Interview with ex-Pythons and BCAFL Hall of Fame Headcoach Beau Riffenburgh

Interview with ex-Pythons and BCAFL Hall of Fame Headcoach Beau Riffenburgh

Beau Riffenburgh was an integral part of the Cambridge Pythons history. Being one of the early members of the club and staying with the club until a year prior to their disbanding it is obvious that Beau has sacrificed alot for the team, something which he was rewarded for in 2000 being inducted into the first ever British Collegiate American Football League (BCAFL) Hall of Fame.

Beau was kind enough to part-take in an interview with me, and was, as you will see, very thorough in his answers. I hope that old Lion/Python or new Python you will be able to get some idea of what the Pythons were about and what we are going to be striving to be.

 

 

Piachaud: How did you get into American Football?

 

Riffenberg: I grew up interested in football from a young age.  I saw my first college game at about four years old and just fell in love with the game from the start.  From early on, the University of Texas was my team, and I originally was quite keen on the Dallas Cowboys as well (when Don Meredith was the quarterback — a long time ago!).  I played in high school and went to UT with the (eventually unfulfilled) hopes of being successful there.  Later, I worked in sports writing and sports public relations (with the LA Lakers basketball team) before joining NFL Properties, then the licensing, marketing, and publishing branch of the National Football League.  I was the Senior Writer there, followed by being the Director of Research, which sort of made me the historian of the League.  I was at NFLP about eight or nine years before leaving to go to Cambridge to do a PhD.

I met Geoff, who had founded the Cambridge team, when I was a Fellow at Wolfson and working at the Scott Polar Research Institute.  He asked me to coach the team, which had lost all of its games the previous year, and I reluctantly agreed.  But when he and I started putting the team together, it proved to be a lot of fun, and I turned out to be thrilled by the whole process and by working with the guys to accomplish the goals needed to put together a good team on the field, as well as one run properly off of it.  Geoff went into the Hall of Fame because he showed everybody exactly how a team should be led and run off the field.

 

Piachaud: Looking back now what are your best memories of the Pythons?

 

Riffenberg: There are too many to mention them all.  Certainly one was the first game the team’s second year — the first time Geoff and I took a team to a game.  We went up to UEA, which had won the Southern Conference the year before and had beaten Cambridge twice, 74-0 and 30-0.  We didn’t have a quarterback who had ever taken a snap before, but we just handed the ball off all day to Jay Spring, who ran for 229 yards and two touchdowns, and we won 24-12.  When I got home, my wife asked how much we had lost by, and I said “We won.”  It was almost unbelievable.

All the Oxford games we won.  In 1991, we beat them for the first time, 26-12.  Ed James threw two touchdown passes, one a 50-yarder to Anthony Roget, who also returned an interception 78 yards for a touchdown.  In 1992, we won 28-0, as Ed James again threw two touchdown passes, and he caught one in the fourth quarter on a throwback from Shawn Primavera.

And in 1994, we beat them 32-7 with five touchdown runs, two by Dave Henry, two by Cary Haggard, and a 68-yarder by Alex Ballard.

In the first round of the playoffs in 1996, we travelled to Birmingham, which had been the only team to beat us in the regular season in two years, and they were talking all sorts of smack about being the best team in the league.  Our guys were so keyed up, it was incredible.

Marco Sjoblom returned the opening kickoff 50 yards, and we moved right down the field and Alex James scored on a keeper.  Richard Savage added a field goal in the second quarter, and Ian Calderbank, who was the league’s MVP that year, barged in from two yards out in the fourth quarter and we won 17-6.  It had been raining heavily, and after the game our guys just went diving onto the turf, sliding downfield on all the accumulated water.  It was a tremendous win.

And one last highlight.  In 1992, in a 49-0 win over Aston, Scott McLeod, an Australian wide receiver who also punted for us, kicked the team’s first ever extra point.  But being an Aussie Rules player, he didn’t know how to kick from a tee, so he drop-kicked it.  That was the only time we ever scored on a drop-kick.

 

Piachaud: Many people seem to think there is an inverse relationship between intelligence and sporting prowess, with Cambridge being renown for some of the brightest students in the world did you notice they were any less athletic than the teams you faced?

