The Coach Up Close

Tricky Dick Painting

Football & Corporate Legend

  • Defensive Back, Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Special Teams Winnipeg Blue Bombers 1961-1966;
  • Toronto Argonauts 1967-1972;
  • Memphis Southmen 1974 – Athletic Director & Head Football Coach;
  • Southwestern at Memphis College 1976-1979 – Senior Executive;
  • The Coca-Cola Company 1980-1994 – International Marketing Consultant & Professional Journalist 1995-2011

Tricky Dick Full

The Canadian Football League has had its share of unique and fascinating characters, though none had the impact and charisma both on and off the field more than “Tricky” Dick Thornton. In this modern day arena of pro specialists, Dick’s brilliance on both sides of the ball may never be matched. He also had the uncanny ability to mix well with the media ultimately resulting in hundreds of columns, articles, features, pictures and magazine front covers throughout his career.

Dick Thornton graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois just outside Chicago with a Bachelor of Science degree in Speech Communication and Journalism.  He was also an All-American standout on the Wildcat football team as a quarterback, free safety and special teams performer.  Players had to go both ways back in that era.

Freshmen were also ineligible so it was frustrating sitting in the stands and watching his teammates lose all nine games under 2nd year Head Coach, Ara Parseghian. The positive side to this, meant Thornton had a great chance to crack the starting lineup as a sophomore.  Before the season opener against Washington State, he was still #2 on the depth chart.  Unfortunately, in the final preparatory scrimmage, the starting signal caller separated his shoulder, so Dick was automatically promoted and given the start.

He recalls; “With the band playing and crowd roaring, I was extremely nervous standing on the sidelines.  To make matters worse, the Coach comes up and tells me that his coaching career was in my hands and I’d better not screw up.  Briefly remembering that winless season the year before, he knew the man could possibly be right.  Yet, a deep calm suddenly came over me in the huddle for that first series; saw a look of confidence in my teammates eyes and knew my dream had come true.  We drove right down the field and scored on our way to a 29-28 victory.  Some memorable wins that year: 21-0 over Ohio State, 55-24 against Michigan and 7-6 over Notre Dame.  I was also in the running for the MVP of the Big Ten Conference in 1958 and it seemed the Wildcats were back after a 10 year hiatus.”

The next season held a lot of promise though Northwestern would host the #1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners on National TV right out of the gate.  Thornton had another spectacular game en route to a 48-13 thrashing of one of the nation’s elite teams and quickly, the Chicago Area media went nuts.  Could NU be headed to the Rose Bowl? Even the photographers from Sports Illustrated converged on campus the following week and began taking hundreds of photos of Dick for one of its subsequent covers.   But it all came apart the following Saturday in Iowa City.

Thornton gathered in the opening kickoff of that second game, split the seam and was off to the races.  When getting close to the sideline, he cut back inside (a player never ran out of bounds in those days) and got nailed both high and low, breaking his left ankle in the process.  So close to glory and yet so far.

1960 was a decent year, but a torn thigh muscle hampered Dick’s speed and agility so the Wildcats ended with only a 5-4 record.  However, he was granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA because of that previous year’s injury.

Now, it was decision time.  Come back for another year of college ball in 1961 and maybe risk further injury or turn pro?  The nucleus of good players from the previous three years were gone, he had his degree and also happened (by mistake as the birth control pill had not be conceived yet) to be the proud father of a baby girl.

As a scholastic senior, he had automatically become eligible for the draft and was chosen by the NFL Cleveland Browns who then immediately traded his rights to the St. Louis Cardinals.  He was also selected by the Dallas Texans of the fledging AFL and was top of the Winnipeg Blue Bomber negotiation list.

That winter, Thornton dealt extensively with all three teams but finally decided that Canada, with its wider field and different rules, would be the best fit for his versatile abilities. They also offered him a lot more money, bonuses, a new luxury car and a job at the local TV station so it became a straight forward business adjudication.

Dick’s first season in the CFL was somewhat frustrating. He cracked the starting line-up a third of the way into the season but suffered a broken jaw against the BC Lions trying to score on a fake punt four games later…causing him to miss the remainder of the schedule and the opportunity to play in the only Grey Cup game that went into Overtime.

