There are times, Jon Cornish explained, when the old quarterback in Dave Dickenson reveals itself, when the competitive nature that drove him during his playing days emerges in his capacity as the Calgary Stampeders’ offensive co-ordinator.
Were it not for a series of concussions, Cornish says, there is no doubt that Dickenson would still be playing football at 39. None.
If those competitive fires still burn inside Dickenson, he is doing a splendid job of concealing them ahead of Sunday’s Grey Cup game against the Toronto Argonauts. The same for his ambitions to be a head coach, to the point where it almost seems people want it for him more than he wants it for himself.
“Yeah, I do,” Dickenson said Thursday when asked if he could see himself in charge of a team. “But it’s not a lifelong goal. If it happens, it happens. If not? I’ll still be happy.”
Dickenson has been to the Grey Cup before. He won two of them (1998 with Calgary, 2006 with B.C.) in an 11-year CFL playing career along with a most outstanding player award (2000) and a Grey Cup most valuable player award (2006). But this is his first Grey Cup as an assistant coach, and it is a different experience.
Thursday found Dickenson subtly deflecting questions about his Sunday showdown with Argonauts defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones, whose departure from the Stampeders was not smooth. Stamps head coach John Hufnagel is terse in responding to questions about Jones, who has dodged the media spotlight this week.
“Chris does a good job,” Dickenson said. “He scouts out tendencies as well as anybody. He also is very creative.”
Then Dickenson stopped. “I heard he’s had a lot of media interviews this week. No, Jones and I had a good relationship, and I think we still do, if he would talk to you.”
Dickenson’s four-year progression under Hufnagel has been deliberate. He was running backs coach in 2009 because Hufnagel wanted him to get an understanding of the running game from the running backs’ perspective. The next season, he was put in charge of play-calling, but as the quarterbacks coach. This is his second season as offensive co-ordinator.
“I wanted Dave to be the play-caller but not have the responsibility of being the offensive co-ordinator,” Hufnagel said. “It wasn’t that I didn’t think he could handle it. I just didn’t want him to have the pressure if we struggled. … I wanted people to blame me, not Dave, at that point in his career.”
Dickenson has found other differences as a coach, beyond the demands on his time during Grey Cup week, some of which he admits came as a surprise.
“The staff dynamics is a little different, but it’s not that much different than a team’s,” Dickenson said. “As coaches we all have egos, as well, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to be in this job. You have guys moving. Taking other jobs. So how much information do you give your buddy? He could end up coaching against you.
“I’m pretty open,” he added. “I won’t give you information, but I have no problem talking things over with you. Things morph with time.”
Dickenson believes that experience as a quarterback gives an offensive co-ordinator an advantage because “you can only see certain things from behind the centre. Nobody,” he added, “has seen the game from that vantage point. Your quarterback is your most valuable player, maybe not your best player, but the most valuable.”
But running backs have had success under Dickenson’s watch. Joffrey Reynolds won the CFL’s rushing title in Dickenson’s tenure as running backs coach, and Cornish has blossomed during Dickenson’s time as co-ordinator.
Like many with the Stampeders, Dickenson is tiring of the “Hey, just how odd is Jon Cornish?” narrative making the rounds, but he admits that Cornish asks a lot of questions, that he wants to know why he’s being asked to do something on a particular play. Makes sense to Dickenson.
“I mean, I should have answers,” he said, shrugging.