If Tom Dimitroff Sr. had been at last month’s ceremony when the head coach’s office in the Gryphon Pavilion was named after him, he probably would’ve been embarrassed.
He’d probably wonder why the room couldn’t have been named after the Gryphon teams he coached instead of being named after him because in his mind it was always about the team.
“I think he’d be very humble,” oldest son Randy said. “I’ve read articles and heard some things about him and read some things about where he was and what he was like and it was all about the team. He would thank everyone else except himself.”
“I think he’d be emotional and be taken aback,” youngest son Thomas Jr. said. “My dad had a very, very emotional side and he’d always mentioned the importance of respect and the importance of friendships on and off the field and he had so many great friends in this town and around the university that I think he would well-up and he would do all he could to make sure he thanked everyone for the unbelievable generosity and appreciation for what he did for this university.”
Tom Sr. joined the Gryphons in 1979 after being dismissed as head coach of Harold Ballard’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. After being fired by the Ticats, he helped the Argos out a little before hearing about a vacancy in the head coaching job with the Gryphons.
Randy recalls the day Tom Sr. journeyed to Guelph just to check on that job. However, it ended up being up more than just the intended dropping off his resume as, with his wife Helen sitting in the car, Tom Sr. had a meeting with then U of G athletic director Gib Chapman.
“He was working a little bit with Bud Riley with the Argos at the time because they’d fired Leo Cahill,” Randy said. “I said ‘Where are you going?’ and he said ‘I’m going up to Guelph. I hear they have an opening.’ So he met up with Gib Chapman and they signed him basically on a napkin.”
Born in Barberton, Ohio, about 50 miles south of Cleveland, Tom Sr. had been an all-conference quarterback in NCAA football who also punted and kicked converts and he was selected in the 25th round of the 1957 NFL draft by the Browns. He never played in the NFL, though, but journeyed north to play in the newly-formed CFL and started for the Ottawa Rough Riders in the league’s very first regular-season game in 1958. He retired from the CFL later that season after being traded to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In 1960, he played in three games for the Boston Patriots in the new American Football League before putting an end to his playing days.
After that, Tom Sr. was an assistant coach in NCAA football for four years at his alma mater Miami, Ohio, and for one year at Kansas State before becoming an assistant coach with the Ottawa Rough Riders for four years and that included a Grey Cup win in 1976. He became head coach of the Harold Ballard-owned Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1978, but that lasted for five games.
Tom Sr. originally didn’t have a high opinion of the level of football in Canada, but that changed during his time with the Gryphons.
“At the end of those five years he’d completely changed his mind about the Canadian talent and what the football knowledge and the football ability of the Canadians are,” Randy said “He just loved it. He loved every bit of it. It was the best thing he did.”
While Tom Sr. did not coach the Gryphons during their Vanier Cup-winning season of 1984, he had basically been its architect.
During his stint as the head coach of the Gryphons, Tom Sr. had four winning seasons and reached the league semifinals in three and the Yates Cup final in 1981 where the Gryphs were defeated by the Western Mustangs. Tom Sr.’s teams amassed an overall record of 26-16-1 and he was OUA coach of the year in 1983 and inducted into the Gryphon Athletics Hall of Fame in 1995, about five months before his passing.
Both his sons played university football with the Gryphons. Randy started his time in OUA football while his father was the coach while Thomas Jr., now general manager of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, played after his dad had left.
“The worst thing I ever did,” Randy said. “I thought it would be cool. Me growing up with my kids, I coached them all over the place. He didn’t coach us as kids so I figured it would be a good time to do that. A lot of times it was ‘Why aren’t you playing him?’ and if he played me it was favouritism. When he came home he’d get Mom all over him. It just was stressful. The guys knew what I did and how I participated and how I was as a team player. Ultimately to do that, it was challenging to say the least, but I’m glad I did it and I’m glad he was there. I did learn some things from him, that’s for sure. His competitive nature was second to none. Ultimately, I’m glad we had time with him – way too little.”
As for Thomas Jr., his memories of his father and Gryphon football are what he saw at their practices that he’d see. A student at Guelph’s Centennial CVI at the time, most of the time Thomas Jr. would have to sneak into the Gryphon practices and try to hide as he watched as his father would always figure Thomas Jr. should be home doing homework.
“I’d be watching him interact with the players and watch him be a tough, hard-nosed guy that he was and getting the most out of people and then turning around and being all about that he made sure he patted people on the back and the positive reinforcement,” Thomas Jr. said. “It was a different positive reinforcement. Those days were hard-nosed, but he always remembered how important it was to make sure that for the guys who put themselves on the line and for the guys who believed in team concepts, he was right there for him as much as he could be.”
Todd Galloway is the first Gryphon head coach to use the room since Tom Sr.’s name went up just outside it.
“Everything so far to date with this facility is special, but the honour of coming in and being able to sit there with (the name of) one of the most distinguished coaches in Guelph Gryphon history (on the room) brings a lot more seriousness and a lot more excitement to it,” he said. “I have an even higher standard to live up to now that one of the most respected, team-oriented coaches in the history of this football program is honoured and will be on the outside of that door every day.
“I find it motivating and I find it exciting and it kind of drives my passion. That’s a standard I want to live up to and it’s on the door every day for me to see when I come in in the morning.”