In that brief 1961 season, he had played defensive cornerback, running back, quarterback, wide receiver and held down some punting duties – showing Bomber fans they had truly added an extremely exciting and talented player to their team.

Dick’s career really ‘took off’ in 1962.  At left corner, he intercepted 4 passes…returning one for a touchdown, recovered two fumbles, blocked a kick and even scored an offensive touchdown upon making several appearances as the back-up pivot man to starter, Kenny Ploen.

Later that season, Thornton constantly smothered the talented Tiger-Cats receivers in their Grey Cup victory nicknamed the infamous ‘Fog Bowl’ that was played at CNE stadium in Toronto over two days.

Thornton remembers, “Waiting for the ceremonial kickoff by the Prime Minister, I slowly watched the Shell Tower clock disappear in the mist and knew weather trouble was ahead.  Mid-way through the 4th quarter, we couldn’t see anything, so the contest was cancelled.  You gear your whole body up to lay it on the line in a Championship game and we eventually learned that the final 7:29 seconds would be played the following afternoon.  Naturally, we partied well into the night anyhow and although the majority of the time, we were on defense, we held on to a 28-27 victory.  But man, was I tired and sore”.

His career continued to blossom in 1963. On defense he was clearly establishing himself as one of the finest in the game, intercepting 6 passes and returning 3 of them for touchdowns. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown and continued to make frequent appearances on the offensive side of the ball.

Dick missed most of the 1964 season due to a broken right ankle suffered in a game against Ottawa, but bounced back well in 1965.  In the second game of the best of three 1965 Western Conference Final played on a frigid Manitoba night, Dick Thornton forever etched his name in the annuls of CFL folklore.

The Bombers had been blown out that first game in Calgary and were huge overall underdogs in the series. Trailing 3-0 very late in the second quarter, Kenny Ploen had to come out of the game with a mild concussion so Thornton received instructions from Coach Bud Grant to run out the clock. Disagreeing with that strategy, he replied, “We’ll be leading 7-3 at halftime.  Trust me, because you have no choice anyway. I’m your only back-up.”

With time running out, he quickly passed over the middle to tight end Farrell Funston for a 22-yard gain to midfield. He then called an inside reverse to Dave Raimey who shot through the middle for another 12-yard gain.  Dick then called the identical play but this time, kept the ball…took off around the right side and scampered untouched 38-yards into the end zone. Calgary never recovered and the Bombers won 15-11.

In the decider back in McMahon Stadium, early in the contest Thornton made a spectacular diving tackle at the Bomber goal line on Stampeder’s running back Lovell Coleman, knocking the ball loose and recovering the fumble in the process. Winnipeg went on to win that ballgame by a slim margin and ended up having to borrow the cases of Champagne from the Calgary dressing room for their post game celebrations.

Thornton and the Bombers then took on Hamilton in the 1965 Grey Cup, now termed as the unreal “Wind Bowl”.

Dick had another great game, making several outstanding tackles, recovering a fumble and even played both ways at cornerback and flanker the entire second half. However, the Bombers had conceded 3 safeties in the first quarter in that howling gale, when passing or punting against it was nearly impossible. Those early six points turned out to be the difference as the Tiger-Cats defeated Winnipeg 22-16.

By this time, Dick had not only established his notoriety as a superb athlete, he was also well known as an outspoken and controversial “free spirit.” However, he always had time for people in the community, the corporate business world, youngsters, fans and of course, the media.

He had this to say about his reputation:

“I was often misunderstood, but did nothing more than market and merchandise myself.   I ranted and raved about not playing quarterback, had my own fan club, gave all my girlfriends gold #14 pendants, even changed my jersey number from 14 to 28 for a couple of games…called a press conference to explain why…my  answer;  I had to play twice as good during that stretch!  But it was all humorous pizzazz.”

 

He went on to say, “Remember, those were crazy times; the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion, John, Bobby and Martin got assassinated, there was a sexual revolution with the birth control pill, we were fighting the Vietnam War, players became hippies with long hair and weird clothes, there were protests and massive demonstrations…it was all happening around us. I had to think ‘outside the box’ and keep doing things differently in order to keep my sanity.”

