CFL legend Ron Lancaster dead at age 69

Ron Lancaster, a CFL legend known during his playing days as the Little General, has died. He was 69.

Ron Lancaster

HAMILTON — Ron Lancaster, a CFL legend known during his playing days as the Little General, has died. He was 69.

He died Wednesday night, a Hamilton Tiger-Cats spokesman said Thursday.

A former player, coach and team executive, Lancaster was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this summer and had been undergoing radiation and chemotherapy to treat the disease.

Lancaster, who survived bladder cancer in 2004, had been working as a colour analyst on Hamilton Tiger-Cats radio broadcasts this season before receiving the diagnosis. He was also serving as the Ticats senior adviser to organizational development.

“As much as I love the game of football, there are some things more important than what happens on the field of play,” he said in a letter to fans on the Tiger-Cat website in August in confirming the cancer.

Lancaster was born in Fairchance, Pa., but grew up in the blue collar steel town of Clairton. He excelled as a high school quarterback but due to his small stature was overlooked by the big U.S. colleges. He instead played for tiny Wittenburg University in Ohio and while he was ignored by the NFL, the CFL’s Ottawa Roughriders gave him a shot.

His illustrious CFL career began in 1960 in Ottawa where he won a Grey Cup in his rookie year. After the 1962 season, the Rough Riders dealt him to Saskatchewan where he spent 16 years, leading the Roughriders to their first-ever Grey Cup title in 1966.

“Ronnie was one of the greatest football players and even more important, one of the greatest human beings I have had the privilege to know,” said Riders President/CEO Jim Hopson in a release.

“His loss will be deeply felt in Saskatchewan and across the nation as Ron touched so many people through his playing, coaching and commentator work.”

Known for his on-field smarts, Lancaster excelled in the pass-happy CFL and captured the Schenley Award as the CFL’s outstanding player in 1970 and ’76. He finished his 19-year playing career with 3,384 passes for 50,535 yards and 333 touchdowns.

Lancaster became Saskatchewan’s head coach immediately after the 1978 season but was let go after consecutive 2-14 seasons.

Lancaster then joined the CBC, where he worked as a colour analyst for the network’s CFL broadcasts. He also served as a basketball colour commentator at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Lancaster returned to football in 1991 as the Edmonton Eskimos head coach. He spent seven seasons there, winning a Grey Cup in 1993.

Lancaster became the 17th head coach in Ticats’ history on Nov. 26, 1997 and served as the club’s coach from 1998 to 2003. He led the team to Grey Cup appearances in 1998 and ’99, winning the latter.

He returned to the sidelines as Hamilton’s interim head coach in ’06 after Greg Marshall was fired.

During his heyday, Lancaster earned a reputation of being a player’s coach. He’d often give his troops the lattitude to have fun, but demanded discipline and dedication on the field.

“Our league has lost its ’Little General,’ and our country has lost a giant of a man,” said CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon in a statement.

“Ron Lancaster is deeply loved across Canada, as a CFL player, coach, broadcaster and mentor, but most of all as a true friend. His career spanned eras, bridged west and east, and delighted our fans.”

His 142 regular-season wins place him fifth on the CFL’s career list.

Popular and respected in CFL circles for his integrity and up-front demeanour, Lancaster was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1985.

Lancaster is the third Hall of Famer to die in recent months. Earl (Earthquake) Lunsford died on Sept. 4 while B.C. Lions president Bob Ackles suffered a fatal heart attack in early July.

He is survived by his wife Bev, three children Lana, Ron and Bob and his four grandchildren.

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