He guided the upstart Hamilton Tiger-Cats into the '86 final against the heavily favoured Edmonton Eskimos, who had posted a league-best 13-4-1 record. Many football pundits had predicted a lopsided affair, and they were right as the 9-8-1 Ticats captured a stunning 39-15 victory.
The Ticats announced Monday that Bruno died Sunday night at the age of 87. Jason Riley, a former offensive lineman with Hamilton's '86 championship squad, credited Bruno for the upset victory.
"He was a master of bringing people together and building the chemistry of a team," Riley said. "Everybody thought the '86 Eskimos would blow us out in the Grey Cup but actually it was the other way around because our chemistry was so good that everyone just played for each other and didn't worry about the hype.
"Al had a way of bringing the guys together . . . that's what made the difference."
The cause of death wasn't divulged but Riley said Bruno, a native of West Chester, Pa., entered hospital in Port Charlotte, Fla., initially due to a kidney issue but passed away peacefully of heart failure. he added Bruno had just one kidney due to previous cancer treatment.
Bruno came to the CFL in 1966 as an assistant coach with the Ottawa Rough Riders before taking a similar job with Hamilton in 1968. He served as the offensive co-ordinator at Harvard from 1971-'81 before returning to Hamilton as its player-personnel director in '82.
Bruno was named head coach during the '83 season after Bud Riley was fired and got the job permanently leading Hamilton to a 2-1-1 record. He suffered a mild heart attack during the '87 season and was replaced for six games by defensive co-ordinator Ted Schmitz before returning.
Bruno was fired during the '90 campaign after Hamilton lost five straight to drop to 4-8. Bruno worked as a scout with both the B.C. Lions and Buffalo Bills before serving as McMaster University's head coach from 1994 to '96, bringing Riley aboard as the offensive line coach, a position he still currently holds.
Bruno was a receiver at Kentucky, where he played for legendary head coach Paul (Bear) Bryant. The Philadelphia Eagles selected Bruno in the third round of the '51 NFL draft, but he signed with the Toronto Argonauts instead and played on their Grey Cup-winning team in 1952.
Bruno spent two seasons with Toronto, then played briefly with Ottawa in '54 before finishing his CFL career with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (1955-'56). Bruno was inducted into the Kentucky Athletics' Hall of Fame in '08 and is also a member of the Chester County Sports and West Chester Henderson High School Halls of Fame.
"Al was a big, dependable receiver and I don't ever remember him dropping a pass," said former Argos teammate Nick Volpe. "He later became a coach who was known to be one of the best around; he understood the game very well.
"Al had a great way with people. He was always very calm, friendly and efficient. He will be missed."
Riley, currently a full-time teacher and football coach at a Burlington high school, spent 10 seasons with Hamilton before retiring after the '93 season. A four-time East all-star, Riley was named to the Ticats' Walk of Fame in '95 and said he owes it all to his former coach.
"I don't know where I'd be in life right now if it wasn't for Al Bruno," Riley said. "He brought me to Hamilton from Vancouver, he was with me most of the time I was with the Ticats.
"I went to four Grey Cups with him and when he went to McMaster and brought me in as the offensive line coach and I've been there ever since. I love the man."
Riley figured he was done with football in '84 after being released by the Saskatchewan Roughriders. A former defensive lineman who helped the University of British Columbia capture the '82 Vanier Cup, Riley was taken in the first round of the '83 CFL draft by Winnipeg before being dealt to the Riders.
"When Saskatchewan released me I was ready to go back to school and pursue other things because I was pretty discouraged," Riley said. "But Hamilton called and Al assured me I'd be playing within the next few weeks.
"It's funny because the B.C. Lions called the day I was flying out to Hamilton and told me they wanted to play defensive line. Now, it was my hometown, my natural position, it would've been a lot cheaper because I could've played while living at home. But I was a man of my word and trusted what Al told me. But I did (tell the Lions) if I wasn't on the roster as promised I'd come back to the B.C. Lions. Everything worked out like he said and my wife and I established roots and made a life here because of Al Bruno."
Longtime CFL executive and scout Mike McCarthy was Hamilton's player-personnel director and assistant GM during Bruno's tenure on the sidelines and called him a player's coach.
"He cared about his players," McCarthy said. "It didn't matter if they had a bad day or a bad game, he always believed in them.
"There wasn't a guy loved more by his team than Al Bruno because of what he did for those guys."
"He wasn't an Xs and Os guru although he was around the game all his life and knew it very well," Riley said. "His forte was bringing people together and building the chemistry of a team.
"He would get guys who were released from other teams like myself, Paul Bennett and Miles Gorrell and make it so that it was fun. It was all about family. A lot of us had young kids at the time and to him you were a person first and a player second. That kind of gets lost with some professional coaches and organizations."
McCarthy knew Bruno well before their CFL days. McCarthy was a coach at Brown University when Bruno was at Harvard and the two actively recruited a highly touted quarterback named Doug Flutie, whose older brother, Bill, was a receiver at Brown.
Doug Flutie went on to play at Boston College, capturing the '84 Heisman Trophy. He starred in the CFL with B.C. (and younger brother, Darren) Calgary and Toronto, winning three Grey Cups from 1990 to '97 before joining the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
Funeral arrangements weren't immediately known, although Riley said there will be a memorial mass Thursday in Port Charlotte.