A Brief History of CFL Coaches in the NFL

Yesterday, the Chicago Bears filled their head coaching vacancy by hiring Marc Trestman, head coach of the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

Trestman spent five years in Montreal, winning two Grey Cups, advancing to another, and never posting a losing record. Before he went to Canada, Trestman spent 17 seasons as an assistant with 8 different NFL teams.

The Bears’ hiring of Trestman came as a surprise to those who have grown accustomed to NFL teams hiring a coach whose most recent job was with another NFL franchise or taking a chance on a successful American college coach. We aren’t used to teams hiring coaches from Canada.

But such a move isn’t unprecedented.

New Bears coach Marc Trestman, formerly of the Montreal Alouettes (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

New Bears coach Marc Trestman, formerly of the Montreal Alouettes (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Bud Grant

Bud Grant was the most successful head coach to work on both sides of the 49th parallel.

Grant, who actually played briefly for the Minnesota Lakers in the NBA before switching to football, coached the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 1957 until 1966, winning four Grey Cups.

The Minnesota Vikings hired Grant in 1967. In 16 seasons in Minnesota, Grant led the Vikings to one NFL title, three NFC Championships, and four Super Bowl losses.

Grant, the first person to coach in both a Grey Cup game and a Super Bowl, is a member of both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

Bud Grant spent had a lot of good years with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers before taking the Vikings to four Super Bowls. (Photo from the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum)

Bud Grant spent had a lot of good years with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers before taking the Vikings to four Super Bowls. (Photo from the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum)

Marv Levy

Like Grant, Marv Levy also has the distinction of taking teams to four Super Bowls but never winning a ring. And, like Grant, Levy had plenty of success in Canada before coming to the States.

After more than two decades as an American college coach and NFL assistant, Levy got his first professional head coaching gig with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. His stint with the Alouettes mirrored Marc Trestman’s: Levy also won two Grey Cups in five seasons (1974 and 1977).

The Kansas City Chiefs hired Levy out of Montreal in 1978 but fired him four years later. After a brief stop with the Chicago Blitz of the USFL, Levy ended up in Buffalo, where he took over as the Bills head coach in the middle of the 1986 season. He would take the Bills on four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl in the late 1980s and early 1990s but would never hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Prior to his tenure with the Buffalo Bills, Marv Levy coached the Montreal Alouettes to two Grey Cups. (Photo from the Montreal Gazette)

Prior to his tenure with the Buffalo Bills, Marv Levy coached the Montreal Alouettes to two Grey Cups. (Photo from the Montreal Gazette)

Forrest Gregg

After three so-so seasons as head coach of the Cleveland Browns in the 1970s, Forrest Gregg—who had won six NFL titles as a player with the Packers and Cowboys—crossed the border and coached the Toronto Argonauts in 1979. Gregg had one unremarkable 5-11 season in Toronto before the Cincinnati Bengals brought him back to the U.S. Gregg’s Bengals went to Super Bowl XVI, where they lost to the San Francisco 49ers.

Gregg coached the Packers from 1984 to 1987 then returned to his college alma mater, Southern Methodist, in hopes of resurrecting SMU’s football program after it received the death penalty. He returned to the CFL in 1994, coaching the Shreveport Pirates during the CFL’s brief expansion into the United States.

While Grant, Levy, and Gregg all led NFL teams to Super Bowls following their tenure in Canada, success in the CFL doesn’t always translate to success in the NFL.

Hugh Campbell

The Houston Oilers hired Edmonton Eskimos head coach Hugh Campbell in 1984 after Campbell’s Eskimos had won an incredible five consecutive Grey Cups.

Campbell came to Houston with his quarterback, Warren Moon, whose success in Edmonton sparked a bidding war south of the border. The Oilers paid Moon handsomely, and he would go on to a Hall of Fame NFL career.

But Campbell and Moon’s first couple years in the States were rough. After he went 8-22 in two seasons in Houston, the Oilers fired Campbell in 1985. He would win another four Grey Cups as Edmonton’s general manager.

Mike Riley

Mike Riley coached the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 1987-1990, winning two Grey Cups in that span. After spending the 1990s in the World League of American Football (remember that little experiment?) and the Pac-10, Riley got a head coaching gig with the San Diego Chargers. He went 14-34 in three seasons with the Chargers.

Riley has spent the last decade as head coach at Oregon State.


We have no way of knowing how Marc Trestman will fare in Chicago. Maybe, like Grant and Levy, he’ll lead the Bears to four Super Bowls. Or maybe he’ll flame out after a few seasons and end up in the MAC by the end of the decade.

At any rate, whether Trestman succeeds or fails in the NFL will depend more on what he can do with Jay Cutler and the Bears offense than on anything he did in Montreal.

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


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