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Home > Articles > CIS Football > He coached young men, not just football players

He coached young men, not just football players

Posted: July 7th, 2016 @ 3:42pm


It wasn’t supposed to go like this.

It was supposed to be a walk in the park, easy as pie. There was no reason to feel intimidated, just because I was covering my first Queen’s football game, everybody told me.

They were right. I’d reported about university football games for four or five years by 1980, across the bay at Royal Military College, but this was Queen’s, one of the most storied programs in the land. It was the plum assignment for a sports writer at the Whig-Standard, the junior hockey team notwithstanding. Not only were the Golden Gaels an institution, one of the men who once wrote about the team for the newspaper was in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, for gosh sakes.

I wasn’t sure I was ready to undertake such an important assignment, but everyone else in the sports department would be out of town on this particular day, and the boss didn’t have much choice. With the apprehension apparently palpable, everyone was encouraging. Don’t worry, they all said. Doug Hargreaves is a fine fellow. Great guy. You’ll have no trouble.

All of this I would one day discover to be true, but on this particular autumn Saturday afternoon at Richardson Stadium, Queen’s lost the football game. This was something to which Queen’s, at the time, was not accustomed. I remember very little about that game, but I remember vividly that post-game interview with Coach Hargreaves.

It did not go well.

The Gaels were three-time defending league champions, the national champion just two years previous, and, if memory serves, this would have been their third, maybe fourth regular-season defeat in four years, and on this day, Hargreaves was not in the mood to suffer a fool gladly.

And I was a fool.

I went into the interview expecting just to say ‘Hi,’ and have Hargreaves wax eloquent about what had transpired. It quickly became clear that wasn’t going to happen, and as I stammered about, asking vague—read, stupid—questions that were going nowhere, Doug grew suitably abrupt. The exchange got awkward and I decided brevity was the better part of valour. As I slinked away, I realized I had embarrassed myself and, on a more pragmatic note, had almost nothing I could use for my story.

On the way home that day, I decided I didn’t ever want to feel like that again. It was an important lesson: Never go into an interview unprepared.

When my path crossed Doug’s in the future, things were much more pleasant, no doubt, I’m convinced, because I took the requisite time to be prepared. He seemed to respect that. If you apply the classroom metaphor, I passed my final exam when Doug’s willingness to accommodate me—even on days when he was busy, or fighting the cold that inevitably gripped him after too many evening practices in cold, damp autumn weather—became evident.

Several years later, I finally took the opportunity to tell Doug that story—and to thank him for the positive influence he’d had on a writing career that would come to span more than 40 years. Of course, he had no idea he’d had such a profound impact, but that’s the way it is with decent, humble people. They instill values in those around them without realizing it, just by being themselves. Doug was too gracious ever to presume he could play such a role; and he imparted his wisdom in such an unassuming way people didn’t always appreciate the marvellous thing that was taking place—at least, not right away. As one former player, now a parent and a coach himself, put it just last fall: “I get Doug now.”

Now that Doug’s gone—he died Tuesday, of cancer at the age of 84—I’ve reflected on what made knowing him special. Mostly, you always seemed to learn something, either about a technical element of the game, a subtle lesson about life or just a bit of disarming wit. Often, the answer to a question while not obvious, would be striking in its simplicity.

Take, for instance, the football team’s deportment. Queen’s teams were always impeccably dressed: Socks pulled to the bottom of the pants, sweaters always tucked in. (When it was fashionable for professional players to sit on their helmets while on the sidelines, Doug had a rule: You could only sit on your helmet if your head was still in it).

For years I figured this fastidiousness stemmed from Doug’s Royal Canadian Air Force days, teaching young pilots to fly Tudor jets, where no detail is too small to be important. Not at all, it turned out. “If you don’t have the discipline to wear the uniform properly,” he said, “how can I expect you to have enough discipline to run the plays correctly?” No matter how simple, no matter how mundane, there’s a right way to do anything in this world. Here endeth the lesson.

Doug had a way about him, not of scolding, but of letting you scold yourself. He would approach you and say, ‘here was the circumstance,’ and ‘you did this.’ Then he would turn the issue back on the chagrined athlete. “Now why would you do that?” he’d say, giving the poor fellow an opportunity to explain himself, in case there was a reason. By now, however, the question usually had become rhetorical. You didn’t have to be told what went wrong; Doug had led you to figure it out for yourself. He’d made you think.

Make no mistake. On the sideline, Doug was as competitive as they come, but he never let his sport trump his humanity. In 1992, his last national championship season at Queen’s, he had a freshman athlete who was quite impressive, but he’d been a late admission, so he wound up with some night classes that prevented him from attending all the practices. There was some financial hardship at home, too, so the young man was also holding down a job. Many years later, Doug would confide that had that player been able to apply himself fully to the football team, he’d have been starting by the end of the year—for a national championship team. That’s how talented the young man was but, for Doug, there was never a question of trying to compromise the other aspects of his life for the sake of the football team.

Another time, the Gaels had a very gifted athlete who year after year battled back injuries and desperately wanted to keep playing. He was a tremendous asset to the team but Doug could see beyond the young man’s football career. “It’s time to get on with your life,” he said.

Doug sincerely believed in the importance of sport in a person’s total development, and he never questioned its importance in campus life. “It’s hard to rally around a math class,” he’d often say, invoking the words of legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. You learned as much by making your mistakes on an athletic field as anywhere, he’d say, and sports provided a safer context. “It’s better than making them with a ladle full of hot aluminum at Alcan.”