Being a journalism graduate, Tricky was naturally intrigued by sportswriters and he used them to his advantage throughout his tenure in the CFL. Dick Beddoes of the Globe & Mail once said, “When a team goes on the road for an away game, most players call their girlfriends.  Richard ‘Quincy’ Thornton called the local sportswriters and broadcasters.”

In 1966, the glory days of the Blue Bombers abruptly came to an end. They struggled with a team that was getting old and beat up and missed the playoffs that season.  Dick was still a steady performer but eager for a change in scenery. Bud Grant had left for the Vikings and he wasn’t that impressed with the new Bomber coaching staff and management. That off-season, he jokingly made a statement on the radio one day; “The best thing about Winnipeg is the road leading out of town.” which turned out to be the final straw that got him traded to the Toronto Argonauts.

The Argos prior to 1967 were not just a lousy team, they were the laughing stock of the CFL. There was a standing joke around the League nicknamed the ‘Argo Airlift’, referring to their management’s habit of panicking when they lost a few games; immediately releasing a few players and flying in others who had been cut by NFL and AFL to suit up for the next contest. The Argos had not made the playoffs since 1961 and new head coach Leo Cahill was determined to turn the entire program around.  In his first meeting with the players, he promised that the best 33 players who survived training camp and the exhibition games would also finish the season and he was true to his word.

Cahill, a former Assistant Coach with the Montreal Alouettes, had always admired Thornton’s ability. During his tenure in Quebec, he urged Montreal to make a trade for him on several occasions.  Rumour had it that in 1965, the Als offered seven players for Thornton, but Coach Grant rejected the deal. Now that Leo Cahill was in full command, he wasted no time in bringing Dick Thornton to Toronto to wear the ‘Double Blue’.

Leo was counting on Dick’s defensive prowess but knew that Tricky could get the job done at several offensive positions and special teams too. Unfortunately, Dick had suffered a severe shoulder separation knocking down a pass in the end zone the year before which permanently curtailed the throwing strength of his right arm thus ending his days of playing behind center on a regular basis.

The Argos were still not a very good team that first year, though they responded well to Leo’s positive coaching style and Dick’s addition of veteran ‘savvy’. ‘They finished with a record of 5-8-1 and made the playoffs for the first time in six years. One highlight was the annihilation of the Bombers in mid-season in which Thornton was again the star of the show.

Dick described that game in the following way;  “Knew I made the right choice in getting traded because when Winnipeg came into CNE Stadium the following season we blew them away, 53-0.  I blocked a punt for a TD, intercepted two passes, and just for laughs, Leo put me in at QB and I threw for a touchdown and ran 50 yards on a sweep to the left for another score.  After crossing the goal line, I pointed the ball at the Press Box where I knew the Winnipeg media were sitting and then slammed the ball to the ground.  Have no idea, but that might have been the first ‘spike’ in professional football.  Was going for 60 points on the last play of the game and tossed a perfect strike to our tight end, Mel Profit in the end-zone but he simply dropped it.  In the locker room afterwards, Mel said he was so shocked that it was a perfect spiral, he took his eyes off the ball. We had a good laugh over that one. The Winnipeg press had called me ‘over the hill’ after the trade but I proved in that one single performance that I was going to be around the League for many more years.”

The Argonauts met the powerful Ottawa Rough Riders led by superstar Russ Jackson in the sudden death Eastern Final but the young Argos were no match for such a strong opposition, losing 38-22. Dick blocked an Ottawa punt to set up a Mel Profit TD and observers were impressed at how hard the Argos played until the very end. They had broken the unlucky jinx and were clearly no longer the patsies of the League.

Dick was “Mr. Everything” for Toronto the next two years and the Argos continued to improve. In 1968, with Dick making the defensive backfield a “black-hole” for any opposing quarterback to throw into, as well as playing running back, wide receiver and returning punts, the Argos had their best record in 7 years finishing 9-5. They defeated Hamilton 33-21 in a wild battle at CNE Stadium in the Semi-Final and their next encounter would be with their nemesis, the Ottawa Rough Riders in the two game total point Eastern Final.

