The following text and photos were all taken from the publication Tom Dimitroff: ‘It’s all about the team’ by Herb Shoveller. Dimitroff served as the head coach at Guelph from 1979 thru 1983. He left behind a legacy for the program beyond just his sons Randy and Tom Jr., and his grandson Dillon. You will still hear many Guelph players and coaches repeating his mantra it’s all about the team. Just listen to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers new HC Mike O’Shea, for example.
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One of the superior accomplishments in Tom Dimitroff’s football career delivered ultimate success, yet ironically when that success arrived he had moved on. That would be 1984, the year the Guelph Gryphons won the Vanier Cup national championship, after Dimitroff had just moved from the university ranks back into pro ball with the Ottawa Rough Riders. He may not have been the Gryphons’ sidelines mentor for that national championship, but his fingerprints were everywhere on that club.
“Those players on the 1984 team, they were players that Tom had brought in, no doubt about it,” asserts Jeff Hale, a 6/6”, 280-lb. offensive tackle who played for Dimitroff then coached with him.
“My dad was committed to creating competitive teams, and the year he left was the year we won it,” adds Dimitroff’s son, Randy, and the use of the word “we” is not of the royal variety, as Randy was a quarterback with the ’84 champions. “He turned the program around and, coupled with Dick Brown, created the championship atmosphere.
“My dad had the ability to be firm and stern with players and then pat them on the back and laud them. He did a wonderful job with university athletes, and the players knew he had their best interests at heart.”
It’s a shared family observation.
“My father was a really tough, hard-nosed, focused football coach with little patience for variations,” explains Thomas, Dimitroff’s youngest son, who in 2010 was entering his third season as general manager of the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons. “You did things his way and it was always about the team, and if people deviated, my dad would just move on from them. In my mind my dad was very fair. He was clear and direct and if you stuck with the plan, he would reward you.”
Thomas also played for the Gryphons, as a defensive back, and just to keep it in the family, Randy’s son Dillon in 2010 is entering his second season as a receiver with the team. Of course, families’ positive assessments of one of their own could raise a doubtful eyebrow, but the upbeat observations of Dimitroff are extensive and easy to uncover.
“Tom came in 1979 and before we left for the summer we had three or four practices during spring and they were very intense, so we had a good idea of what was coming in the fall,” says former offensive lineman Hale, who today works with the Ontario Provincial Police’s chief fi rearms office. “His philosophy was to work hard and stress the fundamentals, and this would make for a better team and player. He stressed fundamentals in the extreme. I can still remember in February 1980, going over and over my first step as an offensive lineman. It was all about the little things, over and over, and I still coach the same way.”
“Tom took a no-nonsense approach and he would call you out if you didn’t deliver,” notes Mitch Chuvalo, a running back with the Gryphons under Dimitroff. “I remember going past the coach’s room after practice and you would hear lots laughter and that made you feel great as a player. Our leaders were enjoying themselves and happy to be there. After Tom’s first and second year you could see the positive changes and we had gotten to the point where we expected to win, a sign of a winning program.”
One more player observation.
“He just drilled us non-stop; he would drill you all day long but you just loved the guy,” recalls Mike Eykens, who was quarterback for the Gryphons under Dimitroff. “He just wouldn’t let you get away with anything. There was only one way to do things, his way, which was the right way, and he was demanding.
“He was just so far beyond everyone else in terms of knowing the game. Tom was not only coaching the players, he was coaching his coaches and even though his background was offense, what he really excelled at were his defences. Our defences were just fabulous and I am I glad I didn’t have to play against them.”
Eykens arrival at Guelph was sort of unlikely, but there was ample serendipity as it dovetailed with Dimitroff’s arrival. Eykens grew up in London not far from the old J.W. Little Stadium, former home of the Western Mustangs, so Eykens was the football equivalent of a rink rat. After high school, however, he really didn’t have plans for post-secondary education despite starring as quarterback at London’s Central Secondary School.
“Fortunately, Guelph contacted me, and I felt I should give it some consideration. Then I fell in love with Tom Dimitroff and the University of Guelph,” says Eykens, who went on to be one of top quarterbacks statistically in the history of Gryphon football. “My good stats were all thanks to Tom. He told me right away that I was his guy after he saw me throw the ball and he just taught me the game.”
