Toronto Argonauts: Best upgrade and worst downgrade in franchise history

The Toronto Argonauts are a franchise which dates back to 1873. We look at the best ever upgrade and worst downgrade from their long history.

The Toronto Argonauts should be playing right now, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic there’s likely a chance the CFL won’t have a season. With this in mind, the latest edition of our series of best upgrades and worst downgrades for Toronto and Buffalo sports teams, sees us take a look at the Argos and their extended team history.

The Argos were founded and owned by the Argonaut Rowing Club in 1873. They have won a record 17 Grey Cups while appearing in the final 23 times.

The Argo’s biggest upgrade goes to a player who’s nickname came from his running style. Their worst downgrade involves an ownership trio that was an immediate splash, but quickly fell apart.

The biggest upgrade in franchise history

When Michael Clemons signed as a free agent with the Argos in June 1989, no one expected him to do what he did. At 5’6″, Clemons earned the nickname “Pinball” due to his fast speed. Furthermore, on the field, he was known for his ability to bounce between defensive players.

Clemons was impressive in his CFL debut. He was named the player of the game courtesy of two kickoff returns for 62 yards and five punt returns for 46 yards.

Clemons played with the Argos for 12 seasons, winning three Grey Cups along the way and putting his name in the record books. In 1990, he received the CFL’s Most Oustanding Player Award after setting the single-season record for all-purpose yards (3,300.)

In 1999, he passed the 5,000-yard mark in four different categories: rushing (5,341), receiving (7,015), kick-off returns (6,349), and punt returns (6,025.) After Clemons retired in 2000, he held the record for most career combined yards with 25,438. He would immediately step into Toronto’s head coaching role until 2001.

After a brief period as team president, Clemons return to coach again from 2002-2007. He would guide Toronto to their 15th Grey Cup in 2004. On October 8, 2019, he was named the general manager for the Argos.

The upgrade: Signing Michael Clemons to the Argos. 

The worst downgrade in franchise history

Toronto’s ownership situation has sometimes been messy and amusing. There have been multiple owners since the Argonaut Rowing Club in 1873.

Argos fans may remember the days of John Bassett, a former owner of the team. For 20 years, the team failed to win a Grey Cup under his watch. The only chance the Argos had at winning it all was the 1971 Grey Cup, where they lost to the Calgary Stampeders.

But then, Toronto saw a Canadian hockey legend, a Canadian actor and an American sports executive make a splash.

Businessman Harry Ornest sold the Argos to Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall (60 percent), Wayne Gretzky (20 percent), and the late John Candy (20 percent). The trio would buy the team from Ornest for $5 million in 1991. The trio got off to a spectacular start when they signed impending top NFL Draft pick Raghib Ismail.

Toronto would win the Grey Cup in 1991; then things would fall apart. Ismail’s contract turned out to be an albatross. “Rocket” was unhappy in Canada, the Argos kept losing games, and with McNall facing financial problems, the running back left the CFL to sign with the Los Angeles Raiders.

McNall was under investigation by federal authorities for falsifying loan documents. The investigation led McNall to plead guilty to five counts of conspiracy and fraud, with a sentence of 70 months in prison.

In 1994, Candy would pass away from a heart attack. The actor’s death, McNall’s financial woes, and the Argos’ poor play were enough to sell the team. McNall, Gretzky, and the estate of Candy sold the Toronto Argonauts to more stable ownership, Labatt Brewing Company, through its TSN network for $4.5 million.

The downgrade:  Harry Ornest selling the Argos to Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky, and John Candy. 

Next: What if the 2020 CFL season gets canceled?

What are your thoughts on the Toronto Argonauts’ top moment in franchise history? Is there another one that should be considered? Similarly, is there another forgettable one which should be included? Let us know in the comments below. 

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