Mustang Tales: THE MANY FACES OF JOHN METRAS

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By Communications Staff
Thursday, September 27, 2001
 
John Metras and Queen's coach Frank Tindall
 
 
Legendary Western coach John Metras
 
John Metras was once described as a “rough diamond."

There is no doubt about his rough and gruff side, a trait accentuated by his im-posing size (six-foot, 250 pounds during much of his coaching career). His nick-name, "The Bull," given him by players, seemed totally appropriate.

Not as obvious, however, was his compassion and deep concern for Western athletes.

"He was a very caring and sensitive coach whose exterior belied the interior feeling and warmth he had for his players," Ed Meads recalled.

Meads, former football captain at University of Michigan, who enrolled at Western in 1957, suffered a concussion in his second season. Because Meads was in medical school and was married, Metras declined to let him play in 1959 for fear of further injury.

There was no question in Metras's mind the player's health took precedence over the football team.

Jim McLauchlan also recalled a time Metras showed compassion. McLauchlan had come to Western as a freshman in 1952 and played two seasons with the soccer Mustangs. In 1954, he quit his summer job early to try out with the football squad. His dreams of playing football with the Mustangs, however, suddenly ended when he was called into Metras's office and told he was being cut.

"John (Metras) asked me if I had quit my summer job early to come to football camp. I said I had and without hesitation, John took out a piece of paper scribbled down something and said, "tomorrow take this down to the Western Fair and you'll have a job" (until school started)," McLauchlan recalled. "That was John," he added.

Bob Allen remembered another time Metras showed concern for a player. "I had rheumatic fever in 1943 when I was at Western. John came to visit me every day in the hospital. No one knows how much he did for people," said Allen, who played football and basketball for the Mustangs.

In a letter to the London Free Press, J. Norman Beatty of Woodstock, wrote, "On Nov. 22, 1938, while playing for WCI's (Woodstock Collegiate Institute) junior WOSSA football team against Catholic Central high school in the initial game at Carrothers Field, London, I broke my leg. Twice during that time, John Metras drove to Woodstock to see me, which really impressed me as a teenager. He was that kind of guy."

Bill Traut, who coached football at London Central high school in the 1950s, recalled Metras's generosity toward London high schools. "In those days, we didn't have any extra-curricular budget from the school board. We were strapped for money, so when we found out that John (Metras) was replacing some of his equipment, we'd go to him and he'd give us the stuff he was discarding."

Traut remembered a time Metras was getting rid of some blocking dummies. Will Rice, who at the time was coaching at Beck high school in London, was first on the scene. Metras started piling dummies into two piles.

"What are the two piles for?" Rice asked.

"The other's for Trautie," Metras replied. "But Traut doesn't know about it," Rice protested. "He'll find out," Metras replied with a chuckle.

Some time later, Metras confessed, "What Rice and Traut didn't know was that I had a bunch of football shoes in the trunk of my car that I was going to give Fred Kennedy (the Catholic Central high school coach)."

The Mustang coach could also show his rough side when he felt it necessary. "If you had a bad game on Saturday, John would line up opposite you in practice the next week and beat the hell out of you," Allen recalled with a laugh.

J.P. (his middle initial stood for Pius) also showed his fiery side in basketball games.

Jerry Gonser, an assistant basketball coach for the Mustangs at the time, laughed when he remembered Western playing against the University of Detroit in Detroit. As usual, the game was not going well for the Mustangs and J.P. took out his frustration on the referees, Jim Minello, in particular.

"John was so mad," Gonser recalled, "he strode over to the U of D bench in the middle of the game, grabbed one of Detroit's (red and white) warmup jackets, held it up and shouted, 'Minello, you might as well be wearing this.'"

Bob Calihan, U of D coach and a long-time friend of "Big John," nearly fell off the bench laughing.

J.P. could also laugh at himself. In a football game, referee Ben "Brutus" Murray, called a penalty against the Mustangs near the Western bench and walked off 10 yards. J.P. not to be outdone bellowed, "Brutus you stink." Murray picked up the football and walked off another 10 yards and then hollered back at Metras, "J.P., how do I smell from here?"

Metras loved to tell that story on himself while confiding that "Brutus" was still a good friend.

Also, in a humorous vein, was Metras's legendary trouble with names.

While he undoubtedly had an eye for football talent, when it came to names, J.P.'s memory would play tricks on him.

Take Ray Truant for instance.

"John called me George," Truant recalled with a chuckle. "He'd say 'George get out there.' I knew who he meant and I'd go out on the field - no questions asked," the former Mustang quarterback remembered.

Truant understood the reason for the confusion.