His sons and former players all touch on the traits that made Dimitroff a successful coach at Guelph and elsewhere in his football career. Success required honest, hard work, full-out commitment and the very clear understanding that no one is bigger than the team. The latter was always the centrepiece of a Tom Dimitroff football program.
Examples abound to demonstrate how essential the concept of team is to success, and a crystal clear one is the NFL’s New England Patriots, where Dimitroff’s son Thomas learned the ropes before becoming general manager of the Falcons.
“Today we tend to laud the individual and they get all the headlines, but I would suggest never more than now do we need to adhere to a team concept,” Thomas says. “Victory comes from the team. I had the good fortune of growing up with my dad’s influence with respect to the team-oriented approach, and then I experienced it again with the Patriots, who were the paradigm when it comes to being a team.
“When my dad looked for players, of course he would be assessing talent, but he was also making sure they were team-oriented. No one got preferential treatment, and everyone had to be pulling in one direction with the same goal, putting a “W” in the win column. In my experience I have seen the impact individuals with selfish attitudes can have on team, so I learned the importance of digging in and focusing on the team to win.
That the team concept was paramount on a Tom Dimitroff squad was never in doubt among his athletes either. “Tom would define your role to help the team,” chuckles Chuvalo. “Tom had no problem telling you what your role is, as in ‘I have decided this is how you will make our team better.’ ”
With the team concept instilled, commitment and hard work were expected. The hard-nosed coach wouldn’t abide half measures.
“Tom was very positive and he expected you to make a commitment, and also he was big on mental toughness and intensity,” explains Hale. “Mental toughness with Tom was everything. Physical toughness too. In 1981 our training staff wasn’t on the field the whole year for an injured player because we were so tough. I am pretty sure of that. We had a tough team and we were physically prepared to overcome any obstacles.”
Son Randy agrees and notes his father was “strict and he was total old school. The players loved it and it made them tougher, meaner and so many players today say he affects their lives on a day-to-day basis today because of it. Dad drove them to a new level and made them work harder. Teams didn’t like to play Guelph because they were so tough.”
Chuvalo draws a distinction in coaching style between Dimitroff and his predecessor to demonstrate how his coach went about business.
“I always talk about Tom in reference to the year before with Dick Brown. Dick was more player centred, but when Tom came in he was the top guy, it was tough love, and he was going to take us there on the strength of his personality,” Chuvalo explains. “Some people were not used to that topdown approach. Tom would tell you if you had done a crappy job, and some people couldn’t live with that reality. He would then take you aside and give you private proof.
“One of Tom’s great strengths was that he would let you know what you needed to do to get better. He was a tough son of a gun and he could be brutally honest, but that was what was needed. He had a great systems approach. He would communicate excellently about what we were doing on the field, and it was what made us better.”
“Tom was changing a culture and he gave us a lot of pride and one year we ranked third in Canada,” Eykens recalls. “As a result, Tom Dimitroff had a reputation as a good coach, and you would want to go play for him. And he had a network out there and he would grab kids like Jed Tommy and Junior Robinson and these were big-time players and they chose to come to Guelph. Tom was everything there.”
In a certain respect, Dimitroff was breaking new ground with his arrival at the University of Guelph, and it didn’t necessarily make his job any easier. He had been the offensive co-ordinator with the explosive Ottawa Rough Riders from 1974 to 1977, and the club won the Grey Cup in 1976. The Grey Cup win propelled him into the head coach’s job with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1978. Unfortunately, the club had been purchased by Harold Ballard in February 1978, and the inimitable Ballard fired Dimitroff five games into the season. Dimitroff helped with the Toronto Argonauts for the balance of the season, then applied for the Gryphons job, which among other things would deliver some stability to the family.
What was ground-breaking, Eykens relates, was Dimitroff “was really the first pro football coach hired in the OUA I think. A lot of the faculty at the university resented that, a lot of coaches around the league resented that, and we even had a hard time getting exhibition games. He confided in me with respect to these things and that he was having a hard time. He wasn’t getting help from anywhere.
“The first year we had a game against Laurier, either exhibition or our first game,” Eykens recalls, noting his coach was dealing with a lot more than building a winning team. “We started playing and right away it was clear the refs were picking on Tom and the team right from the start. Tom raced onto the field and gave them an earful at the end, then ordered the whole team off the field without shaking hands. We had a meeting the next day and he apologized.”