The Toronto defense with Dick in the lead smothered the high-powered Ottawa air attack in the first game leading Toronto to a 13-11 victory. The second contest was won by Ottawa      36-14 however, showing that Toronto still had a ways to go before they were ready to take on the Leagues’ elite.

1969 was one of Dick’s finest seasons. He was outstanding at the cornerback position, intercepting 7 passes, returning two of them for touchdowns. He replaced the injured Dave Mann as the punter for part of the year and when star runner Dave Raimey went down with a season ending injury, Trix did double duty on both offense and defense. He carried the ball 14 times for 106-yards with 1 TD and the Argonauts finished the year in second place with a record of 10-4 behind their old nemesis Ottawa.

In a savage, hard-hitting Eastern Semi-Final, Toronto defeated their main rival, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 15-9. The Argos then had to battle Ottawa once again in the Final.               Toronto defeated Ottawa in the first game 22-14.

Russ Jackson did not complete a pass in the second half of the game and left the field battered and bruised. The Argos were now supremely confident that they would protect their 8 point lead going into the second game in Ottawa.

In the week between the first and second games Leo Cahill boasted “It will take an Act of God to beat us on Sunday,” and that’s what actually took place. A day or so after Leo’s comments, the temperature in Ottawa plummeted and the field at Lansdowne Park froze over into an icy tundra. Ottawa entered the game wearing broomball shoes, which had little suction cups on the soles.

The Argos came out wearing ordinary sneakers. It was suddenly no contest. The Argonauts were slipping and sliding all over the field and Thornton along with his defensive teammates were helpless. With no traction, they couldn’t tackle nor cover Ottawa’s great receivers. Russ Jackson went wild and Toronto was crushed 32-3. Many of the players blamed team management after this fiasco for failing to provide them with the proper footwear.

1970 was a disappointing season for the Toronto. With Russ Jackson retired, the media and the fans felt the Argos were the team to beat. Instead they stumbled to a record of 8-6 and finished in 2nd place behind Hamilton. Dick became one of the first athletes to ever undergo arthroscopic knee surgery when he suffered ligament damage in a game against Winnipeg but he recovered quickly enough to miss only four games.

The Argos were upset by Montreal in the Eastern Semi-Final 16-7, ending a rather bizarre and injury plagued season.

Leo Cahill went to work rebuilding the team for 1971, signing such high profile rookies as Joe Theismann, Jim Stillwagon, Leon McQuay, and Gene Mack plus adding a QB from the Detroit Lion named Greg Barton.

To keep things really interesting, Thornton was again embroiled in controversy over a book he was commissioned to write by a local publishing company. Titled, “Get It While Your Hot, Cause Baby, You’re Going To Be Cold – For A Long, Long Time,” it portrayed the real world of professional football from a player’s point of view during the turbulent times of the 60’s. However, since it was somewhat anti-establishment, Argo management put enormous pressure on the publisher, till the project finally got cancelled.

But further damage had been done to Thornton’s off field image and he entered training camp hanging onto his roster position by the slimmest of threads. It was almost a foregone conclusion he wouldn’t even make the team.  However, never short of an exciting challenge and just to prove what a great athlete he was, he not only made the squad but flat out earned the starting job at a brand new position, wide receiver.  It turned out to be his finest season in professional football, yet he got little recognition for it.  Dick played the first 7 games of the regular season at flanker. When Jim Tomlin got traded to British Columbia, Leo asked Tricky to move back to defense. No problem; in the following 7 games, he intercepted 7 passes, returning two of them for touchdowns, which tied him briefly for the lead in all of professional football within that statistical category. The Argos finished in first place with a record of 10-4, won the total point series against the Tiger-Cats 40-25 and were finally on their way to the Grey Cup!

