Greatest Teams: 1984 Vanier Champs
Jed Tommy’s football days may be over but the former star Gryphon running back still loves training. Tommy, a competitive cyclist, has a dedicated room in his Ottawa home that he calls ‘The Hurt Locker.’ When he logs time on his spin bike, he will commonly stare at an important memento that rests proudly on the wall – a poster of the Guelph Gryphons 1984 Vanier Cup-winning team.
“I still look at that to draw inspiration,” says Tommy, who was a fourth-year veteran and future Canadian Football League first-round pick during that magical season 35 years ago. “Sometimes I pinch myself and ask, ‘Did we do that?’”
Any conversation about the greatest teams in Gryphon Football history starts with the 1984 squad, a collection of dedicated athletes, who possessed all of the necessary championship attributes – talent, speed, strength, grit, and heart. But those Guelph players also had an unrelenting work ethic that would carry them through a frustrating regular season before embarking on one of the greatest playoff runs in Canadian university sports history, which ultimately ended with a 22-13 comeback victory over Mount Allison in a Vanier thriller back on Nov. 24, 1984.
That willingness to sacrifice and put in the necessary hours of training was forged in the years leading up to 1984 thanks to a foundation paved by then head coach Tom Dimitroff. The gridiron legend would leave the program after the 1983 season, replaced by John Musselman. And the lessons learned by Dimitroff, combined with a new, simple tactical approach from Musselman, proved to be a winning recipe for a locker room full of players ready to do something historic.
“You had to be physically and mentally tough to play for my father,” says Randy Dimitroff, a quarterback on that 1984 squad, who executed the hold on Tim Quirke’s crucial go-ahead, fourth-quarter field goal in the title game. “The hunger to win was evident in every one of our players. So when John Musselman took over the team in 1984, it was our time.”
“To survive the training camps like we did, you felt there was no chance opponents would be tougher,” adds Tommy, suggesting that the work broke and bent the players into “a hardened steel.” “John Mussleman came in with a very simple plan. We only ran a handful of plays – all we had to do was execute. We had superior athletes who were really gritty. There was no room for heavy egos. We were definitely a team.
“I don’t know if any of the guys thought that we were all exceptional people but what was exceptional was the effort. We had a professional focus that was unique.”
It did, however, take a while for the team to get rolling. A 4-3 regular season wasn’t exactly the stuff of legends but beating Western on the Mustangs’ home turf in their Homecoming game was definitely a positive. The Gryphons would really hit their stride once the playoffs got under way despite the huge obstacle presented by the unbeaten McMaster Marauders. Guelph disposed of the 7-0 Mac team in Hamilton, winning the OUAA semi-final matchup 27-15.
That win would set up a Yates Cup showdown against Western in London. The OUAA championship game was filled with drama as the visiting Gryphons sat precariously on a 31-26 lead with the Mustangs threatening to score from just two yards out in the dying seconds of the game. But Guelph’s tenacious defence came up with the ball after a Mustang fumble to secure the provincial championship thanks in part to a Dalt White Trophy-winning performance from starting quarterback Randy Walters.
It marked the first time in OUAA history that a team won two road games en route to claiming the Yates Cup.
“Our regular season was nothing to write home about except that the 4-3 record got us into the playoffs,” says Dimitroff. “The last game of the season, Mac blew us out at home, making them undefeated. The following week we went into Mac and beat them soundly. It was at that point that we knew we were on the brink of a special season.
“We were a hungry team that had never won a championship before. We now had the confidence that we could beat anyone. That brought our Gryphon family even closer. We did everything together on and off the field. We had each others’ backs no matter who was in our way.”
The bond was evident in a hard-fought 12-7 Central Bowl win over the Calgary Dinosaurs in front of a jam-packed crowd of almost 9,000 fans at Alumni Stadium. The Gryphon D again capped it off by forcing the Dinos into a three-and-out from the 12-yard line with time ticking down.
At that point, the players could see that a national championship was within their grasp. And once again, a comeback was necessary. The Gryphons found themselves down 13-7 in the fourth quarter of the Vanier, their only points coming off an 89-yard connection between Walters and All-Canadian receiver Parri Ceci. But the game turned when Guelph produced a critical interception on a Mount Allison drive. Tommy churned out big chunks of yardage and Ceci’s second touchdown of his MVP performance, a huge 38-yard score, got the game to 13-13.
Quirke’s field goal put the Gryphons up and a late touchdown sealed it, securing the first and only Vanier Cup win in the program’s decorated history. Free safety Jeff Volpe, who now resides in California, remembered how Ceci’s second touchdown demoralized Mount Allison. It was an example of how Guelph’s will was superior to its opponents.
“We worked so hard that we couldn’t lose, even though we weren’t supposed to win,” Volpe said back in 2015 on the 31st anniversary of the national championship victory. “We had a feeling of destiny, the feeling that you were part of something bigger than yourself. That, in essence, is what team is all about.”
“All I remember really is Jeff Yanchus and I sandwiched together at centre field, mobbed by students from Guelph and I still get goosebumps remembering what Jeff said – ‘Jed, we did it,’” Tommy recalls, noting how important the play of both the offensive and defensive lines was to the success in that game and throughout 1984. “It was surreal.
“Amateur sports has something unique that nothing can match. The moment and experience made me and my family very proud.”
The Gryphons finished the year 9-3, ranked No. 4 in the CIS, with four CFL draft picks on the roster. They had reached the pinnacle of Canadian collegiate football. But that win did much more than provide a memory for a large group of young athletes and their staff. The experience gave those Gryphon players a life lesson and helped shaped their futures both on and off the field.
“When you achieve something as incredible as the national championship, you never look at yourself the same,” says Tommy. “That can be good and bad but you consider yourself to be exceptional. When you don’t have exceptional results, you tend to be critical and want to improve.
“It sets your trajectory very differently. You can’t believe what you accomplished.”
The 1984 season also created an unbreakable bond amongst the players. There is a togetherness that is often difficult to express and those relationships have extended into the next generation as the children of those Gryphons get to know each other.
“Through Friends of Gryphon Football we try and stay connected as the only championship team in Guelph's history,” says Dimitroff, who has taken on the role of keeping the program’s alumni close. “When we get together for golf tourneys, gala dinners or Homecoming celebrations, it’s like we’ve never been apart. We pick up where we left off.”
“The teammates we have from that ‘84 team continue to grow regarding our respect, encouragement and love for each other,” Tommy adds of the many faces he still sees daily on the wall of his home training space. “It’s an incredible thing at 57 to say that my best friends, the guys I respect and care about, are the teammates and family I had when I was a Gryphon.
“When I see those guys, we instantly become youthful again.”
Written by: david dicenzo