Editor’s Note: Arash Madani is a reporter and commentator for Rogers Sportsnet. His columns for 3DownNation usually appear on Tuesday.
His office, as it has been for much of these last five decades, is still a football stadium. And even now, half a century after first coming to Canada – and has since stayed – there’s still an ear-to-ear grin from Bob O’Billovich when he shows up on a game day to watch two teams play.
Don’t cringe when you hear this, but O’Billovich, remarkably, is now 76-years-young. You’d never know it the way he can still shoot up the stairs of yet another stadium. On this autumn Saturday, he stands in the press box, overlooking the sparkling turf at the University of Guelph, and can’t help but wax nostalgic.
“You know, we used to do training camp here with the Argos back in the 80s. Gosh, that was such a long time ago,” O’Billovich was saying, arching his neck out to get a full view of the renovations on campus.
“And see over there,” he pointed to his left, “that used to be a golf course, and we used to sneak out once or twice during camp to go play golf.”
He stopped. And chuckled.
“Imagine playing golf in training camp nowadays?” he wondered aloud, his voice wandering off. “Never.”
The plan had been for O’Billovich to be hitting many a ball off the tee in retirement. He figured he was through working when he walked away from the Tiger-Cats in 2013. There were two grandchildren to spoil, some feet to put up on the coffee table, hell even catch a game or two on television – without caring who won. Obie had been spending quite a bit of time with Quinn, the 11-year-old, who is following grandpa’s lead in football and hoops – and is money on basketball trick shots when given the chance.
Life was rolling along in Oakville. With golf and the family – and the youngest grandson, Jordan is now five, so he’s getting to a fun age.
“And watching (CFL) games,” grandpa said. “I’ll always be a fan.”
So retirement was peaceful, away from the pressure cooker of pro sports, when one random morning this winter the phone rang, and his wife said, “it’s Wally,” and his former boss was wondering if he minded playing a few less rounds of golf.
“You interested in scouting some CIS schools for us?” Wally Buono, the BC Lions GM, asked his old pal.
O’Billovich laughed, passed along his shirt size, and now on fall Saturday’s, he’s keeping an eye on Canadian university kids that could end up becoming BC draft picks.
“It’s something to do,” O’Billovich deadpanned, zipping up his new Leos jacket.
Something he had been doing since football brought him to Canada, from his native Montana, to play for the Ottawa Roughriders in the mid-60s. After hanging up the pads, he got into coaching – basketball that is.
To this day, O’Billovich insists that was the most memorable experience of his coaching career: spending the 70s at the University of Ottawa and quickly taking the Gee-Gees to the ‘College Bowl’ in hoops, before moving over to run the football program. Which is how he ended up getting back into the CFL, as the Argos head coach in 1982. The next year, Toronto won its first Grey Cup in 31 years. For the next 30, his life was spent in the game – either in coaching or management.
So on a mild day in Guelph, when he’s done telling you about his grandkids and how well one can shoot the basketball, this football lifer is reflecting on the evolution of the sport. Not just in the CFL and CIS, where he’s scouting Quebec and Ontario schools, but in the NFL, too. This summer he attended training camps in Cleveland, Cincinatti and Buffalo – where presumably those coaches weren’t playing golf either.
“The game of football has changed, there’s no question,” said O’Billovich. “But blocking and tackling doesn’t change. Size, height, speed, just the athletes are getting bigger every year. Guys are bigger and stronger and it’s a different kind of game.”
Here’s what’s interesting: long before anyone knew what a concussion was – back when athletes were told that water makes them weak, proper technique was actually taught.
“We learned in grade school how to tackle with shoulders,” O’Billovich said. “It wasn’t until you got older that you were told to put your head in the centre of the (opponents’) numbers. And that’s not acceptable anymore.”
Get O’Billovich talking football, and his encyclopedic knowledge comes wafting out, his passion still drips, philosophies quickly shared.
“You know what bugs me? These one back sets, these short yardage sets with no lead blocker,” he says, gathering his belongings and unzips the jacket to head out to the sunshine. “But then you look at these quarterbacks, there’s such an improvement in the passing game. Canadian quarterbacks are better skilled and more efficient throwing the football.”
It’s nearly kickoff when he buckles in to begin scouting the talent. He’s back at the office. To his left, the old golf course. Before him, the game that’s been his life. Bob O’Billovich is back in his office. He surveys the scene, and the ear-to-ear grin is back. “I just love athletics,” he says.
And then the hall of famer goes back to work.
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