To truly appreciate Larry Smith’s career in the CFL, you almost need to break it down in three parts. First, he helped the Alouettes win two Grey Cups in 1974 and 1977 as a running back. Second, he served as commissioner of the league beginning in 1992, and he ultimately helped bring football back to Montreal as he served as the team’s president. The fact that Smith is being inducted into the Hall of Fame this year is a no-brainer.
During his time as commissioner, Smith oversaw the league’s U.S. expansion plan that saw new teams pop up in Las Vegas, Sacramento, Shreveport, and Baltimore. In the end, the idea didn’t really work out long term, but it served its purpose.
“I had very strong feelings about making sure that whatever we did we with the expansion, we tried to do it the best we could with very limited resources,” Smith explained. “I basically had half a person helping me on the expansion…We needed money, and we needed money fast.
“When you look at the expansion and that money, it was about $15 million to $18 million that was brought into the league and given to the Canadian teams. Boy, the Canadian teams needed that.”
The Baltimore Stallions, who won the Grey Cup in 1995, moved to Montreal and became the Alouettes ahead of the 1996 season. Even though football got a second chance in Montreal, it didn’t get off to the greatest of starts.
“When we started, it was really a disaster in Montreal,” Smith said.
“The reality is that we sold 1,800 tickets in a stadium that held 55,000 people, and on top of that, you add all the problems we had at the beginning. The good news is that we had a really good team. We had (general manager) Jim Popp, we had some interesting and competent coaches. It was amazing to have the opportunity (to rebuild the Alouettes) and to have sellouts for 10 years. We never gave anything away for free. We built something valuable. Community outreach was our primary goal. We wanted to build a relationship with football fans.”
When rock band U2’s concert date at Olympic Stadium in Montreal conflicted with an Als home date, the team was forced to move to Percival Molson Stadium. That was the start of something special for owner Robert Wetenhall, Smith, Popp and the entire organization.
Smith resigned as commissioner in 1997 and took over as Alouettes president until 2001. He then returned to that role from 2004 to 2010.
“It was a lot of fun having the opportunity to work with Bob Wetenhall. He was an unbelievably fantastic owner. He gave me a lot of room, and I was very respectful of Bob all the way through. I was really honoured to work with a man of his integrity and quality. I always said that when Bob Wetenhall came in, Bob Wetenhall and David Braley saved the CFL at that moment in time in 1997. You saw afterwards the quality of owners that came in (to the league).”
From 2000 to 2010, the Alouettes won three Grey Cups and they made it to the championship game eight times in 11 years. They were a powerhouse in the East Division, and they were among the elite teams in the CFL.
Smith deserves so much credit for what the Als were able to build during his tenure as president. Getting into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame is a way to show him the respect he deserves, but even he admits it wasn’t a one-man show.
“We had a great team, great coaches, Jim Popp, we had a great administrative staff,” Smith said when he was asked if he got enough credit for the Alouettes’ success. “We didn’t have a big staff, but I had some great guys I was able to work with inside the football club in Richard Blais, Claude Rochon. We had very good, competent people who cared. When you’re playing on a team, nobody is bigger than the team. Whatever I did, I did, but I did it for the good of the team. I didn’t do it for myself because we were going hard for 12 years.”