Toronto Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich tells a story from 1996, like it happened yesterday.
It was during his rookie season as a backup quarterback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There were murmurs in the locker room after the NFL team sunk to 0-5. Surely, change was coming.
But coach Tony Dungy confidently walked in and told his team he believed in his offensive and defensive schemes, and if everyone bought in, the team would improve.
“We bought in and went .500 down the stretch, and the next year, we made the playoffs,” Milanovich said. “He stuck with what he believed in and rode out the tough times, and I learned from that. He turned around a really struggling program.”
Milanovich will open his first training camp as a head coach this week, and he’s armed with experiences gleaned from coaches such as Dungy, Monte Kiffin, Marc Trestman, Jim Barker and all-star quarterback Anthony Calvillo.
He mined knowledge from stops in the NFL Europe, CFL, XFL and NFL. Now, he gets to steer the ship with his own staff (including the defensive co-ordinator who used to give him fits, Chris Jones).
Growing up in Butler, Pa., Milanovich wasn’t big on school work but loved sports. The son of a high-school football coach, he played quarterback. He loved the Pittsburgh Steelers and idolized Jim Kelly, who was from Pittsburgh and led the University of Miami’s pass-happy offence before his Hall of Fame NFL career with the Buffalo Bills.
“I never thought about pursuing anything else but football,” the 39-year-old Milanovich said during a lengthy interview. “It used to make my mom nervous that I had no other career plans.”
Milanovich played at the University of Maryland, and was an NFL backup for four years. The Bucs defensive co-ordinator, Kiffin, would bark at Milanovich to precisely mimic each week’s opposing quarterback, teaching him a diverse array of looks on both sides of the ball. He bunked on the road with Trent Dilfer (who later won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens) and learned from the starter he still calls highly intelligent. Milanovich watched Dungy’s habits and those of assistants who would later become head coaches, too (Lovie Smith, Herm Edwards and Rod Marinelli).
He then backed up Tommy Maddox for the XFL’s Los Angeles Xtreme, where current Argonauts general manager Barker was offensive co-ordinator.
“Jim knew I really wanted to coach and jump-started that for me. He had me draw up plays,” Milanovich said. “Tommy wanted to have the play and execute it, but I was interested in scheming and designing plays. That’s when Jim and I started to develop a bond.”
After dabbling a little in the CFL, Milanovich headed for NFL Europe, coaching quarterbacks and co-ordinating offences with the Rhein Fire and Cologne Centurions.
“The NFL wanted player development out of that – they weren’t concerned really about who won and lost, so it was a great place for young coaches to learn without being too heavily scrutinized,” he said.
Back in Canada with the Montreal Alouettes, he coached Calvillo, who, Milanovich says, taught him so much about the three-down game.
Early on, Milanovich suggested making a major change to the way Calvillo dropped back with the ball. The quarterback agreed, and the two worked on it. A speed-bump came as he tried it out in a preseason game and threw three picks in a loss.
“He could have said ‘I’ve been doing it my way a long time and I’ve been pretty damn successful,’ but he didn’t,” Milanovich said. “A.C. said ‘I’m going to get this’ and he stuck with it. We both continued to learn, no matter how much we already knew.”
Milanovich roomed with Jones briefly during that time on Nuns’ Island near Montreal, and the two coaches would spend many late hours drawing up and scrutinizing one another’s plays. They thought about one of them some day earning a head coaching job and working together again.
Now, here they are in Toronto.
Milanovich speaks frankly of turning down the Toronto job two years ago to remain Montreal’s offensive co-ordinator and knows he made the right call. He says Barker’s work as Toronto head coach/GM the past two seasons makes it a better fit now.
“I got the sense it wasn’t stable back then, but I had a pit in my stomach for weeks about turning down a head coaching job, because you never know if you’ll get another chance,” Milanovich said. “They cultivated my career in Montreal and made me a champion twice [2009, 2010] I will forever be thankful to them and miss them.
“But there was no hesitation this time. This is the opportunity I have been waiting for.”