It took three months, but Jim Barker finally got his contract extension.
The Toronto Argonauts general manager signed a two-year extension Thursday and is now under contract with the defending Grey Cup champions through the 2015 season.
Toronto raised eyebrows Nov. 8 when it gave Scott Milanovich — in his first season as a CFL head coach — a contract extension and not Barker, who only had one year remaining on his deal.
That decision created much speculation regarding Barker’s future in Toronto because days earlier the Edmonton Eskimos had fired Eric Tillman as their GM. But Barker said he and Argos president Chris Rudge spoke about a contract extension during the season and both agreed securing Milanovich’s future was the priority.
“There were just other pressing issues that had to get done and I think we were able to get those done because of the confidence this was going to happen,” Barker said. “The timing wasn’t a huge issue for me because I had confidence something would happen.”
Rudge said an extension for Barker was always the plan.
“We had other matters that needed to be addressed first for reasons we couldn’t say at the time,” he said. “But we know we’re going to continue to build on the work Jim has done to this point and we look forward to even greater things as we move forward.”
Barker, 56, began his second stint with the Argos — he was their head coach in ‘99 — in 2010 as head coach. He took over a club that had won a combined seven games in two years and led it to a 9-9 record and into the CFL playoffs. He was subsequently named the CFL’s coach of the year, then added the GM duties.
But after posting a 6-12 record in 2011, Barker stepped down as head coach to concentrate full-time on being GM. His first two moves were to hire Milanovich as his replacement and acquire veteran quarterback Ricky Ray in a blockbuster trade with the Edmonton Eskimos.
And both would play pivotal roles in leading Toronto to its 16th Grey Cup title.
Ray adjusted slowly to Milanovich’s offence in 2012 and late in the season was forced to miss three starts with a knee injury. But upon Ray’s return the Argos caught fire, winning their final five games of the season.
That included a historic 35-22 decision over the Calgary Stampeders in the 100th Grey Cup at Rogers Centre. Ray completed 18-of-31 passes for 231 yards and two TDs.
The 33-year-old Californian finished his first season in Toronto completing nearly 70 per cent of his passes for 4,059 yards with 20 TDs and just 11 interceptions. More importantly, he provided the veteran leadership under centre the Argos had been missing for years.
Milanovich also made a very favourable first impression. He’s a finalist for the CFL’s coach of the year award.
“When Jim Barker joined us this team had gone through a couple of seasons where the performance and results of the organization were less than robust,” Rudge said. “Jim came in and had to bring order into chaos and quickly established himself as a strong leader in this organization.
“He took a look at what we had, laid down the foundation for what happened last year and was able to execute a brilliant trade to bring Ricky Ray into the organization and acquired Scott Milanovich . . . and then finally, of course, winning the Grey Cup in a script no one in this town could ever have imagined.”
But Barker, a native of Pasadena, Calif., isn’t resting on his laurels.
“I have the feeling that anyone can win one but putting a few of them together, that’s the mission, that’s the goal,” Barker said. “I started working on next year probably the day after the (Grey Cup) parade.
“Trying to sustain is the toughest thing but that’s all we’re focused on. The focus remains the same: To get this organization to a point every year where we’re considered a contender to win the Grey Cup.”
Repeating is no easy task. The Montreal Alouettes were the last to do so (2009-’10) but they were the first in 13 years to accomplish that feat.
However, familiarity should be one factor working in Toronto’s favour as both Milanovich and Ray now have the benefit of having worked one season together.
“I’m not going to say an easier year but there’s a lot fewer questions and we can build on what we’ve started,” Barker said. “Going in, having a quarterback who understands the system, having a head coach that has now gone through the ups and downs does nothing but help you.
“Scott did a fabulous job in his first year as a head coach and I think he’s only going to get better and better as time goes on.”
But two players who figured prominently in Toronto’s Grey Cup win — running back Chad Kackert was the game MVP while defensive end Ricky Foley was the top Canadian — are poised to become free agents at noon ET on Friday. Barker has offers out to both players and wants them back but says it’s a player’s prerogative to test the free-agent waters.
“We’re in touch with both of them and obviously the door isn’t closed on either one,” Barker said. “When players play out their option it gives them some leverage and sometimes it’s good for a player to see what his value is and go out on the open market.
“My job is to keep this club moving forward and that’s what I’m going to do.”