 

Riffenberg: No.  We had some real athletic stars, and could stand up against anybody in that regard.  Anthony Roget might have had the most natural talent of anyone who played at Cambridge, but Alex Ballard was a remarkable athlete, and Jay Spring was a real stud.  We had an incredible succession of highly talented running backs, including Jay (who started at fullback for the first GB Bulldogs team), Steve Killilea, Mark Thompson, Cary Haggard, Alex Ballard, and Marco Sjoblom.  But one advantage we had was that our guys were so much smarter than most other players, and they were incredibly dedicated.  Guys like Ritchie Brown, Ian Calderbank, Jordan Polvere, Andy Wilson, and Rob Kilty were among the best players in the country because of their brains, their attitude, and their work ethic, as well as because of natural talent.

 

Piachaud: Being the most successful team no longer competing the Pythons have a lot to live up in coming seasons, do you have any advice to potential players about how to be the best footballers?

 

Riffenberg: Anyone starting to play at Cambridge is going to get to play under a really talented coach in Chris Wallis.  The most important thing is to buy completely into what he wants to do, because he knows his business as well as anybody in the country.  And then to work as hard as possible in the limited training sessions and in the time off.  And to make sure they play as a team rather than a set of individuals.

 

Piachaud: How did you manage to juggle your thirst for polar adventure with the time commitments of American Football?

 

Riffenberg: I have done most of my publishing since leaving football.  When I was involved at Cambridge and later Herts, the game was the most important thing to me, so I was just really dedicated to it.  I not only coached at Cambridge, but was the first head coach of the GB Bulldogs and was the Secretary for the league.  I guess that’s one reason (of many) why I never became a powerhouse academic — too much time devoted to football instead.  Even when the Cambridge team was in operation, I did go down to the Antarctic between terms, so I was able to get fieldwork in and not miss much football.  If I did not return for the initial practices, Geoff and the other coaches just ran the operation and did it really, really well.

Beau coaching for the 1994 GB Bulldogs team (imbetween 27 and 2)

Piachaud: You were enshrined in the BCAFL hall of fames founding class in 2000, (correct me if I’m wrong on this) but have not coached since then, what aspects of the game do you miss the most? What do you do with your Sundays now they are not spent on the field?

 

Riffenberg: I quit coaching after Herts won its second successive national title (and third in a row for me, because I had been at Loughborough when they had won in 1997), because I took a job in New York.  Turned out I didn’t like it and I returned later that year, but I never got back into the game over here.  After that I increased my workload at the University and for the past six or seven years I’ve been more involved in writing and free-lance lecturing.  Sundays are pretty much like any other days, although I’m tired during football season from staying up late watching college games from the US.  I don’t pay attention to the NFL anymore — I just sort of lost interest in that because I was putting so much emotion into the Pythons.

 

Piachaud: Being a noted NFL writer and the author of the NFL’s official encyclopaedia it is hard to resist asking who is the most famous NFL player you have met?

 

Riffenberg: There were lots that I intereviewed, including many from the 1940s and 1950s that a number of folks here might not be familiar with.  I guess I met dozens and dozens of Hall of Famers.  My personal favourite was probably Bobby Layne, an All-American QB at Texas and then a Hall of Famer in the NFL who led the Lions to three NFL titles in the 1950s.  He was one of my heroes when I was young.  But I also interviewed Otto Graham, who led the Browns to more titles than any other quarterback and Sammy Baugh, probably the greatest overall football player in NFL history.  One year Baugh played both ways and led the league in passing, intercepting, and punting.

 

Piachaud: Being a lineman myself, it is rarely we get mentioned above the fancy boys. Do you have any distinct linemen in mind that played for you?

 

Riffenberg: Meirion Towell was the first four-year starter on the offensive line.  Robin Atkin was another four-year starter, playing every position on the line and virtually single-handedly keeping the club going in its last year. Troy Dahlke was the team’s MVP in 1992-93, when he started both ways the whole year, playing at tight end, guard, tackle, and center on offense, and linebacker and defensive line on defense.

 

Piachaud: Beau it has been a pleasure speaking to you, thank you for your time.

 

Riffenberg: Pleasure, good luck with the new team.

 

Hopefully you got a good aspect of what the Pythons were like and how dedicated both Beau and Geoff were. I would like to personally thank Beau for the time he put into the interview and for his various emails to myself and Coach Wallis in helping re-establish the team.