The 1971 Championship Final at Empire Stadium in Vancouver unfortunately was marred by terrible weather. Rain poured down the entire week, changing the game plan for both teams. Calgary took an early 14-3 lead into the half as Toronto’s high-powered offense struggled badly. Early in the third quarter, the Argo special teams scored a touchdown and later on, Leo sent Dick into the game at flanker where he made a sensational diving catch to keep an Argo drive alive. Near the end of the contest came perhaps the most ‘talked about’ series of events in modern day title games. Thornton describes it this way. “Late in the 4th quarter with the score 14-11, I knew I had to make something happen, so jumped right up on WR Jon Henderson and baited QB Jerry Keeling into calling a ‘fly pattern’ audible in an attempt to put the contest away.   Most of the second half was a defensive struggle. Calgary had only one first down and desperately trying to keep Argos from getting into field goal range to possibly tie the score. Thornton continued, “As soon as the ball was snapped, I sprinted back full speed for 25 yards then coasted near the receiver, turned and looked for the ball. Sure enough, here came this floater right to me and I just gathered it in and took off running for the end-zone.

Dick intercepted that pass at the Toronto 42-yard line and headed up field, his blockers doing a tremendous job of clearing a path towards the goal line. He himself made a couple of brilliant moves to avoid would be tacklers and returned it 54-yards before being tripped up from behind at the Calgary 11.

Thornton went on to say, “I have replayed that situation a thousand times in my mind.  I had one guy to beat, Jerry Keeling, a former great defensive back himself.  Jim Stillwagon was trying to chop him down, but Jerry did a good job of kept his footing and favoring the outside, thus forcing me to slow down and cut back.  I would have preferred facing Jerry ‘one on one’ in the open field and going full speed but was forced to cut inside left because of Keeling and the sideline and didn’t want to get knocked out of bounds. But because of my lost acceleration, someone from behind dove, caught my heel and I began to stumble- falling down at the 11 yard line.”

The scenario now was – the Argos score and they are Grey Cup champions. A chip shot field goal ties the game and Toronto, with the big momentum swing, most likely wins in overtime. Dick Thornton had played a solid, all round game and was sure to be selected the MVP with the victory. But it was not to be!

Thornton recalled the nightmare,  “I went to Leo on the sidelines and told him to put me back in at wide receiver.  Calgary would be playing the run and I could easily beat the corner on an out and up.  All Joe had to do was float it into my hands for an easy score, but he just looked at me and never said a word.”

Leo’s big mistake was deciding to keep the ball on the ground.  Leon McQuay carried the ball on a Sweep Right to the Calgary 7 but on the next play, a Sweep Left, he slipped and fumbled because he was carrying the ball in the wrong hand.  The Stampeders recovered and it was game over.

There were high hopes for the Argos going into the 1972 season but they lost 6 starters with major injuries including Joe Theismann with a broken leg in the season opener  and fell to a record of 3-11, missing the play-offs for the first time under Coach Cahill.  Dick turned in another very solid season intercepting 3 passes, recovering two fumbles and catching a couple of passes on offense. Despite the fact the team was devastated by injuries and lost 5 games by a total of just 11 points, Coach Leo Cahill was fired less than a week after the season ended.

New head coach, John Rauch, made it clear he was going to do things his way and quickly cut all the seasoned veterans, mavericks and renegades including Dick Thornton.  Rauch was going to win in the CFL with rookies.

After just one exhibition game in 1973, Dick came into the stadium the next day and found his locker empty and his brilliant CFL career was over. It was odd that no other  CFL team picked him up considering he was only 33, which led to people in football circles to believe that his outspoken views and controversial nature overshadowed his exciting, gambling style of play, leadership qualities and potential ability to sell season tickets in the eyes of CFL coaches and management. He got calls from four NFL teams. Yet, there was a little known rule at that time, that if a player had attended just ONE PRACTICE with another league (AFL or CFL), he was ineligible to play in the NFL that entire season, thus eliminating that option.

Thornton went back to the drawing board to what he always did second best, writing and  quickly became a columnist for the new city tabloid newspaper, The Toronto Sun.

Thornton thinks back. “Sports editor George Gross immediately hired me and naturally, my initial assignment was to cover the Argos. My first interview…John Rauch, the head coach who had fired me the previous week.  Remember, telling him that I knew, that he knew, that I knew he made some very dumb moves based on politics and egos, not on pure talent and that it was now my obligation to inform my million plus readers of the Sun, regarding any future mistakes he was bound to make.”

Well, the Argos were ‘hot and cold’ during the 73 season and Thornton in his daily columns and on TV, dissected all the major and minor reasons why this was happening.

