Friday, July 11, 2008

Remembering Bob Ackles, the real water boy

Photo: The cover of Bob Ackles' memoirs.

It came as quite a shock last week to hear the news [Neate Sager, Out of Left Field] of Bob Ackles' death at 69 [Ian Austin and Marc Weber, The Vancouver Province]. Ackles was such an integral part of the B.C. Lions, the CFL and Canadian football as a whole that it seems weird to consider a future landscape of the game he loved so much without him in his prominent role. It's been a bad year for CFL icons: remember, we lost J.I. Albrecht [Stephen Brunt, The Globe and Mail] back [Neate Sager, Out of Left Field] in March [my piece], so Ackles' death takes away yet another of the characters who made this league great.

Today, as an appropriate intro to the Lions-Blue Bombers game, TSN spent a half-hour of their pre-game show relating the tributes [a collection of them from] to Ackles, a man who thoroughly deserved all of them. The collection of tributes they were able to put together on short notice was very impressive. They had the in-studio panel share their personal Ackles stories and had Brian Williams conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of Ackles' former teammates and colleagues, as well as famed ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman. The whole half-hour was effective and well-done, demonstrating the tremendous impact Ackles had on many different people, but the Berman piece was particularly interesting. It focused on Ackles' career in the U.S. and the respect he earned there, especially during the time he helped to turn the Dallas Cowboys from a 1-15 team into a franchise that would dominate much of the 1990s. He was the director of pro personnel from 1986-89 and the director of player personnel from 89-1992, and thus was heavily involved in the franchise's transactions during that period, including the Herschel Walker trade (which Page 2 ranked as the eighth-most lopsided trade of all time), the trades for Jay Novacek and Charles Haley, and the drafting of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Russell Maryland.

This was a neat perspective to hear from an American sportscaster: too often, we're told that the CFL is a minor league and anyone who earns success there would never have been able to do the same south of the border, but Ackles certainly showed that perception was wrong. He played key roles with the Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals and was also instrumental in the launch of the XFL: in fact, he was the only person to work as a senior executive in all three leagues. It wasn't just Berman, either: there's been a lot of coverage of Ackles' death south of the border, with prominent examples here [Chuck Carlton, The Dallas Morning News], here [Mickey Spagnola, columnist], here [Jim Morris, The Canadian Press via The Toronto Star (features quotes from former Cowboys and Dolphins head coach Jimmy Johnson and Dolphins president Bryan Wiedmeier)], here [Lombardi on Football, writer Michael Lombardi's personal blog] and here [Phin Phanatic, a Miami Dolphins blog].

Ackles certainly made his mark on football in B.C. over his career as well. He started at the bottom with the Lions, serving as water boy in their initial year in 1953 and working his way up to director of football management 13 years later, assistant general manager in 1971 and the full general manager's slot in 1975. In that role, he soon turned around a dismal team that hadn't recorded an above .500 season since their 1964 Grey Cup win, drafted and acquired key players like Lui Passaglia, Joe "The Throwin' Samoan" Paopao, Roy Dewalt and "Swervin' Mervin" Fernandez, gave Don Matthews his first gig as a head coach in 1983 and led the Lions to the 1985 Grey Cup. With Ackles' later success in the president's role, his capabilities as a general manager were sometimes overlooked, but the players and coaches he acquired and the success he brought speak for themselves: the man knew his football, whether three-down or four-down.

What was even more impressive about Ackles' career with the Lions was his work selling the game to the community. He was prominently involved in supporting amateur and university football in the province, and he believed in winning an audience "one fan at a time." I've had the privilege of speaking with several people who had the chance to meet Ackles personally, and the common denominator in all of their stories is how he genuinely cared about all of them and took the time to sit down and chat about football. He was at home in the corporate world, schmoozing with CEOs and wealthy types, but his real gift was that he never forgot his humble origins in the business as the team waterboy, and he took the time to reach out to average fans and journalists as well as the movers and shakers. He got results, as well: he was instrumental in the construction of B.C. Place in 1983 (and in a great example of value for money, it's still paying off for Vancouver sports: not many stadiums of that vintage can say that!) and improved the average attendance to a ridiculous 42,000 per game by the time he left town in 1985. Without him, the team went through two bankruptcies and dropped to an average gate of less than 20,000, so he came back and did it again in 2002: hiring Wally Buono as coach and G.M., leading the Lions back to the Grey Cup, and more importantly, making them relevant in Vancouver again. All those who bleed orange and black have Bob Ackles to thank for the franchise's past success and current prosperity, and so do fans of the CFL: he was a ceaseless promoter of the league, and when the threat of the NFL caused many to question the relevance of Canadian football in our modern age, he was one of the loudest voices to speak out[an op-ed he wrote for the National Post] for three-down football.

The impact of Ackles' life and work is also shown through the staggering tributes to him, many of which appeared from people and media outlets that don't always give the CFL a lot of play. Some of the best tributes are here [Matthew Sekeres, The Globe and Mail], here [Lowell Ulrich, The Vancouver Province], here [Perry Lefko,], here [Frank Bucholtz, The Langley Times], here [Jeff Paterson, The Georgia Straight] and here [a statement from B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell in The Vancouver Sun]. To wrap up, here's some excerpts from a piece by Vancouver Province columnist Ed Willes, who said everything I've been trying to, but much better:

"It is impossible to measure Bob Ackles' impact on the B.C. Lions.
Well, maybe not impossible. Maybe there are calipers that fit around Jupiter. Maybe there's a tape measure that stretches from here to the moon. But in terms the average person can understand? No, not really.
I mean, how do you put The Water Boy's career in perspective? He was in football longer than Churchill was in politics, starting as a teenager at the lowest rung of a made-up team. By his late 20s he was in that team's front office, and by his late 30s he was running the show. He would ultimately build the Lions into a champion and a monster at the gate before he decamped for the NFL. Then, almost 20 years later, he came back and did it again, just to prove the first time wasn't a fluke.
And now he's gone. Just like that. In his half-century in the game Ackles came to learn that everyone, whether it was Don Matthews with the Lions, Jimmy Johnson with the Cowboys or any one of the thousands of coaches and players he saw come and go, could be replaced. What he failed to grasp, however, is that he was the exception to that rule.
Funny, isn't it? He was such a little guy, but he leaves behind a void that will never be filled."

Indeed. Rest in peace, Bob. You'll always have a place in the hearts of all Lions' fans, and many more hearts of those who care about football.

A great excerpt from Ackles' fantastic 2007 memoirs, The Water Boy: From The Sidelines To The Owner's Box: Inside The CFL, The XFL, And The NFL about how he brought Wally Buono to town. Highly recommended reading. [The Vancouver Sun].

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