John Hufnagel stands at the 21-yard line in the empty Rogers Centre, his arms folded, watching his Calgary Stampeders practise. He quietly observes. He briefly checks his phone for a message.
Hufnagel, one of the top coaches in CFL history, has been here before.
The 61-year-old head coach is back in the Grey Cup, the second time in his five-year tenure in charge of Calgary, arriving in Toronto after a masterful coaching job last Sunday in Vancouver to declaw the Grey Cup defending champions, the B.C. Lions.
“I can’t say I’m any more nervous or any more comfortable,” Hufnagel said on Thursday afternoon at a news conference in the bowels of the Rogers Centre after practice. “It’s a championship week.”
The Stamps are Hufnagel’s first head-coaching gig, after years in the CFL and NFL as a quarterback coach and offensive co-ordinator, mentoring the likes of a young Tom Brady in New England during the 2003 Super Bowl season, before moving on to run the offence for the New York Giants for several years.
Returning to Calgary, where he was the offensive co-ordinator in the early 1990s under Wally Buono when the Stamps were dominant, Hufnagel has piled up a regular-season record of 59-30-1 for a winning percentage of .659, a tiny smidgen better than Marc Trestman in Montreal, who is 59-31.
“John Hufnagel’s done an amazing coaching job this year,” Trestman said. “They’ve been through a lot and this last month of the season he’s really pulled his team together. Just a tremendous job of coaching, going into B.C. to beat B.C. is not an easy thing to do ... he’s a tremendous football coach.”
The two men, Hufnagel and Trestman, have established themselves among the best in history. Of coaches who have overseen at least 50 games, Hufnagel ranks fourth and Trestman fifth in winning percentage, both them slightly ahead of the two legends, Wally Buono (254-139-3, .645) and Don Matthews (231-133-1, 0.633). The top three are Frank (Pop) Ivy in Edmonton from the late 1950s, Hugh Campbell and the epic Esks dynasty in the late 1970s to early 1980s, and Ralph Sazio in Hamilton in the 1960s.
To Dave Dickenson, the Stamps offensive co-ordinator, this has been Hufnagel’s finest year as a head coach. The Stamps lost veterans and Hufnagel led a young squad to the championship game, riding the arm of a backup quarterback.
“Huf generates confidence,” Dickenson said. “The very most successful guys win with multiple players. Everyone can win if you’ve got the superstars.”
Hufnagel and Trestman met in the Grey Cup in Montreal in 2008 as rookie head coaches, and Hufnagel snatched victory from the Montreal Alouettes on Trestman’s home turf. Trestman, however, went on to win two Grey Cups, leaving Hufnagel one behind, and as Hugnagel looks to make up the gap, this week the Stamps once again arrive on another team’s turf, the Toronto Argonauts, the Boatmen captained by a rookie head coach themselves, Scott Milanovich.
Since the Second World War ended, 22 rookie head coaches have reached the Grey Cup – and half of those men won on their first attempt. Among the losers are some greats, such as Trestman recently, and Don Matthews in charge of the B.C. Lions in 1983.
In the past two decades, however, just four rookie head coaches have made the Grey Cup. All of them – except for Trestman – won: Hufnagel in 2008, Kent Austin and Saskatchewan in 2007, and Danny Marcioca and Edmonton in 2005.
Nik Lewis, the Stamps ace receiver, said Hufnagel is a little bit more laid back these days than in 2008 but remains intense. At halftime in the locker room, if there’s something that needs saying, Hufnagel states is plainly.
“He comes in and tells us exactly what he feels,” Lewis said. “That’s one thing about Huf, you will know exactly how he feels.”
Like Dickenson, Lewis said Hufnagel is a strong leader.
“He is the head man, and he makes it known he is the head man,” Lewis said. “You can see his passion in everything.”
Hufnagel was in good spirits on Thursday, making jokes and smiling. But asked about any advice he might have for Milanovich, any advice for a rookie head coach in the Grey Cup, Hufnagel briefly thought about it before saying: “No. Not really.”
With a report from Sean Gordon