Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Al Bruno Passes Away

Jason Riley, who's been on a two-decade run at Mac and still loves it, calls Al Bruno "one of my big heroes."
"I'm very, very sad that he's gone," the former Tiger-Cats lineman, and longtime offensive line coach for the McMaster Marauders said softly.
"I really don't know where I would have been without him. He brought me to Hamilton to play for the Ticats, then he brought me to Mac to coach … and I'm still there."
Bruno, the last man still living who had coached the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to a Grey Cup victory, died of heart failure at 9 p.m. Sunday night in hospital in Port Charlotte, Florida. He was 87.
Bruno, from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was a spectacular athlete himself, playing for both the football and championship basketball teams at Kentucky. He is one of a handful of players ever to play football for Paul "Bear" Bryant and basketball for Adolph Rupp, both hall-of-fame coaches.
An offensive end, Bruno was drafted by the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles but, like many Americans at the time, chose instead to play in the CFL (with the Toronto Argonauts) because the pay and opportunities were better. He also played for Ottawa and Winnipeg before moving to the semi-pro London Lords, where he soon became a playing coach and local legend.
That experience got him to the Ticats as an assistant coach in the mid-'60s, then back to the United States where he coached at Harvard for years.
"I'd see him in the Ivy League when he was with Harvard and I was with Brown," recalls Mike McCarthy, who eventually became the Ticats' GM and had Bruno as his head coach for five years, which included three Grey Cup appearances and one title.
"He was the ultimate players' coach … the players absolutely loved him."
One of those players was Riley, who had been drafted by Winnipeg, cut by Saskatchewan and was heading home, perhaps to a life without football, when Bruno asked him to come to Hamilton in 1984.
"And we made three straight Grey Cups, the first two with three different quarterbacks and that just doesn't happen," Riley said. "He was coach eight years and made the Grey Cup four times. That didn't occur anywhere but Edmonton at the time. Unfortunately, we won only one Cup."
That was the '86 shocker in which the Cats absolutely belted the heavily favoured Edmonton Eskimos. But the Ticats were also right there until the last second of the 1989 game at then-SkyDome, which they lost on Dave Ridgway's field goal. Most Canadian football observers call that The Greatest Game Every Played … on either side of the border.
Twelve games into the next season, he was fired. After scouting for a while, he took over as head coach of the stagnant Mac program in 1994, invited Riley to join him on the staff, and remained there until he retired to Florida in 1996.
"We went 0-8 that first year, and in 2011 we won the Vanier Cup," Riley said. "So it's been pretty great."
In Port Charlotte, Fla., where he settled with his wife Marie, he helped coach the local high school team.
"That was their winningest year," his daughter Lisa told Spectator columnist Scott Radley.
Still a die-hard CFL and Tiger-Cats fan, he'd settle into his personal TV room — his wife had her own TV room for non-football viewing — and watch any Canadian game that was shown in the area. When he wasn't there, he was out in the garage that was like a museum, with all the Ticat memorabilia on the walls.
And, perhaps surprisingly to fans who remember him from the tough world of football, he was a craftsman who made birdhouses and crosses out of seashells. He even had a contract to sell them in a local store that placed them in front of a sign with details about him and his background. Needless to say, the Canadians who flood the area in the winter knew all about him and stopped to talk when he was there.
"Oh, the fans," Lisa says. "He loved the fans."
His players, too and that was always a symbiotic relationship. A few weeks back, Tony Champion had dropped a line. Ben Zambiasi had been in touch recently. Another player had been on a cruise and drove three hours to see Bruno during a port call.
Bruno had lost one kidney a few years ago and was in hospital being treated for kidney problems when he suffered heart failure.
He was watching football at the time.
A memorial service for Al Bruno will be held Thursday in Port Charlotte at San Antonio Catholic Church.

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