Defining Grit! Red Bombers of the late 70’s
Above 1976: #22 RB Lewis Orr readies to take on SMU DE. Rod Bell thinks that’s him (r) missing the block leaving Orr to face the onslaught.
The Red Bomber teams of the late 1970’s stand out as a time when the football program at UNB was on the rise once again. The era produced 11 CFL draftees and moved the Red Bombers from the bottom of the standings in the Bluenose Conference to arguably ready to begin to compete for a bowl appearance once again when the football program was cancelled before the 1981 season.
When looking back, you have to consider the era. Atlantic conference football (AIAA/AUAA as it was known then, now the AUS) had changed dramatically. In the 9 years from 1973 to 1981, AUAA football teams played in the National Championship game for the Vanier Cup 5 times and won it 3 times. That’s a league punching above its weight, able to beat any university football team in the country on any given Saturday.
The Red Bombers teams of 1976 and 77 seem to be a pivotal point for the Red Bombers resurgence. Coach Jim Born was a talented recruiter. He was always a busy man in the off season connecting one on one with prospects. In the Fall of 1975 Coach Born had recruited 54 players into camp, 24 of them rookies. Among the leaders he had lost from the year before, DB Bill Simmons, who had gone in the 1st round of the CFL draft to Montreal, and all-conference Guard Gerry Edge had both graduated along with several others.
Who Coach Born did have returning in the 1975 camp was QB Terry Cripotos along with receivers Dave Kelly and Rod Bell (Bell would be drafted by Ottawa in the CFL draft of 1977). Despite the Red Bombers’ 2-4 record during the previous 1974 season, Cripotos had been number 2 in the conference for completed passes, and Kelly and Bell had been numbers 1 and 2 in the conference in receptions. Bob Forbes, who Ottawa would draft in the CFL draft of 1976, had returned to lead the DB’s along with other returnees like Kim MacPherson and Bill Lamb with Steve Gale and Chris McKenna back to carry the ball. Among the rookies in 1975 was a big Montreal cornerback by the name of Phil Battaglia who would be a future All-Canadian. Big boys Bob Pinkewcyz and Dave McLennan joined Phil among that rookie group along with Mike Casey, Colin McCue, Lewis Orr, and Jacques Chartrain to name a few.
Terry Cripotos was reminiscent of Red Bombers QB Pete Merril of the 1969 – 1970 Team. In 1969 the UNB Red Bombers were ranked 4th in the county and according to Bluenose Football Conference Statistician Wayne MacKay in a Moncton Transcript article Nov. 13 of that year, “Peter Merril has rewritten the AIAA record books. Merril threw more passes – 144, completed more -75, gained more yards – 1632, and threw more touchdown passes – 15 than any previous quarterback in the conference”. In 1969 the Red Bombers’ Pete Merril was the top passer in Canadian college football. While the Bombers would miss the 1975 playoffs, Cripotos would be the second leading passer in Canadian college football that season. The foundations Coach Born was building were strengthening.
Among the 1976 rookies in training camp was this kid from Moncton who would become a two-time All-Canadian and a CFL star, Stuart Fraser. It was the continuation of a great recruiting era that in subsequent years added names like Mike Washburn, Greg Clarke, Junior Robinson, Chris Skinner, Wayne Lee, and Phil Charon all eventually picked in CFL drafts either as a Red Bomber, or from the college teams they joined after the demise of the UNB program.
The 1976 season started with a 19-0 home-opener win in a mud-fest against UPEI. As reported, “The Bombers scored two touchdowns on short yardage running plays, one by halfback Chris McKenna in the third quarter, the other by halfback Lewis Orr in the fourth, to score their first majors on the ground in two years. . .” By Oct. 4th, the UNB Red Bombers were tied for 1st place with St. Mary’s Huskies in the then 7-team league.