* * *
A former teammate from his Ottawa playing days, George Brancato, was now  head coach in Ottawa and he tracked down Dimitroff and offered him the job as offensive co-ordinator. Four seasons in Ottawa got him a Grey Cup ring and the Hamilton head coach’s job.
The move to Guelph was as much a matter of timing than anything, and Helen notes her husband simply said the opportunity interested him so “he was going to give it a shot. So we drove up from Burlington and I waited in the car while he dropped off his resume, but then they went into a meeting for a couple hours and then called him and offered him the job. When he got it we were so excited and it did mean more stability for the family.”
Among the many challenges that came with the Guelph job for Dimitroff was in coaching his son, Randy, the quarterback. One has to admire Randy’s frankness about the experience.
“When the chance came for me to go to university, I guess I thought it would be good to be coached by my father, and it was the biggest nightmare of my life,” he says bluntly. “He expected way too much of me and my ability. And it was difficult for him too. If he put me in, it was favouritism and if not, mom would be upset with him.”
“It is tough to coach your own kids and a real challenge,” Randy notes, adding he faced similar difficulties coaching his own children. He adds that he never got special treatment. “I called him ‘coach’ like everyone else and you didn’t argue with him or you didn’t play. He didn’t care who you were; even stars were treated with discipline.”
Randy says he and his father never talked about their coach-player relationship, but what mattered of course was that the father-son bond was unbroken, and the pair spent incalculable hours on the racquetball court whacking the daylights out of each other.
“They are both so competitive,” Helen chimes in.
After building a powerful program at Guelph Dimitroff felt the lure of the pro ranks again and chose to return to Ottawa.
* * *
“I went to Centennial High School in Guelph, and I was always hanging around the football facility at the university and I would cover his receivers,” Thomas recalls. “It would irk my dad when he would see me hanging around with his players at night practices. I could see him charging across the field with that look in his eyes and ask why I wasn’t home studying. I’d try to hide behind some of the big linemen.”
And then there’s Western.
“The first time we played Western, we were behind 13-10 and we were on their one yard line and time was running out,” Eykens recalls. “Then I fumbled on the one yard line and we lost it, a heartbreaker.”
Hale shared in that heartbreak.
“In Tom’s first year, we were at Western’s homecoming and if we won, we would make the playoffs, but we fumbled the ball on the one and lost,” Hale remembers. “But you know, after that loss, Tom just said we had work to do and that we had come a long way that year. And we had. The year before Western had beaten us 45-0. So Tom said we have to get back to the gym and keep improving.”
There was a little bit of payback from that story of heartbreak that Hale witnessed in 1984 as a coach.
“In 1984, Western had same situation, and Western fumbled and we won the game and the Yates Cup,” he says “That was quite a coincidence. It was at the exact same hash mark, and we finally got the bounce. That win got us over the hump” to go on to win the Vanier Cup.
Chuvalo points to an interesting example of that notion of legacies left behind.
“I knew Tom’s son Tommy (Thomas) very briefly and I always thought Tommy really represented what Tom wanted to be, he so personified all the good things Tom represented,” Chuvalo recalls. “Tom would be so proud of him.”
“Yes, he would be very proud of me, but he would also make sure I keep it all in perspective and that I remember my roots,” Thomas says. “He’d say ‘don’t be one of those people who think they are better than others.’ My father stressed that through my life that you had to keep things in perspective and not to let your ego get in the way. At times I thought the message was starting to get old and stale, like when I was younger, but now I am constantly reminding myself to keep things in perspective.”
And so, more than a quarter of a century after players and their mentor/friend parted ways, at least with respect to the school that brought them together, the memories are rich and meaningful.
“Tom was a real personable guy and extremely funny,” Eykens says. “His sense of humour was fantastic and he was the fi rst guy I knew who really knew what the game was about and that was appealing.
“You just knew he liked you and cared about you as a player and person,” Eykens adds. “As the years went on, it went way past being a football player and he would help you with things in your life.”
“When we met in 1979, Tom asked what I wanted as a football player,” Hale says. “I said I wanted to be all-Canadian and later it was Tom who gave me the news, ‘congratulations, you’ve just made all-Canadian.’ That was one of my proudest moments and he had remembered it was my goal.”
“Tom had strong influence on me and all players and he made me be the best I could be,” Hale adds. “He just had a huge affect on my personal life and I learned so much from him. Very few days go by now when I don’t think of Tom Dimitroff.”