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‘Who ever tempers their expectations? We’re not tempering our expectations … we have our own standards of how we practise, play and perform,’ new Montreal Alouettes head coach Dan Hawkins says taking the reins for his first season in the CFL. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
‘Who ever tempers their expectations? We’re not tempering our expectations … we have our own standards of how we practise, play and perform,’ new Montreal Alouettes head coach Dan Hawkins says taking the reins for his first season in the CFL. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

CFL

Easy confidence will help new Als coach deal with lofty expectations Add to ...

The golf carts are lined up in a smart row on an expanse of lawn that’s seen lusher days.

Each has an index card taped to the front. The one on the vehicle closest to the Bishop’s University residence dining hall reads: HEAD COACH, and below it, in slightly smaller letters, DAN HAWKINS.

It’s a small reminder of newness in the Montreal Alouettes’ orbit; it’s been half a decade since anything but the title sufficed to identify the cart’s occupant. If it’s indeed true that a change is as good as a rest, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is reputed to have said, the Als should benefit greatly from the restorative power of upheaval.

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Sure, the golf carts are identical to the ones from past years, same with the team logo that festoons the coach’s ballcap and warm-up jacket.

But change is unmistakably afoot.

Beyond the obvious physical differences between Hawkins and his predecessor, Marc Trestman (the former is beefier of frame and notably fuller of hair), the contrast hits home when you hear the sonorous voice of the California-born coach. Even at something less than top volume, it booms. He frequently breaks into impromptu chuckles and the occasional peal of almost theatrical laughter. It’s the timbre of someone who is accustomed to commanding a room.

That easy confidence will come in handy soon enough. It’s Hawkins’s fate to be judged against the lofty standard set by Trestman. The differences between the two men are more than stylistic.

Where Trestman liked to have his say on every detail, no matter how minute, Hawkins is content to delegate.

Where Trestman was generally terse and businesslike in public, Hawkins is bluff and exuberant.

“Hey, you know who I want to be when I grow up?” the 52-year-old bellowed over his shoulder at a nearby figure, “Kuale. That’s who I want to be.”

At an adjacent picnic table, pass rusher Ejiro Kuale breaks into a broad grin.

They banter – “Naw coach, I want to be like you when I grow up” – and Hawkins offers a throaty laugh.

It’s the sort of casual interaction that seems fairly standard in Hawkins’s world. This is a man who is evidently at ease.

If modern football coaches are indeed CEOs, Trestman came from legal; Hawkins is a sales and marketing kind of guy.

Where Trestman had extensive experience as an offensive co-ordinator and quarterbacks coach in the NFL, Hawkins has never coached a down in the pros, and hasn’t coached at all in a couple of years.

But Hawkins is quick to stomp the life out of any suggestion that coaching professionals is any different than tutoring athletes at the college level.

“I don’t know why you would treat people different if they’re a, quote-unquote, professional or an amateur. What does that even mean?” he said, drumming his fingers. “I don’t care how old you are, there are certain psychological needs that people have. They want to be valued, they want to be respected, they want to be connected … some people might be into positional power, I’m not. I’m into personal power.”

Hawkins’s record as a college coach includes a remarkable run of 53 wins in 64 starts at Boise State and a less-successful stint at the University of Colorado, where he compiled a 19-39 record and was ousted in 2010. It suggests he knows a thing or two about winning (lifetime record in the NCAA: 112-61-1).

And pro experience or not, he understands the exigencies of taking over a powerhouse that has made the playoffs for 17 straight years and played in eight of the last 12 Grey Cup games. But Montreal hasn’t made the big game since 2010 – its longest stretch since 1998 – and Als fans demand a winner.

“Who ever tempers their expectations?” Hawkins said. “We’re not tempering our expectations … we have our own standards of how we practise, play and perform.”

There’s only so much a coach can do in a three-week training camp, and Hawkins and his assistants – of his 11 co-ordinators and position coaches, just four have CFL coaching experience – have been careful not to swamp their charges with new information.

There’s still much to absorb.

At the outset of camp, quarterback Anthony Calvillo was asked how much of the playbook has changed from last season, and said “95 per cent of it? I don’t know.”

Players are quick to publicly praise Hawkins’s enthusiasm and locker-room presence, but at least a few remain privately skeptical of the new man. There is some persuading to do.

Part of that owes to the high regard in which Trestman was held – his 64-34 record and two championships are a tough act for anyone to follow – and some of it surely has to do with the influx of new schemes and personnel juggling.

For example, the Als will revert to a 4-3 defensive front this season after a dalliance with a 3-4 last year, and have a raft of new players including Kuale, who is nominally a linebacker, and defensive backs Geoff Tisdale and Byron Parker.

Much will depend, as usual, on Calvillo, who turns 41 in August.

He’s been through playbook overhauls before, but this year, at least, the Als’ veteran offensive line – which allowed a league-best 30 sacks last year – is back and Montreal’s dominant receiving corps is healthy and augmented by the addition of Arland Bruce.

“Dan wants things done a certain way in terms of communicating, and I think we’re starting to get there,” Calvillo said after the Als’ exhibition loss to Hamilton last week.

The shift in tone is deliberate.

In hunting for someone to whom he would hand the headset last winter, Als GM Jim Popp calculated his troops would benefit from a different voice than the cerebral Trestman, who departed to take over the Chicago Bears. That plan has been brilliantly executed.

Hawkins was recruited from ESPN’s flagship college football show, but he attended the Als’ training camp in 2012 as a guest coach. He insists he’s not so different from Trestman in his football outlook.

“I know Marc, and I respect Marc, and I spent some time around these guys last year,” Hawkins said.

“Is there some difference? Yeah. But there’s a lot of similarity too.”

He could also correctly point out Trestman had no CFL experience when he made the trip northward, and that he too had been out of the game for a couple of years.

But Trestman established an instant rapport with Calvillo and the rest of the veterans, and enjoyed early success, going 7-3 in his first 10 games, and posting an 11-7 record en route to a Grey Cup loss to Calgary.

The bar has been set.

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