Mike Pringle and the Baltimore Stallions will forever be part of CFL history.
Twenty-five years ago, the star running back helped Baltimore become the first — and only — American franchise to capture the Grey Cup. The Stallions did it emphatically, winning their final 13 games in 1995 after receiving a not-so-subtle nudge from the team’s management in what turned out to be the CFL’s final season of a three-year run in the United States.
After consecutive losses dropped the Stallions’ record to 5-3, Pringle and his teammates gathered at Memorial Stadium for practice. On the same day, player-personnel director Jim Popp held tryouts for a group of roughly 25 players.
“They worked out all of these players in front of us as a warning that if we didn’t pick up our game we’d be replaced,” Pringle said. “I remember that so vividly, it’s kind of funny but scary at the same time.
“Sport teaches you great lessons but one of them is everybody is going to be replaced and they’re not going to wait until they replace you, they’re just going to start looking now. The message was received loud and clear.”
Popp, who later earned Grey Cup rings as a GM with Montreal (2002, 2009-10) and Toronto (2017), said the tryouts weren’t merely a ploy.
“We didn’t start out as well as we expected and felt we needed to look at some players,” Popp said. “I didn’t realize the effect it had on the players at the time but it’s a legendary topic amongst them now.
“It really affected them positively. It’s really something when we get together and the stories come out about that day.”
Much was expected from the Stallions. The franchise had reached the ’94 Grey Cup game in its first year of existence, dropping a heartbreaking 26-23 decision to the B.C. Lions on Lui Passaglia’s game-ending 38-yard field goal at B.C. Place Stadium.
“The motto was, ‘Unfinished Business,”’ Popp said. “Everybody was right at home, we just built off what we had, we had great depth.
“We started a little slow and then got on an unbelievable roll with just tremendous players, tremendous athletes.”
Added Pringle: “Not taking anything away from the B.C. Lions, they earned that championship. But we felt that should’ve been a game we should’ve won. I’d imagine everyone says that after they’ve lost but that’s how we felt going into the next season and we weren’t going to be distracted.”
Baltimore finished atop the South Division at 15-3, tying Calgary for the league’s best record in 1995. Pringle (1,791 yards rushing) was named the outstanding player and Mike Withycombe top lineman — Baltimore’s Shar Pourdanesh had won it the year before — while Don Matthews was coach of the year for a second straight season.
As a U.S. franchise, Baltimore was able to field a roster of all American players. While that would seemingly be an advantage, several of the CFL’s other American teams struggled badly.
More impressive than a stellar lineup was the Stallions’ emphasis of the running game in the pass-happy CFL.
In 1994, Pringle, a five-foot-nine, 202-pound dynamo, ran for a then-record 1,972 yards. That was merely a sign of things to come as Pringle would crack the 1,000-yard plateau nine times over 11 seasons _ including an astounding 2,065 yards in ’98 with Montreal (where Baltimore relocated in 1996) _ before retiring in 2004 as the league’s all-time leading rusher (16,425 yards).
Pringle had run for just 495 yards over his first two CFL seasons (1992 with Edmonton, ’93 with Sacramento) before being dealt to Baltimore.
“I was actually on my way to the gym when Kay Stephenson (Sacramento head coach) called to tell me I’d been traded,” Pringle said. “I’m from Los Angeles so I was pretty upset that I was going there.”
In fact, Pringle said he was at a crossroads in his football career at that time.
“When I got to Baltimore, I told my mom that was my last year,” Pringle said. “I was going to finish the season but I’d grown tired of not getting the look and time I felt I deserved.”
Pringle _ who was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2008 _ began his Baltimore tenure second on the depth chart behind Sheldon Canley. But he cracked the starting lineup, thanks in large part to veteran quarterback Tracy Ham.
“I made the point to Tracy, ‘Just let me get in and feed me. If you feed me I’m going to make it happen,”’ Pringle said. “Tracy challenged me, he said, ‘OK, I’ve heard enough of this, I’m going to feed you and see what you can do.’
“He fed me the ball when I don’t think I should’ve even got the ball, based on down and distance, and I think he was one of the biggest reasons I was able to excel like I did because he believed in me and challenged me and I didn’t want to let him down.”
Not surprisingly, Baltimore’s potent offence went through Ham. The former Georgia Southern star was a Grey Cup champion (1985) and CFL outstanding player (1989) with Edmonton and came to Baltimore following a dismal ’93 season with Toronto.
