Photo: Don Matthews (front, left) with the Idaho coaching staff under head coach Don Robbins
Growing up with a tough childhood in Massachusetts, Don Matthews knew if he wanted to be successful, he would have to leave home, saying "I felt if I didn't get out of Amesbury, my environment would have swallowed me up."
So in 1960, after high school and three years in the Marines, Don bought a one-way bus ticket to come to the University of Idaho and walk on to the Vandal football team as a linebacker for coach Skip Stahley.
But, for a kid from the northeast, why Idaho?
"They sent me what you used to call a snap letter," Matthews remembers. "You know, 'I'm really glad you're interested in the University of Idaho. At this time we have no scholarships, but if you would like to walk on, we'd be pleased to have you.' Most of the time hoping you won't show up. But I showed up."
But with only enough money to pay for one semester of school, Matthews had the added pressure of earning a scholarship, or heading straight back home.
Fortunately, Matthews says, his experience in the Marines combined with his extra motivation to perform on the field paid off. After his first semester at Idaho he earned his scholarship, and took advantage of his opportunity to get his education while playing football.
By his senior season Don was a team captain under coach Dee Andros, and afterwards was only a few credits shy of graduation. So he accepted a coaching position as a graduate assistant in order to finish his degree and keep football part of his life, a decision that would shape Coach Matthew's future as arguably the best football coach in Canadian Football League history.
"I coached a year and got my degree and now I had a choice of going out in the world and working, or finding a way to stay in football," Matthews says. "Because I had the one year as a graduate assistant at the University of Idaho, they gave me that opportunity once again, and I loved it. So I decided to become a coach. I didn't really decide to coach until I couldn't play football anymore."
Matthews' next opportunity came when former Vandal Gene Bates took the head coaching position at Ely High School in Ely, Nevada. Bates took Matthews with him to be his assistant coach for just over 5,000 dollars a year. But Bates only stayed in Ely for one year before leaving, which left Matthews to take over as a head coach for the first time.
It took only three years for Don to post an undefeated season at Ely High School, and two more after that to do the same thing at Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash., before he returned to Idaho to coach the offensive line, and eventually become the offensive coordinator.
After his second stint on the Idaho coaching staff Matthews joined the high school ranks one more time, this time taking over the reigns as the head coach at Sunset High School in Portland, Oregon. In just two years he turned Sunset into a state champion, and in his third season Don led Sunset to an undefeated season and a second-straight state championship.
Matthews' success at Sunset allowed him his first professional opportunity. It was Hugh Campbell, a former Washington State Cougar, who asked Matthews to join his staff with the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos. As with everywhere else, success found Matthews in Edmonton. In his six seasons as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator, Matthews went to the Grey Cup six times and came away with five rings.
"The Grey Cups I won as an assistant coach are every bit as important to me as the ones I one as a head coach," Matthews said. "As an assistant, you have just as much, if not more of an impact on the outcome of the game."
His first head coaching challenge came in 1983, with the BC Lions, where he continued to produce successful football teams. In just his third season in 1985 he led BC to the Grey Cup title while earning his first CFL Coach of the Year honor and posting a 13-3 record. That season got the ball rolling for his 22-season career, in which Matthews would head six CFL teams, go to 10 Grey Cups, win five with four different teams, earn five CFL Coach of the Year awards, and amass a 231-133-1 record while coaching greats such as Doug Flutie and Warren Moon, before retiring as the CFL's all-time winningest coach. Including his time as an assistant, Matthews won Grey Cups in the 1970's, '80's, '90's and 2000's.
"I had great success everywhere I've been," Matthews said. "I've been very fortunate. Either they (the players) buy in to what you are selling, or they don't. If they all buy in, then you've got a chance to be successful. I just did what came naturally to me."
Since his final season of coaching in 2008, Matthew's wins record was broken by Wally Buono, another CFL coaching legend. Buono and Matthews are ranked no. 1 and 2 in nearly every CFL single-season and career coaching category.
"We're very good friends with great respect for each other," Matthews said of Buono. "It was fun to play against Wally because his teams were so well coached and so well prepared. When you go out and compete it's fun to compete against people who are doing a great job, so yeah, there was an un-spoke-about rivalry between us. Silent, but respectful."
With all of his success, Matthews hasn't forgotten how he got there. He says coach Dee Andros had a major influence on him, and without the opportunity he was given at the University of Idaho, he never would have had the career he did.
"Certainly he (Dee Andros) influenced and molded me. Things that you don't even know unless you look back at it and say 'boy, that was because of Dee.' He was tough, hard on everybody, but he had the ability to give you tough love, and he was just an amazing man."
So amazing, in fact, that Matthews' second son is named after Andros. That son, Mark D. Matthews, would later play football at the University of Idaho.
Despite all the championships, records and individual recognition Matthews has received over the years, he says his proudest moments are the ones he is able to enjoy now, as a former football coach, looking back on the way he touched the lives of so many men.
Recently Matthews went to a reunion with over 30 players from his Sunset High School championship teams from decades ago.
"Now those kids are 50 years old, so it's fun to get with them and see what their football careers meant to them at that age. I'm fortunate I have a chance to visit with these guys. When you look back it's amazing the influence that a football season or a football program has in molding these people. When you're involved in coaching you don't really take time to notice that, but when you retire it's really remarkable to sit down with these people and talk about it."
After escaping from rough surroundings growing up, Matthews took an opportunity to walk-on to Idaho's football team, and turned it into one of the greatest football coaching careers in CFL history. And although his career took him all across North America, Don Matthews will always be a Vandal.
"The University of Idaho gave me the opportunity to be involved as a coach. I owe them every bit of success I've ever had because they gave me the opportunity."