The moment Corey Chamblin first started thinking about becoming a CFL head coach came while he was breaking down game film with Jim Barker years ago when the two were with the Calgary Stampeders.
They were watching tape during the 2008 Grey Cup when Barker, himself a former coach, was then Calgary’s senior vice-president of football operations and player-personnel director. Barker turned to the young assistant and made what Chamblin thought at the time was a terribly bold prediction.
“He said, ‘You’ll be a better head coach than an assistant coach, and if you don’t decide to go to the NFL and you stay in this league, you’ll definitely be a head coach,” Chamblin recalls. “And I was like, ‘Jim, you’re crazy.’ ”
But Barker’s words were prophetic. On Wednesday, Chamblin was named the CFL’s coach of the year.
The 36-year-old received the Annis Stukus Trophy after leading the Saskatchewan Roughriders to a Grey Cup win on home turf in only his second season with the club.
The Riders finished second in the West Division standings with an 11-7 record. They defeated B.C. 29-25 in the conference semifinal before upsetting first-place Calgary — which posted a league-best 14-4 record — in the West Division final 35-13.
That victory earned Saskatchewan home-field advantage for the Grey Cup game, which was held at Mosaic Stadium. Before a rabid gathering of 44,710, the Riders didn’t disappoint, capping their season with an impressive 45-23 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Kent Austin, Hamilton’s head coach/GM, and John Hufnagel, who also holds the same dual post with Calgary, were the award finalists.
In his first season with Hamilton, Austin led the Ticats to second in the East Division with a 10-8 record before the club posted playoff wins over Montreal and Toronto. Austin was named the CFL’s top coach in ‘07 after leading the Riders to a Grey Cup title.
Hufnagel, who won the award in 2008, worked with Chamblin in Calgary. He said he saw in Chamblin many of the traits that have allowed him to make the transition from a position coach into a winning head coach.
“He was very organized but he also had an eye out for the entire program, not just the defensive backs,” Hufnagel said. “His vision was far-reaching.
“He wanted to put a program together to help make the players’ transition, once they did make the roster, in finding homes in Calgary and all the type of things that provides the transition, makes it easier for the players. So early on, I knew Corey did have a vision of more than just what was his particular area.”
Chamblin bounced around the NFL until 2004 before embarking on his coaching career.
The native of Birmingham, Ala., played defensive back at Tennessee Tech. After being bypassed in the NFL draft, he signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Ravens in 1999 but was waived before seeing any regular-season action.
Chamblin then signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He also spent time in Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis and played in Germany with the Rhein Fire of the former NFL Europe.
His first coaching gig came in 2006 as an assistant at Tennessee’s Cumberland University. He got his first CFL job a year later as a defensive backs coach with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Chamblin moved to Calgary and spent three seasons as the Stampeders’ defensive backs coach — winning the Grey Cup in 2008 — before becoming Hamilton’s defensive co-ordinator in 2011.
The following season, he landed his first head-coaching job with the Roughriders. Chamblin credits Barker, currently the GM of the Toronto Argonauts, with inspiring him to become a head coach.
“It was one of those things where I was like, ‘Yeah, Jim, I don’t know why you’re saying this and I don’t believe you. Right now, I’m a defensive backs coach,’ ” Chamblin said. “But I took that, and I think that was something that opened my eyes, that you know what, I should start preparing myself, and I did and I got it pretty soon.”