“The years I worked with (Matthews), he always put the reins in the quarterback’s hand,” Popp said. “He felt they knew the game and had a better feel than anyone else, that was just Don’s way.
“Mike Pringle realized even being a Hall of Famer and all-time greatest rusher, if it wasn’t for Tracy and his playcalling, he wouldn’t have had the numbers he had. But talk about a partnership, Tracy realized he’d never be as effective as he needed to be without a running back.”
A fact not lost upon Pringle.
“One of the things about Tracy Ham, my big brother, is he’s a great leader,” Pringle said. “He’d always say, ‘The object of the game is to move the sticks and get first downs. If we move the sticks eventually we get into the end zone.’
“We’d have drives of 12, 13 plays and in the huddle sometimes we’d say, ‘Damn, somebody score because I’m tired as hell. We’ve been out here for a long time,’ because that’s how Tracy ran the offence.”
Playoff wins over Winnipeg (36-21) and San Antonio (21-11) propelled Baltimore into a Grey Cup showdown with Calgary at Regina’s Taylor Field. The contest not only featured veteran quarterbacks in Ham and Doug Flutie but two of the CFL’s top coaches in Matthews and Wally Buono.
But the big story on gameday was the weather as both teams battled wind gusts up to 85 km/h. The conditions had league officials concerned whether the temporary stands could withstand the windy conditions.
Baltimore prevailed with a historic 37-20 win before 52,064 spectators. Ham was named MVP after passing for 213 yards and rushing for a TD but the Stallions also got an 82-yard punt return touchdown from Chris Wright and Alvin Walton’s four-yard scoring run off an O.J. Brigance blocked punt.
For Popp, winning a Grey Cup in Regina was special. He began his CFL career in ’92 with Saskatchewan as a coach/personnel official before heading to Baltimore with Matthews, who died in 2017
“I always tell people, ‘You’re never really a true CFLer until you do two years in Saskatchewan,”’ Popp said. “I was treated very well there and to this day I remain very close with Al Ford (former Riders GM).
“It was quite a learning experience being there but it was a good job for me at that time in my life. Going to Baltimore was phenomenal, too.”
The Grey Cup title was also special for Pringle, the first of three he’d experience during his CFL tenure (2002 with Montreal, ’03 with Edmonton).
“Your first is always your first,” Pringle said. “I don’t think we were thinking about the historical aspect of it at the time.
“It was the Grey Cup and the biggest game in Canada for the CFL and we knew the significance of it. When it was over, we were just so proud and happy to accomplish such a great feat and celebrate like that.”
But the euphoria was short-lived. With longtime Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell moving his franchise to Baltimore, the fan support the Stallions had enjoyed quickly evaporated and the club’s Grey Cup celebration almost went unnoticed by the local media.
The CFL’s American expansion ended after the ’95 season and the Baltimore franchise relocated to Montreal. Pringle and many of his Stallions teammates made the move to Quebec but Matthews and fullback Robert Drummond went to Toronto, helping the Argos win consecutive Grey Cup titles (1996-97).
“Oh man, it was bittersweet,” Pringle said. “We’d put together this team that was extremely close and we knew we were all going to be going our separate ways and not be able to try to do this again.
“A lot of people came out and celebrated our loss to B.C. When we won, we came back to nothing.”
These days, Pringle, 52, operates a Max Muscle sports nutrition business in Atlanta. He says while he’s moved on from the game of football, he misses interacting with his former teammates.
“I miss the guys,” he said. “There’s nothing like a locker-room, there’s nothing like being with guys fighting for the same cause, the same mission.
“We have our teams in business and you have good guys and everything like that but it’s not a locker-room. I keep in touch with Tracy, Lester Smith (former Stallions defensive back) is one of my best friends and Shar, he’s still crazy. Through Facebook we’ll always tag each other and it’s good for us because we can always say hi to each other and bring back these memories before we get too old.”
Twenty-five years after the Stallions captured the title, the CFL finds itself in another unique position. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the start of the season and if there is a campaign, it won’t start until September and could be played with limited or no fans, which could result in an unusual Grey Cup week.
But Pringle said Stallions players will forever remember simply winning a CFL championship, not being an American team that bested Canadian ones.
“The historical aspect of it will always be something that obviously won’t ever be done again,” he said. “Many us have the feeling that we don’t want that championship game to be thought of as an American team versus a Canadian team.
“That’s something the players found hurtful that they would make that distinction. We were all CFL players going after a CFL championship and I hope that’s what people remember.”