The George whom Metras referred to was George Arnott, the Mustang quarterback who preceded Truant. George Arnott and Ray Truant had both played high school football and basketball at Kennedy Collegiate in Windsor.

So Ray became George, especially in the heat of battle.

Then there was Bill Fowler, Jack Fowler and Pete Fowler! Or was it Pete, Bill and Jack?

Metras was always looking for an advantage over his opponents, especially early in his career.

In the 1946 football season, the Senior Intercollegiate loosened the rules to allow linemen to block 10 yards downfield instead of the previous three. Metras used his U.S. contacts to gain a step or two on his competition.

He scheduled a non-league game against Canisius College at Buffalo, using U.S. rules which already permitted blocking 10 yards downfield. Canisius won 34-3 but Mustang linemen gained valuable experience playing with the 10-yard rule.

"The success in the Metras era came from blocking with pulling guards, which was new in the league in 1946. John was ahead of his day," Herb Ballantyne, quarterback on the 1946 Mustangs, pointed out.

Included among the scores of athletes Metras coached were two footballers, John Robarts and Don Getty, who went on to become premiers of Ontario and Alberta, respectively.

"I'll tell you how tough he (Metras) was. He used to come out and practise with us, but never wore any pads. Boy, was he tough," Robarts told the London Free Press in 1969.

Robarts played four seasons for Western, starting in 1935.

Getty, quarterback with the Mustangs in the early 1950s and later with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, praised Metras.

"I appreciate the things he taught us. I remember our basketball trips to Ohio and Michigan when he would pack four or five players in his car. We would learn more from him on those trips on how to grow up and be a man," Getty said on Metras's retirement from coaching in 1969.

John P. Metras was born in Dowagiac, Mich., in 1909. He attended the University of Detroit where he was an all-American mention as a 169-pound centre for the Titans. After a tryout with the professional Detroit Lions, Metras and U of D teammate Bill Storen were offered coaching jobs at St. Michael's College in Toronto in 1933. They spent two years at St. Michael's, Storen as head coach, Metras as assistant coach, centre and linebacker.

In those days, St. Mike's played in the Senior Ontario Rugby Football Union and Metras was named an all-Canadian in 1934.

Storen and Metras were hired by the University of Western Ontario, starting in 1935. Storen again was head coach and Metras assistant. J.P. became head coach of the Mustangs in 1940 when Storen returned to Detroit to work in his father's business.

In the 1946 football season, the Senior Intercollegiate loosened the rules to allow linemen to block 10 yards downfield instead of the previous three. Metras used his U.S. contacts to gain a step or two on his competition.

Metras had outstanding records in football and basketball.

His football Mustangs had 122 wins, 80 losses and 11 ties. From early 1945 to late 1948, they won 26 straight games.

Head basketball coach from 1945 through 1964, Metras won or shared the league championship 14 times.

He also was director of athletics from 1945 to 1972.

A track and field athlete in high school, Metras inaugurated the Western Relays in 1947, an outdoor meet in late May at Little stadium. The meet included elementary, high school, university and open competitors from Canada and the U.S.

As director of athletics, Metras was a leading light in Canadian university athletics.

"He skirted and bowled over procedures, but you couldn't argue with his goals," said former University of Waterloo athletic director Carl Totzke. "In the CIAU (Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union), he was a giant in the group. Because of his success, others looked to him."

"He charged toward an issue . . . which was a pretty darn good idea. He was a basic guy, not sophisticated," Totzke said.

Metras received many honours. The highlight, he said, was his induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1980.

But Metras wasn't without detractors, some on his own campus. One group of Western students hung him in effigy. Another group, on another occasion, claimed foul, criticizing Metras's decisions as athletic director.

But listen to former players such as Gino Fracas and Getty and you hear a much different story.

Speaking in 1969 at J.P.'s retirement from coaching, Fracas, former Western star fullback and then football coach at the University of Windsor, praised Metras.

"He looks like he's not approachable." But if you had any kind of problem, you could go in and discuss it with him. He takes a keen interest in you as an individual. And it's not all football. He is interested in you succeeding at university. This is the one aspect about him which had an influence on me," said Fracas.

Getty said he "literally idolized" Metras. "He's the one coach I have had who had the greatest impact on me," Getty recalled.

Metras died on April 13, 1982, while vacationing at Naples, Fla.


Mustang Tales

This excerpt from Mustang Tales by Bob Gage is reprinted with permission by the "W" Club. Copies of the book are available through the UWO Book Store, by phone at 519-661-3520 or 661-4551, Fax 519-661-3673, or email bookstore@uwo.ca. Copies will also be on sale at TD Waterhouse Stadium during the Homecoming football game Saturday.




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