The Montreal Alouettes celebrated many big victories and three Grey Cup titles during Bob Wetenhall’s ownership, but Jim Popp will forever remember Wetenhall’s passion for the people and players within the organization.
Wetenhall passed away peacefully Friday in Palm Beach, Fla., where he’d had a home for over 50 years. He was 86.
Wetenhall owned the Alouettes from 1997-2018. Under his guidance, Montreal became a CFL powerhouse, finishing atop the East Division 10 times and appearing in eight Grey Cups, winning three, from 1999-2012.
Popp was a big part of Montreal’s success, serving as the franchise’s GM/football-operations director from 1996-2016.
“He was just a wonderful boss … who did a lot for people to help them and make them feel good,” Popp said during a telephone interview Tuesday. “He always had relationships with people, I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a great relationship with him.
“For years, he always put on carnival that was for everybody but it would be for players and their families that had nothing to do with football and just to have a good time. He always had an elaborate Halloween party that was as good a party as there was for winning a Grey Cup. Even after a Grey Cup if we didn’t win, he’d make sure everybody knew he was proud and thankful for what we did. We had a tremendous environment that carried on for over two decades and it was unbelievable. He was the main reason for that.”
Wetenhall took over the Alouettes in 1997 after they were revoked from Michael Gelfand and declared bankruptcy. He willingly assumed the organization’s debts despite not legally being obligated to do so.
Wetenhall had been in professional football before, having previously served as part-owner of the Boston Patriots (AFL) and New England Patriots (NFL). In 2011, he received an honorary doctor of laws degree from McGill University for his work with the Alouettes and expansion of Percival Molson Stadium.
Wetenhall was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2015.
Wetenhall, a native of Milwaukee, never shied away from making the hard decision or tackling issues head-on. But he also took time to find the humour in situations, often sharing jokes with reporters.
“Bob Wetenhall along with David Braley were true heroes of our league,” Hamilton owner Bob Young tweeted Monday night when news of Wetenhall’s passing broke. “Bob had a joie de vivre that brought optimism and happiness to everyone who knew him.
“I, and the CFL, just lost a great friend.”
Wetenhall’s son, Andrew, a former Alouettes governor, said sentiments like that have made the mourning process easier for him and his family.
“I really enjoyed Bob Young’s tweet,” he said. “Dad really did have a recognition that life includes the opportunity to have fun, have a laugh, be with friends.
“I have a deep admiration and respect for him and hearing people say nice things about him makes me realize his effect on people. It’s sad times, but to hear great stories and comments certainly does help.”
Wetenhall said while his father was a big football fan, he gave his employees the latitude to do their jobs.
“That was always his style,” Wetenhall said. “He believed in hiring a good person who was capable of doing the role and letting them go do it.”
There was plenty of continuity — on and off the field — in Montreal during Wetenhall’s ownership.
The front office included Popp and Larry Smith, who oversaw the relocation of the Baltimore Stallions to Montreal as CFL commissioner in 1996 before becoming Alouettes president the following year. Smith, a Montreal native and former Alouettes player, left to become the Montreal Gazette publisher in 2002 but returned to the franchise in 2004 and remained through 2010.
Much of Montreal’s on-field success came with Anthony Calvillo as quarterback. Signed as a free agent in 1998 after being released by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Calvillo first served as Tracy Ham’s backup in Montreal before taking over the reins two years later.
Calvillo went on to become the most prolific quarterback in CFL history, leading Montreal to a Grey Cup win in 2002, its first in 25 seasons. Two more championships followed (2009-10) and three times Calvillo was named the league’s most outstanding player.
Calvillo suffered a career-ending concussion in 2013 and retired in January 2014. He left the CFL as pro football’s all-time passing leader (79,816 yards) and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame three years later.
But Montreal also had roster consistency with such players as Calvillo, slotback Ben Cahoon, offensive lineman Scott Flory (both Canadians) and kicker Damon Duval. The lineup also featured francophone players like running backs Éric Lapointe and Bruno Heppell, receiver Éric Deslauriers and safety Étienne Boulay, to name a few.
And with the combination of consistency and success, the Alouettes recorded 105 sellouts at Molson Stadium, which has a seating capacity of about 23,500.
“He got involved in football because he loves football,” Wetenhall said of his father. “And football teams that have continuity are generally a full step better than football teams that don’t.
“Not always, but generally.”
The Alouettes were also a little lucky as in 1997, a U2 concert at Olympic Stadium forced them to look at McGill as a potential venue. Trouble was, Molson Stadium wasn’t exactly in pristine condition and even had a tree growing in the stands.
However, the move to downtown Montreal into a cosier, fan-friendly venue definitely saved the franchise as the Alouettes were averaging fewer than 10,000 fans at the Big O.
But Popp said Wetenhall’s prime concern was always for the people in his organization.
“I had plenty of chances to leave (for NFL jobs), but I didn’t,” Popp said. “He’d always say, ‘Look, you’ll regret it if you at least don’t go interview,’ and I’d go sometimes.
“But I always told him that unless I got a GM job, the likelihood is I won’t leave and he knew that. We had that trust.”
Popp said Wetenhall continuously urged him to live in the U.S. and travel back and forth to Canada so his parents could spend more time with their grandchildren. It’s advice Popp finally heeded before the 2010 season with a move to North Carolina.
“”He really pushed for that,” Popp said. “After I took my family to the U.S., I think it was nine months later my mother passed and then my dad six months after that.
“That really sticks with me.”
Montreal’s last Grey Cup win during Wetenhall’s ownership was in 2010. The Alouettes missed the CFL playoffs the last four years of his tenure, amassing a 21-51 overall record over that span.
On May 31, 2019, Wetenhall sold the Alouettes to the CFL. In January 2020, the league announced Toronto businessmen Sid Spiegel and Gary Stern had purchased the franchise.
“That decision wasn’t an easy one, but once we made it, frankly, we knew it was the right move,” Andrew Wetenhall said. “Dad had tremendous pride in being afforded the opportunity to be involved in the Alouettes, in taking a leadership role in the community and ultimately in the level of success the franchise accomplished under his stewardship, both on and off the field.
“Dad used to say, ‘You want to leave this world in a better place than you entered it.’ He was always hopeful that was the case with his ownership in Montreal … that was important to him and naturally important to me.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press