He came to Canada in 1963 hoping to make the Ottawa Rough Riders as a quarterback and defensive back.
Fifty years later, Bob O’Billovich is leaving the CFL.
The 72-year-old native of Butte, Mont., announced his retirement Monday at the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ business office. The man affectionately known as “Obie” spent the last five seasons with the Ticats — four as GM before being promoted to vice-president of football operations in 2012.
“Little did I know when I joined the Ottawa Rough Riders this would be the beginning of a 50-year relationship with the CFL,” O’Billovich said. “I had no idea how it was to all work out.
“I know in this computer up here (O’Billovich’s head) there’s a lot of memories, thoughts and people who, along the way, made it such an enjoyable experience.”
But O’Billovich leaves with one regret.
“I was really hoping when this day came it would be after we had brought Hamilton its 16th Grey Cup,” O’Billovich said. “Everything happens for a reason and I think it’s time to give some of that time to my family and start coaching my two little grandsons.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen but God has always taken good care of me and I’m trusting him to lead me in some other direction.”
Hamilton president Scott Mitchell praised O’Billovich for a career he says is worthy of the highest possible honour.
“I don’t think there’s any question this organization is a much, much, much, much better organization today than it was when Bob got here,” Mitchell said. “One thing I’m going to do if nobody has yet is make sure that application goes out today for Bob to be in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.”
O’Billovich could be inducted as a builder following a one-year waiting period. O’Billovich has no immediate plans for his retirement but said he has options.
“Maybe I could write a book, maybe the league wants me to be an ambassador for the CFL,” he said. “My family wants me to get a TV series for a coach’s family, a reality show.”
Expectations in Hamilton were high last year after O’Billovich hired offensive guru George Cortez as head coach, acquired quarterback Henry Burris and signed free-agent receiver Andy Fantuz. But the Ticats (6-12) missed the playoffs, which resulted in Cortez being fired and Kent Austin being hired as director of football operations, GM and head coach.
O’Billovich’s deal with the Ticats expired at season’s end and he opted against staying on as a consultant. Twice O’Billovich was named the CFL’s top coach (1982, 1987) and remains Toronto’s all-time winningest coach (89-79-3 record).
But O’Billovich remains indebted to the late Ralph Sazio, the longtime Hamilton player, coach and executive who hired O’Billovich as coach of the Argos more than 30 years ago.
“He became a mentor and friend and we formed a great partnership,” O’Billovich said. “After a 31-year drought in Toronto we won the Grey Cup in 1983 and that will always be a cherished memory.”
Sazio, who died in ‘08 at age 86, was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1998. During his CFL tenure Sazio earned a reputation of being a shrewd negotiator, something it seems he passed on to O’Billovich.
“You didn’t want to be sitting across the table from him,” said Ticats offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski. “I’ve had that experience once and the guy is good at what he does.
“When you ran into him during the off-season, he always asked what you were weighing and if you were working out? I was always honest with him and he’d always tell me to lose five pounds regardless.”
Ticats centre Marwan Hage said O’Billovich was never one to settle.
“We had won in B.C., a big game, and everyone was happy but Obie wasn’t happy about certain players and how they played,” he said. “We were celebrating in the locker-room and Obie was right in the guy’s face telling him ‘You need to play better’ . . . he was always straight with players which a lot of guys respected.
“I’ve negotiated a few contracts and he’s the best negotiator there is. You get out of the negotiation with Obie and feel lucky he even offered you a $5 deal. He’d disarm you in five minutes and make you feel you’re replaceable, and you are.”
O’Billovich played five seasons with Ottawa before beginning his coaching career with the club as an assistant in 1976. Prior to that, he coached basketball at Carleton (1971-’73) then with the Ottawa Gee-Gees (1973-’74).
More importantly, O’Billovich met his wife Judy in Ottawa and that’s where their children Tracy, Jodi, and Coy were all born.
“Ottawa will forever be near and dear to my heart,” O’Billovich said.
In 1982, O’Billovich took his first CFL head-coaching position with Toronto. Over eight seasons he led the Argos to three Grey Cup appearances, winning in ‘83 to end the franchise’s dismal 31-year championship drought.
“We actually went to the Grey Cup my rookie year and lost to Edmonton and the city had a parade for crying out loud,” O’Billovich said. “I could never get over that one.
“I think there was 20,000 people out that day and I remember telling the players, ‘You can imagine what it’s going to be like when we win the Grey Cup here.’ The next year we won and I’m sure there was at least 60,000 people downtown . . . it was a heck of a day and a great year.”
O’Billovich became the B.C. Lions head coach during the 1990 campaign and remained through the 1992 season before returning to Toronto as GM in ‘93. He assumed coaching duties that year before resuming his full-time general manager’s role after the ‘94 season but in ‘95 returned to the sidelines.
O’Billovich then spent two seasons as Saskatchewan’s player-personnel director (’98-’99) before three years as Calgary’s assistant GM and player-personnel director, including the Stampeders’ ‘01 championship season.
In 2003, O’Billovich became the B.C.’s player-personnel director (earning a 2006 championship ring) and remained there until joining the Ticats.
O’Billovich had an eye for talent, signing such CFL stalwarts as linebacker Willie Pless, running back/receiver Michael (Pinball) Clemons, defensive end Cameron Wake, Hamilton linebackers Markeith Knowlton and Jamall Johnson and Ticats’ receiver Chris Williams.
But O’Billovich wants to be remembered as someone who always left an organization in better shape than when he arrived.
“I always believed when you do your job you’ve got to give it your best effort,” he said. “I hope I’ve been able to make a difference with all the opportunities I’ve had in CFL my career.
“When you’ve been around you should have had some good experiences. I’ve had more good than bad.”