This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
The early 1980s were not the best time for the city of Calgary. The deadly combination of low oil prices and summer droughts made job prospects scarce in the Stampede City. Southern Alberta was known for oil and farming and with neither industry doing well, the city of Calgary was taking its lumps. The citizens needed an escape. In winter, they had the Calgary Flames, who were showing promise and potential. In summer, they had the Calgary Stampeders who were desperate to end a long Grey Cup drought. However in 1985, they hit rock bottom.
The Stampeders were forced to watch their bitter provincial rivals, the Edmonton Eskimos reel off 5 straight Grey Cup victories from 1978 to 1982. With the Eskimos starting to decline, the Stamps thought they were ready to make their move. Following a disappointing 1984 season, in which the Stamps finished 6-10, Calgary decided to pursue quarterback Joe Barnes, who was unhappy with his situation in Toronto. Barnes led the Argonauts to a Grey Cup championship in 1983, but was relegated to a backup role thanks to the emergence of Condredge Holloway. Barnes was looking for a new home. The Stamps were looking for a quarterback. A trade was made and Barnes became the starting quarterback in Calgary, and all hopes were pinned on the Texas Tech grad.
Calgary also had their eyes on the future as well. The Stamps used their first selection of the draft to pick hometown hero Greg Vavra. Born and raised in Calgary, Vavra was a star at the University of Calgary, leading the Dinos to a Vanier Cup Championship in 1983. Vavra was considered the next great Canadian quarterback by some scouts.
The Stamps started the season with high expectations. Those expectations were dashed very quickly. The Stampeders lost their first 5 games of the season, as the offence was non-existent. Calgary averaged a mere 13.4 points in those 5 games. In an offensive league like the CFL, that is atrocious. The Stamps did breakthrough in Week 6, scoring a 35-32 upset victory over the BC Lions. However, that moment of exaltation was short-lived as the next week, the Stamps were thrashed 43-6 by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. General Manager Earl Lunsford had seen enough. He fired head coach Steve Burrato and replaced him with his good friend Bud Riley.
Riley was the head coach in Winnipeg from 1974-77 while Lunsford was the GM in Winnipeg. Lunsford was hoping Riley could turn the fortunes of the Stamps around. He didn’t. Calgary went 2-7 under Riley, to finish with a 3-13 record, the worst record in the CFL in 1985.
The lowest point of the season took place on October 25 in the last home game for the Stampeders in 1985. The organization was to honour former slot back Tom Forzani, by retiring his number 22 at halftime of their game against Winnipeg. It became a Murphy’s Law night for the Stamps. Whatever could go wrong, did go wrong. The weather was brutal, as a combination of freezing rain, sleet, snow and wind made the artificial turf at McMahon Stadium into a skating rink. The fans didn’t want to endure the horrid weather as only 11,184 patrons braved the frosty conditions to honour Forzani. By contrast, the next night, the Flames played in front of 16,762 spectators at the Olympic Saddledome. The players didn’t want to be there either, as the Stamps were destroyed 47-4 by the Blue Bombers. To put it mildly, this was one of the lowest points in Stampeder history.
Things were so bad in Calgary, that the franchise was in danger of folding up shop. At the end of the season, a campaign was started to save the Stampeders. The franchise needed 20,000 season ticket subscribers or the team would be no more. Despite the problems Calgary was enduring in the job market, the people stepped up and the franchise was saved.
Where did it go wrong for the Stamps in 1985? First off Joe Barnes turned out to be a total bust at quarterback. Barnes did complete 58.56% of his passes for 2,864 yards and 11 touchdowns. However Barnes was picked off 19 times, giving his defence little rest. Greg Vavra couldn’t handle the pressure of being the hometown saviour. Vavra only completed 43.84% of his passes for 391 yards, 1 touchdown and 5 interceptions. His quarterback rating was a pathetic 37.0. Vavra was released at the end of the season. He tried his luck with the BC Lions in 1987, but failed to make the grade and he faded into oblivion. Things were so bad, the Stamps tried slotback Danny Barrett behind centre. Barrett did go on to have a solid career as a CFL quarterback proving that sometimes the accidental discoveries are the best ones.
The quarterbacks weren’t helped by a lack of a running game. Larry Mason ended up being the Stamps leading rusher, gaining only 247 yards for the entire season. Dwight Beverly was the next closest as he rushed for 238 yards for the season. This team couldn’t run the ball against a senior citizens shuffleboard team.
The lone bright spot was slotback Emanuel Tolbert. The MVP of the Stamps in 1985, Tolbert caught 67 passes for 1,124 yards and 6 touchdowns. Sadly for Tolbert, he had no help surrounding him.
After the season concluded, Bud Riley decided not to return as head coach. Lunsford decided to hire Bob Vespaziani as his new coach. Vespaziani was the offensive co-ordinator of the Blue Bombers for 3 seasons before taking the reigns in Calgary. Barnes was traded to Montreal and the Stamps decided to go with Rick Johnson at quarterback. The Stamps drastically improved in 1986, going 11-7, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in 4 seasons. The city of Calgary is now a boom town. Oil prices are through the roof, and farmers are experiencing bumper crops. Calgary is now the fastest growing city in Canada, and one of the hip destinations for young people. Things haven’t gone well for Emanuel Tolbert though. Tolbert was convicted of sexual assault on a minor in 2001. He is currently serving a 15 year prison term. How times have changed since 1985.
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