Doug’s pedigree in the game is unquestioned. He retired after the 1994 season having coached more games than any coach in Canadian university football history, but accolades made him squirm. “It’s inevitable, if they let you hang around long enough,” he said after one of his milestone victories.

Doug was one of the authors of the very first Canadian Amateur Football Association manuals for coaching certification, and he was instrumental in taking the program overseas, but he remained self-effacing. “I don’t know how happy Queen’s alumni should be about having me as the head coach,” he once said. “The last two places I worked (RMC and Dalhousie) don’t have football teams anymore.”

(It’s too bad one of his more innovative coaching thoughts never got implemented. Doug once suggested that junor high school  teams all be given the same playbook. That way, he reasoned, teams would succeed based solely on how well they executed the fundamental skills of blocking, tackling, running and throwing. A sounder base of fundamentals would stand those young players in better stead as they got older.)

He mentored many coaches, and probably took as much pleasure in one of his former athletes entering the coaching fraternity as he did in someone playing professionally. Not only did such men as Bob Mullen and Doug Smith—future national award-winning coaches themselves—learn at the knee of Hargreaves, Doug was ahead of his time in adding Sue Bolton and Melody Torcolacci to his coaching staff, to instruct his athletes in speed, nutrition and strength. He did so not for the notoriety that inevitably followed the appointment of female coaches to what was, at the time, a male-only profession, but simply because they were the best people around at what they did. (Oh, and by the way, Larry Haylor, the Western legend who became the winningest coach in CIAU history, got his first job, as an assistant at Dalhousie, from Doug.)

Doug had soft, gentle eyes but they could steel in a flash. You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to know when he was displeased but the worst thing I ever heard him call someone was ‘a carpetbagger.’ Those who only saw his gruff side—like the unprepared reporters I saw follow in my missteps—may be surprised to know of a Christmastime tradition at the Hargreaves home on Lakeland Point Drive where, on the first Saturday in December, the team would be invited to a year-end party. Ostensibly it was because Coach Scrooge couldn’t be bothered to decorate his Christmas tree. In fact, it was because he knew by the time his players left town after exams, they’d have missed decorating the tree at home.

Doug was big on quotations. “Be flexible and have a sense of humour,” was one commonly rolled out after a disappointing turn of events. “Humor is tragedy after a suitable interval,” he’d say, invoking the words of Mark Twain. “If you see something you like, steal it,” he would say, of adopting an intriguing play presented by an opponent. Eventually, Doug would, of course, admit that he stole that line from his coaching mentor, Frank Tindall. An athlete would know when he was held in high regard, after Doug would tell an outsider, "he made a fine choice of parents."

Those who never got the chance to know Doug may not have experienced the delightful but dry sense of humour he possessed. One year at the start of training camp, a television reporter asked Doug if he’d be going to the Vanier Cup that fall. “I’m going,” he said. “I don’t know if the team is going.” One year, a very good Bishop's team featured a couple of superb linemen, who happened to be volunteer firefighters in the community. As the teams took the field one day for an important game in Lennoxville, Doug confessed that he'd harbored thoughts of calling in a false alarm.

Which brings to mind the day he arrived at Queen’s. Tindall had retired after a legendary career and Hargreaves, who had played for Tindall, graduated from Queen’s and coached at RMC, dearly wanted to come back to Kingston to coach the Gaels.

At the time, however, Hargreaves was not on the radar of the media, who were touting Garney Henley, one of the premier players in the Canadian Football League who was nearing retirement, as Tindall’s successor. Indeed, the appointment seemed imminent.

Ultimately, however, Henley took the job as athletics director at Brock University and Queen’s sheepishly turned to the guy who had been the right fit all along. Hargreaves didn’t have to be asked twice to come and coach the Golden Gaels.

On the first day of practice not long after Doug’s appointment, players, some of whom no doubt feeling wary of the discipline a career RCAF man might bring to a team of free spirits, fell silent as Hargreaves walked into the locker room for the first time that late summer day in 1975. As one former player explained it, the new coach didn’t have to wait long to have everyone’s attention.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Garney Henley.”

Doug didn’t just coach football, he coached people. By times, people need praise, and they need criticism; they need support, and they need restraint; they need to be serious and they need to laugh. “Bradley,” Doug softly said to a bleary-eyed Brad Elberg one Sunday morning, after receiving word—as he invariably did—that some of the Gaels gotten themselves into a jam one Saturday night, “nothing good ever happens downtown after midnight.” ’Nuf said.

Doug had a knack for knowing what was required. A clever ice-breaker to begin a 20-year run at Queen’s, a fatherly admonition or two along the way, and at the end of his career, the most poignant summary of the Vanier Cup game of 1992. Asked what remained vivid years later, he spoke not of strategy or tactics or skill, key plays or statistics. Doug’s recollection was of a more human nature: “I’ve never seen such a day," he said, "when the athletes all performed to the maximum of their ability."

Hooray, we won. Even better, we won it well.

The former players and colleagues who will gather Sunday afternoon at the senior staff mess at RMC for a celebration of Doug’s life will surely remember him for that—for helping them to play better football, but also for helping them to lead better lives.

Please enjoy a look at this very poignant video tribute that was prepared by Doug's daughter, Lynn, and played for those gathered Sunday at RMC:

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