Thornton looked back on those days. “It was strange at first, sitting up in the press box alongside sportswriters who had been writing stories about ME – just nine months earlier. But I had one distinct advantage – I had been there…a professional athlete, on the field of battle for 12 long years, knew the complexities of the game and most important, had the ability to put all these different weekly scenarios into words that people could understand.  I used to get loads of mail every week from sports fans saying basically it was finally good to read about…what ‘really happened’ in games…from a former player’s point of view.  On the day Rauch got fired…wrote him a note and basically said…we’re even.”

His whole life changed forever that winter of 1974, when he got a phone call from John Bassett Jr. while sitting at the Toronto Sun sports desk.  Bassett was one of the founders of the brand new World Football League and also the owner of the Toronto Northmen, one of the original franchises. Thornton remembers the conversation well.

“John mentioned he needed a couple of old guys on the roster (I was then 34) to provide leadership to a young team, because I still had a strong visible name and presence in Toronto and most important, he’d rather see me in uniform than up in the press box. I had to chuckle over that statement.”

Dick immediately signed a contract, quit his newspaper job and went to Hawaii for three months to get back in shape.

Leo Cahill was the GM and everything went full speed ahead including local ticket sales, till the Canadian government stepped in. A resolution in parliament was about to be enacted preventing the WFL from playing in Canada. Fortunately, Memphis, Tennessee had just been denied an NFL franchise, so it didn’t take long for the Toronto Northmen to become the Memphis Southmen using the same uniforms and team logo.  Dick was elected defensive captain and had an outstanding season, intercepting 5 passes, returning one for a touchdown and made 114 unassisted tackles leading the Southmen to a divisional title in 1974 and the best record in the WFL (17-3) thus getting even for a second time.

He officially retired after that season and spent 1975 working in the front office of the WFL’s Hawaii franchise as the Media Director, until the league collapsed mid-season due to financial difficulties.

Returning to the southern United States, he applied for and was hired as the Athletic Director and Head Football Coach of a small, academic Division III college called Southwestern at Memphis. In three seasons, Coach Thornton’s teams went 19-9-1 and in 77, SAM became nationally ranked with a 9-1-1 season.  It still stands today as the finest winning record in the school’s history and both Coach and his team were inducted into the college’s Hall of Fame in 2008.  During his tenure there, his teams shattered 64 NCAA, Conference and individual school records.  But Dick didn’t feel there was any solid future in coaching.  Much more emphasis was being placed on image, money and winning, rather than building character and confidence levels in young athletes to better prepare them for the future.

In 1979 he accepted a merchandising position with the Delta KMA of the Kroger Food Company and nine months later joined The Coca-Cola Company to motivate, coach and train their sales people all over the world. The next 20 years, he worked with the most recognized brand name on an international basis and lived in such exotic countries as Australia, England, India, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. With Coke, Dick also developed the reputation as being one of the finest international merchandising and marketing minds in the beverage industry, developing some of the most creative and innovative marketplace techniques and plans that are still being used today.

Tired of corporate politics and the strategic shift in the company direction, Thornton took another gamble. This time, on early retirement to start his own consulting business and today, he is one of the most sought after specialists in a variety of Fast Moving Consumer Goods categories. Besides continuing to work with Coca-Cola Bottlers all over SE Asia, he did special projects for Asia Pacific Breweries, Seagram’s Wines & Spirits in Europe, the Empresas Polar Group of Companies in South America, IAM’s Pet Foods on three continents, Al-Rabie Juices in Saudi Arabia and Distilleria Limtuaco in the Philippines.  All in all, he’s performed his duties in 78 countries, territories and islands on a global basis.

Dick Thornton now lives permanently in Makati City/Metro Manila, the Philippines with his wife, Lhyn, 7 year old daughter, Ashleigh and son, Thrasher.  His last assignment was working for Coca-Cola Bottlers Philippines Inc as Senior Advisor to the COO, Baring Olafsson and played an active role coaching and training Sales people all over the country.  At age 74, he maintains a 12 handicap at golf, works out regularly and continues to write his biography, entitled “An Unbelievable Life”.

 

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