Football, as it has come to be known in Canada, evolved from the game of rugby in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Members of the North-West Mounted Police are reported to have played the game as early as 1886 and engaged in inter-city contests by 1890. Rugby was played sporadically for the next two decades, primarily as part of the festivities on holidays or at local fairs. The staging of the first Grey Cup in Toronto in 1909 evidently inspired the organization of a men’s amateur rugby league in 1910; but of the five original cities who were to take part, only Moose Jaw and Regina fielded teams. Moose Jaw swept the four games, but the Regina Rugby Club would win 21 of 22 provincial championships between 1911 and 1935.
Resistance to western participation in the Grey Cup kept the “national” championship an all-eastern affair until 1922. Regina reached the Grey Cup final six times from 1923 to 1934, but lost every time. Known as the Roughriders from 1924 on, the team was a western powerhouse—but not equal to the elite squads in Ontario and Montreal. Meanwhile, the province was making swifter inroads in junior football. Saskwanis, an essentially self-coached Saskatoon squad, won two western titles and all but one game from 1921 to 1923, but was shut out of the national championship by an “East-only” policy that prevailed until 1925. The Regina Pats broke through to a Canadian junior title in 1928 with an 8–6 triumph over the St. Thomas (Ontario) Tigers. Ten years later the Regina Dales, a ragtag group from the “wrong side of the tracks” coached and managed on a shoestring budget by Paul Dojack, went on to become one of the Canadian Football League’s most accomplished teams.
The Roughriders went through a prolonged slump until 1951, when quarterback Glen Dobbs was signed to a contract and led the team to first place and its first Grey Cup appearance in 17 years, only to fall 21–14 to the Ottawa Rough Riders. Now renamed the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the team followed the nationwide trend to import top players from the United States but rely on Canadians to fill most of the roster. Many of the team’s most reliable veterans in the 1950s and 1960s were Canadian. Two junior programs, the Saskatoon Hilltops and Regina Rams, were established in 1947 and 1954 respectively; Saskatoon won its first of twelve Canadian championships in 1953, while the Rams won fifteen times from 1966 to 1998, after which the organization was integrated into the University of Regina. In addition, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, moribund from 1950 to 1958, were resurrected in 1959. Many of the players from these teams would go on to play for the Roughriders in the 1960s, including defensive linemen Ron Atchison and Bill Clarke, linebacker Wayne Shaw, defensive backs Dale West and Ted Dushinski, receiver Gordon Barwell and centre Ted Urness. The Roughriders’ greatest stars, however, were running back George Reed and quarterback Ron Lancaster, who joined Saskatchewan in 1963 and would play thirteen and fifteen seasons respectively. Reed’s career record of 16,116 yards stood until 2004, while Lancaster was the first professional quarterback to pass for more than 50,000 yards. The 1963–76 period became known as the era of the “Jolly Green Giants,” when the Roughriders always made the playoffs, finished first five times, played in the Grey Cup game five times, and won it for the first time in 1966 with a 29–14 decision over Ottawa.
Immediately afterward came a period of futility in which the Roughriders failed to make the playoffs for eleven straight seasons (1977–87), followed by an unexpected Grey Cup victory in 1989 in what is frequently called “the greatest CFL game ever played,” a 43–40 thriller against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Since then, the Roughriders have struggled through more bad times than good, with only one Grey Cup appearance (1997) and no regular-season finish higher than third place since 1988. Fan support has remained fairly constant, with attendance averaging about 25,000 in Taylor Field, where capacity has yet to reach 28,000 (seating was temporarily boosted to slightly more than 50,000 for the hosting of the Grey Cup game in 1995 and 2003). Although CFL rosters are essentially half American and the “draft” system of obtaining Canadian players has reduced the convenience of stocking homegrown players, Saskatchewan players continue to stand out on the Roughriders: guard Roger Aldag of Gull Lake was enshrined in the CFL Hall of Fame for his superb career (1976–92), and Gene Makowsky of Saskatoon was the league’s outstanding offensive lineman in 2004. The Roughriders have been “community-owned” since 1951: individuals can buy memberships and have a say in the selection of the board of directors, which monitors the team’s finances and is responsible for the hiring and firing of the team’s general manager and chief executive officer. The general manager selects the head coach, and either directs or delegates the management of all football operations. The chief executive officer oversees office management and day-to-day business operations.
University football has been a success story for the province’s two teams, who compete in the Canada West conference of Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS). The Saskatchewan Huskies earned the Vanier Cup as national champions in 1990, 1996 and 1998 and were runners-up three times since 1988. Regina’s performance has been sporadic since entering CIS competition in 1999, but it gained distinction as the national runner-up in only its second season. On the high school level, the SHSAA maintains competitive balance by dividing the province into twelve-man 4A, twelve-man 3A, nine-man, 2A six-man and 1A six-man leagues. Regina and Saskatoon league teams with more than 326 male students in Grades 10–12 are classified 4A. Other Regina and Saskatoon league teams, in addition to all Moose Jaw schools, are classified 3A. Schools with 86 to 250 boys in Grades 10–12 play nine-man football. Six-man football (played on a slightly smaller field) is designated 1A for schools in the lower half of enrollments of Grade 10–12 boys (maximum 43), and 2A for the upper half (maximum 85).