Sunday, May 22, 2011

Former CFL commissioner Crump dies

There was some sad CFL news Friday, as the league released a statement on the passing of former CFL commissioner John Donald Crump. According to this obituary from The Toronto Star, Crump passed away Thursday at Newmarket, Ontario's Southlake Regional Health Centre. He was 78.

Crump's tenure as CFL commissioner was fascinating, even if it wasn't very long. As the Toronto Sun's Lance Hornby writes, Crump was an unexpected choice as commissioner in 1990, but he was certainly qualified to deal with the squabbling owners who were deeply divided at the time:

At Donald Crump's surprise unveiling as Canadian Football League commissioner in 1990, he was asked how he could possibly control eight radically different team owners.

"I have a great deal of experience in finding out how to tie down a loose cannon," he reminded of his previous two decades' work at Maple Leaf Gardens with the unpredictable Harold Ballard.

As treasurer of MLG - which was like holding the keys to the Canadian Mint - Crump had worked mostly behind the scenes since 1971, ensuring Ballard did not spend as irrationally as he often acted. But as an executor of Ballard's will and the point man for his franchise-saving bailout of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Crump strongly influenced today's landscape for both the Leafs and the CFL.

Crump's tenure, which lasted from January 1990 through December 1991, was most notable for a new ownership group that took over during his term. He was there when hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, famed Canadian actor John Candy and Los Angeles Kings' owner Bruce McNall teamed up to buy the Toronto Argonauts, and he didn't get in the way of their spectacular move to outbid the NFL for Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, despite complaints from other owners. The influx of cash into the Argonauts and the promotional efforts of Candy in particular made them one of the CFL's marquee teams, and Ismail played a huge role in leading them to the 1991 Grey Cup. That game and season remain an unforgettable part of CFL lore, and Crump certainly figured in the circumstances that led to both.

Before he became commissioner, Crump was crucial to turning the Tiger-Cats around (and keeping Ballard's wilder impulses in check). During his stint in the league office, he provided stability and helped land a television deal, as well as overseeing the arrival of Gretzky, McNall and Candy. Crump is fondly remembered for his contributions to the league by many of those who worked with him, including Jo-Anne Polak, who at that time was the general manager of the Ottawa Rough Riders and the first female executive in the league. Here's what she told the Sun about Crump's stint as commmissioner:

"No question that at the time the league was close to folding," said Jo-Anne Polak, who was the 29-year-old general manager of the Ottawa Rough Riders. "He was there when our team had a change of ownership from community to private, and he had to run things for a time. But he showed up at the office the first day with a Riders' hat and a whistle around his neck, which made us all laugh.

"He helped the league steer clear of a few troubles. We had no proper TV deal and he was there when John Candy, Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky became the Argonaut owners. He was a lovely man and one of the reasons we still have a league today."

Crump left office in December 1991 after too many owners turned against him, which isn't particularly surprising considering how deeply the league was divided at that time. In fact, he knew it was always going to be a difficult job keeping them in line; that led to him jokingly brandishing the bullwhip he's pictured with above right at his introductory press conference in 1990. The CFL replaced him with Phil Kershaw on an interim basis, and he didn't last long before Larry Smith took over. Smith oversaw the CFL's expansion to the U.S., which wasn't necessarily a bad idea but was poorly executed (amazing that Smith would ever poorly execute something, eh?), and he was himself replaced by John Tory in 1996. Compared to many other CFL commissioners, Crump's tenure was rather short, but he accomplished quite a bit at a crucial moment for the league. He's fondly remembered in many CFL circles, and for good reason.

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