It didn’t take Rob Hitchcock long to endear himself to Don Sutherin.
Hitchcock was a rookie safety in 1995 attending his first Hamilton Tiger-Cats training camp after being selected in the second round of the CFL draft. On the fourth day of workouts, Sutherin, the club’s head coach, told Hitchcock to replace a veteran player at the position.
Trouble was, the veteran wouldn’t budge, even after Hitchcock told him that Sutherin had instructed him to take over. But neither did Hitchcock.
“He said, ‘Hey rookie get out of here,’” Hitchcock said. “I don’t know why I did this but I grabbed his face mask and head-butted him. … The guy just kind of went off and I think that was Sudsy’s way of saying, ‘Let’s just see if this young kid is going to put his tail between his legs and take off because the veteran guy told him to get out of the huddle.’
“I reacted the opposite way and I think that was the point where he understood who I was as a player and that I wanted to be on this team being from Hamilton. … I think it was kind of the stepping stone of my career and how I made that team.”
Sutherin, who led Ohio State to a U.S. college football championship before winning seven Grey Cup titles over a Hall of Fame career as a CFL player and coach, died Tuesday. He was 85.
The cause of death wasn’t immediately known. Sutherin passed away in hospital in Canton, Ohio.
Sutherin’s daughter, Rebecca, confirmed her father’s death.
“I was actually in the hospital with him Sunday and an ad appeared on TV and he said, ‘I know that guy,’” Rebecca said. “I looked up and he said, ‘That’s Doug Flutie.’
“Of course, Dad coached in Calgary when Doug was there and then in Hamilton when Darren (Flutie’s younger brother, who was a receiver) was there. We have some wonderful memories. I watched the Grey Cup with him (last month) and Mike O’Shea and Orlondo Steinauer were two guys he coached in Hamilton.”
O’Shea and Steinauer are both now CFL head coaches with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, respectively. Winnipeg won a second straight Grey Cup title with a 33-24 win over the Ticats at Tim Hortons Field on Dec. 12.
“Don Sutherin was a #CFL legend,” tweeted CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie. “A @CFHOF member, he won the #GreyCup on multiple occasions as a player and as a coach, and made countless friends along the way.
“He will be missed.”
Hitchcock, 51, played 12 seasons with Hamilton (1995-06), winning a Grey Cup in 1999. The six-foot-two, 210 pounder amassed 606 combined tackles, 484 defensive tackles, 36 interceptions with 11 sacks and seven fumble recoveries.
In 2019, Hitchcock was added to the Ticats’ Wall of Honour at Tim Hortons Field. And for the bulk of Hitchcock’s time in Hamilton, Sutherin was either his head coach or defensive coach.
“You’re going to hear this a lot but he was an old-school coach,” Hitchcock said. “Smash-mouth football, if you’re going to take a penalty make sure it’s a good one, that mentality back when he played with (legendary Hamilton defensive lineman) Angelo Mosca.
“That’s the way football was played. Of course, it’s evolved over the last 30, 40, 50 years and it’s changed a lot. But when I came in ‘95, it was still the smash-mouth, knock a guy out mentality. But he always treated us with respect, players first. Just those little life lessons that you learn when you’re a young guy and I’m glad he taught us all that.”
It’s been a tough couple of months for Ticats fans. In November, Mosca passed away at the age of 84 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.
“We’re deeply saddened to learn of the passing of legendary Tiger-Cats player & coach, Don Sutherin,” the Ticats tweeted. “His impact on our football club was immeasurable.
“Our thoughts are with his family.”
Less than two weeks after Sutherin tested Hitchcock during camp, the coach had his own unique way of telling the rookie he’d made the team. Hitchcock vividly remembers the day when Sutherin asked him on three separate occasions if he was going to cut his hair, each time drawing an emphatic “no” from Hitchcock.