John Pius Metras was the most historically significant figure in Western’s football history, and likely in Western’s sports history. Metras was born in 1909 in Dowagiac, Michigan, and educated at the University of Detroit, where he played on the football team and was named an All American in 1932. The next year Metras came to Canada to play for St. Michael’s College in Toronto, where he gave a similarly spectacular performance. Metras planned to save money to start a landscaping business and so in 1935 he welcomed Western’s offer of a seasonal job as an assistant football coach responsible for the Colts intermediate team. Between seasons Metras worked in Detroit and, in 1937, he married his college sweetheart, Shirley Goodheart. The Metrases were expecting a baby and on the point of establishing themselves permanently in Detroit in 1940 when Metras accepted an offer from Western’s president, Dr. Sherwood Fox, to work on sustaining a football program at Western during the Second World War. Holding football games early in the war was controversial, but by 1942 arrangements were made for university football teams to compete against military teams in matches that were both popular and exciting.
Having sustained Western’s football team during the war, and after 1943 the basketball team as well, Metras remained as their coach and also became Western’s director of athletics in 1945. These duties kept him extremely busy in the following years and demanded very long days. Metras was motivated to work as hard as possible by his enthusiasm for sport, the university, students, and his colleagues. By the 1950s Metras was in his prime. His teams had impeccable reputations, he had good rapport with student athletes, the university was growing rapidly, and the newly built Thames Hall provided excellent office and athletic facilities. Metras had good relationships with his colleagues, including his secretaries and business managers Mary Burr Calvert and later her sister, June Burr. He also enjoyed close connections with members of the university administration, especially President Dr. George Edward Hall. Strong ties with regional high school coaches aided Metras’ recruitment drives. He even appeared as a weekly football commentator on a local television show from 1955-57.
1959 was one of the best football seasons in Metras’ career. The year brought Metras’ twenty-fifth season as a coach at Western, and to commemorate the occasion Metras was surprised with the gifts of an automobile from the W Club, a gold watch from the Mustangs, and a book autographed by 400 members of teams he had coached at Western. Metras’ son and long-time team mascot, John Metras Jr., also joined the Mustangs football team that year. Most significantly, the Mustangs won the Yates Cup and subsequently the Churchill Cup in the Canada-wide final.
Unfortunately Shirley Metras’ health was perilous in the late 1940s and 1950s. She was forced to spend long periods in hospital or recuperating at home or with her family in Michigan. Financial concerns and Shirley Metras’ health forced the Metras family to leave the dream home they had built on Huron Street for a more manageable house immediately north of the university. These domestic worries likely marred an otherwise spectacular period of Metras’ career.
The 1960s brought professional troubles for Metras. He retired from coaching basketball in 1964 because he felt over-committed. Worsening relations with a new generation of students, changes in university culture, and the retirement or death of colleagues made Metras’ position increasingly problematic. Reforms to athletics programs reduced their role in attracting publicity and prestige for the university, reallocated resources from intercollegiate sports to recreational facilities, and increased student power. As well, Metras did not believe that he could effectively perform both his jobs as director of athletics and as senior intercollegiate football coach, and so he chose to retire from the latter position at the end of the 1969 season. At age sixty and after thirty-four seasons, Metras announced in June 1969 that the coming season would be his last as coach. The statistical record of his years as the Mustangs’ head coach is impressive: 109 wins, eleven ties, and eighty defeats. He remained as director of athletics until 1972. Thereafter he continued to promote Western, worked as an assistant manager at the new J. Gordon Thompson Arena until 1974, and was involved with other projects. Metras was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1980. Metras died while on holiday in Florida in April 1982.