After watching the Kent Austin-led Saskatchewan Roughriders win the 2007 Grey Cup, fan Sandy Monteith celebrated in Toronto’s Rogers Centre for so long that security guards had to ask him and a throng of overjoyed Rider fans to clear out.
“I was there to see Kent Austin quarterback us to the Grey Cup in 1989 in Toronto, and then I was there celebrating again when he won it as a coach in 2007,” recalls Monteith of Saskatoon, a well-recognized long-time Riders super fan known as The Flame who still wears green and white face paint today along with a fire-shooting helmet.
“I said, buddy, we haven’t won it in 18 years, we’re going to be here celebrating for a while.”
Monteith is in Regina this week awaiting his team’s appearance in the Grey Cup. But this time instead of helping to deliver Rider Nation another moment of pure elation, the once-beloved Austin – now 50 – will be trying to beat their beloved team as head coach and general manager of the opposing Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Austin’s accomplishments in Regina have him etched in Roughriders lore, up there with the likes of franchise legends Ron Lancaster and George Reed. An enormous banner with his picture stretches for multiple storeys on the outside of Mosaic Stadium, site of Sunday’s championship game. The fans were heartbroken when Austin asked to be traded away in 1993, and again in 2007 when he left the reigning champs to coach a football team in the NCAA. Still, the man with a keen offensive mind commands a certain respect around town.
“He was great for us, that will never change,” Monteith said. “Now, he has taken over a Hamilton team that had a good offence last year but couldn’t make the playoffs, so we respect what he’s accomplished. But come Sunday, I’m gonna boo him.”
After a stellar college career as a quarterback at Ole Miss, the St. Louis Cardinals drafted Austin in the 12th round of the 1986 NFL Draft. After one year as a backup, he was released and joined the Riders.
“I’ve loved Kent to death ever since he befriended me in St. Louis before we both got cut,” said former Roughriders receiver Don Narcisse. “When I saw him in Saskatchewan, I was happy as heck, and we picked right up where we left off. He was like a coach on the field and was so smart when it came to watching film. But let’s say you’ve got to know Kent to love him. If you don’t, you might hate him.”
Some at the time described Austin as arrogant or abrasive. But he was a winner. He tossed for a jaw-dropping 474 yards passing and was the MVP of Saskatchewan’s 1989 Grey Cup victory over the Ticats. Despite the freezing late-November temperatures, thousands of fans were there to meet the Riders at the airport upon their arrival home to Regina.
Austin quarterbacked in the fishbowl that is Rider Nation for six years. After a stellar 1992 campaign in which he became only the second pro quarterback to throw for more than 6,000 yards in a season, Austin asked for money, then demanded a trade.
He was traded to the B.C. Lions, and upon his first game in Regina against the Riders, fans paid $1 each to charity for the chance to swing a sledgehammer at an Austin Mini painted with his old No.5 outside the stadium.
He went on to win another Cup in B.C. in ’94, played for the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers and finished his career in 1996 with the 11th most passing yards (36,030) and third-best completion percentage (.576) in league history.
He started a coaching career in 2003 with assistant gigs on staffs of the Ottawa Renegades and the Argos. His first head-coaching gig finally came in Regina.
“I learned so much from Kent back then,” said Darian Durant, who will start as Riders quarterback this Sunday, but was a third-stringer under Austin back in 2007. “He would ask me for advice about plays in quarterback meetings. I was a third-string quarterback behind Marcus Crandel and Kerry Joseph, two Grey Cup champions, and he’s asking me what I think. Kent meant a lot to me and my development. He is the one who changed my delivery.”
In a single season at the helm in Regina, Austin led the Riders to Grey Cup victory. Again, fans came en masse to the Regina Airport and to the victory parade as it roared down Albert Street.