium. Initially fans stood around the dirt track, though some watched the games from the comfort of their automobiles parked along the sidelines, and it was not until 1936 that the first stands were constructed. Football games were played on a dirt field until the 1947 season, when the first grass was laid down. The same year the stadium was named Taylor Field after N.J. “Piffles” Taylor, a prominent Club executive who had famously played quarterback in the 1920s despite having lost an eye during the First World War. None of the changes took away the intimacy of the stadium, and even in the early 1970s fans were permitted to sit within yards of the play along the sidelines and in the endzones. This made Taylor Field a difficult venue for visiting teams, leading sportswriter Jim Kearney to call it “the last stronghold of cannibalism” and BC general manager Herb Capozzi to suggest that it should be listed under “outdoor insane asylums.”

Taylor Field became known as Mosaic Stadium in 2006, when the Mosaic potash company bought the naming rights. A new state-of-the-art stadium under the same name will be officially opened on 1 July 2017 when the Roughriders play their oldest rivals, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Grey Cup

Won Lost Host City
1923 Queen’s University 54 Regina 0 Toronto
1928 Hamilton Tigers 30 Regina 0 Hamilton
1929 Hamilton Tigers 14 Regina 3 Hamilton
1930 Toronto Balmy Beach 11 Regina 6 Toronto
1931 Montreal Winged Wheelers 22 Regina 0 Montréal
1932 Hamilton Tigers 25 Regina 6 Hamilton
1934 Sarnia Imperials 20 Regina 12 Toronto
1951 Ottawa Rough Riders 21 Saskatchewan Roughriders 14 Toronto
1966 Saskatchewan Roughriders 29 Ottawa Rough Riders 14 Vancouver
1967 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 24 Saskatchewan Roughriders 1 Ottawa
1969 Ottawa Rough Riders 29 Saskatchewan Roughriders 11 Montréal
1972 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 13 Saskatchewan Roughriders 10 Hamilton
1976 Ottawa Rough Riders 23 Saskatchewan Roughriders 20 Toronto
1989 Saskatchewan Roughriders 43 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 40 Toronto
1997 Toronto Argonauts 47 Saskatchewan Roughriders 23 Edmonton
2007 Saskatchewan Roughriders 23 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 19 Toronto
2009 Montreal Alouettes 28 Saskatchewan Roughriders 27 Calgary
2010 Montreal Alouettes 21 Saskatchewan Roughriders 18 Edmonton
2013 Saskatchewan Roughriders 45 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 23 Regina

Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame

Position Year Inducted
Jack Abendschan guard/placekicker 2012
Roger Aldag offensive lineman 2002
Ron Atchison centre/middle guard/defensive tackle 1978
Bill Baker defensive end 1994
Greg Battle linebacker 2007
Al Benecick offensive lineman 1996
Ken Charlton running back/flying wing 1992
Bill Clarke offensive tackle/defensive tackle 1996
Tom Clements quarterback 1994
Eddie Davis defensive back 2015
Ray Elgaard slotback 2002
Dean Griffing centre 1965
Eddie James running back/defensive back/flying wing 1963
Gerry James running back 1981
Alondra Johnson linebacker 2009
Harvey “Tyrone” Jones linebacker 2012
Bobby Jurasin defensive end 2006
Eagle Keys head coach 1990
Bob Kramer president 1987
Ron Lancaster quarterback/head coach 1982
Don McPherson president 1983
Ed McQuarters defensive tackle 1988
Gene Makowsky offensive tackle 2015
Don Matthews head coach 2011
Don Narcisse receiver 2010
Willie Pless linebacker 2005
George Reed running back 1979
Dave Ridgway kicker 2003
Al Ritchie head coach 1963
Martin Ruby offensive tackle/defensive tackle 1974
Tom Shepherd executive 2008
Geroy Simon receiver 2017
Brian Timmis defensive tackle 1963
Harold Edward “Ted” Urness offensive lineman 1989
Clair Warner executive/president 1965

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