Alas the next weekend the two teams would meet in Halifax in a steady downpour that took away the passing game. SMU unleashed a wishbone offence for a 21-0 win over the Bombers. However, that wouldn’t be the end of it. They would meet again 3 weeks later in Halifax in the league playoff. News reports described the game as a David and Goliath match up. After all, St. Mary’s had won the Vanier Cup in 1973. As reported, “David’s stone in this case was the football in Cripotos’s hands.” He put the ball in the air 36 times and completed 22 of them for 293 yards. The Bombers scored on their first set of downs. “Cripotos hit flanker Dave Kelly with a 52 yard strike who split two SMU defenders and raced in for the touchdown.” At various times in the game the Red Bombers held leads of 7-0, 14-8, and 17-16.
In the dying minutes of the fourth quarter, with the score 24-17 for the Huskies, the Red Bombers started their drive on their own 25 yard line. With 2:03 left in the game the Bombers had moved the ball to the SMU 29 yard line. The last stone thrown by Cripotos was picked off by SMU on the SMU 15 yard line. Then SMU ate the clock to take the game 24-17. The UNB Red Bombers, however, had shocked the league. . . and they weren’t done there.
The 1977 season started with a 31-26 win again over UPEI, and then it was back to Halifax to meet SMU in the second game of the season. SMU were 18 point favourites going into the game according to news reports of the day. As they had done the year before, the Bombers’ opening drive started on their own 24 yard line and they marched it down for the major. Cripotos now in his 4th year would throw for 312 yards. As the headlines would say on Monday, “Bombers Make Skeptics Believers – Thrash SMU 42-10”.
The Bombers would enter the last game of the 1977 season against St. FX. with a 5-1 record and in a 3 way tie for first place with St. FX. and Acadia. Only the top 2 teams would play off. The Red Bombers’ only loss had been to Acadia in a lopsided win in which the Bombers were leading early in the 2nd quarter when Cripotos was injured and had to leave the game.
The final game of the 1977 regular season would decide the playoff berth, . . . and it was a home game for the Bombers. The campus emptied and it seemed so had the town to provide the biggest crowd anyone could remember. It was hard-nosed heart-stopping football. The Bombers had three fumbles losing all three. Cripotos had four passes picked off. St. FX had three fumbles losing two. The Red Bombers special teams blocked a punt and blocked and recovered a field goal attempt. Cripotos passed for 466 yards despite unrelenting pressure by St. FX’s front four. Stuart Fraser had nine catches for 191 yards and Kelly had 6 catches for 111 yards. The Red Bombers had a touchdown called back for too many men. Cripotos would connect with Perry Kukkonen for an 86 yard play followed by a 10 yard scoring strike from Cripotos to Kelly in the fourth quarter, but it would turn out to be Cripotos’s last game as a Red Bomber – St. FX. would win 36-22.
Above 1977: Red Bombers host St.FX.
There would be games in the coming seasons that are bittersweet to remember. October 20, 1979. Perry Kukkonen, Mike Washburn, and Stuart Fraser would all score to give the Red Bombers a 22-3 lead at halftime over Acadia who were ranked 3rd in the country. Then in the 3rd quarter Fraser would go in again and with a field goal the score was UNB 32 Acadia 3 going into the 4th quarter. Acadia would come back and with less than a minute left in the game would put its final points on the board to win 33-32. That’s football. Acadia would go on to be Vanier Cup Champions that year.
Through all the ups and downs, the UNB football program in the 1970’s was most definitely on an upward trajectory. Where it might have led is conjecture. No one would ever know.
Above 2019: UNB Red Bombers Josh Powers, Brendan Seymour, Marc Doucette, Kyle Tower, Sebastien Charette, Luke Saunders, Isaac Woodman. “The Mammoth Seven” OL as they were dubbed by a Dalhousie University Tigers’ game reporter.
In an earlier newsletter we talked about the emotions of those games and that it’s the emotions that make the game worthwhile. In the modern era, the UNB Red Bombers play the same grit football in Canada’s only University Club football league winning League championships in 2009, 2012, 2017 & an undefeated (8-0) 2019. We talked about to the emotions felt by the alumni, across the campus and through the town when 3000 fans erupted as the UNB Red Bombers took to the field once again in September 2009. With your continued support Red Bombers football is being made permanent at UNB.
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