John Hufnagel bucked Grey Cup tradition Wednesday.
As he and Toronto Argonauts rookie head coach Scott Milanovich stood on opposite sides of the Grey Cup, the Calgary Stampeders’ head coach and GM grabbed one of its silver handles. That gesture caused a stir among reporters in attendance because coaches have traditionally refrained from touching the hallowed trophy until they’ve won it on the field.
But Hufnagel had no problem bucking that trend because he has won the Grey Cup, most recently in 2008 with Calgary.
“I think my name’s on it,” he said when asked why he touched the Cup, prompting much laughter.
Milanovich stood next to the trophy, close enough that his reflection could be seen in it. But he refrained from touching it despite earning Grey Cup rings in 2009 and ‘10 as an assistant coach with the Montreal Alouettes.
“We decided, as a team, that we weren’t going to touch it,” Milanovich said.
“Tradition,” he said.
Milanovich will make his first Grey Cup appearance as a head coach Sunday when Toronto hosts Calgary at Rogers Centre. One of his first duties was participating in the coaches news conference Wednesday with Hufnagel at the Royal York Hotel.
Despite a 22-year age difference, the Grey Cup head coaches share many similarities. They both hail from Pennsylvania, played quarterback collegiately as well as in the NFL and CFL, earned championship rings north of the border as assistants and are in this year’s game after leading their teams to second-place finishes in their respective divisions.
Hufnagel, 61, got into coaching as a player-coach with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in ‘87 before becoming a full-time coach the following season. But coaching was in Milanovich’s blood as a youngster as his father, Gary, was a former assistant football coach in Butler, Pa.
Gary Milanovich attended Toronto’s 27-20 road win over Montreal in the East Division final Sunday but it’s not clear if he’ll be in attendance for the Grey Cup.
“I thought the world of my dad,” Milanovich said. “He used to take me as a young child and we’d watch film together on that old 16-millimetre projection screen on a white bed sheet and he started to teach me the game of football.
“Then I became a quarterback and his message was always about poise. His mantra to me was: Always stay even keeled. I learned the same lesson from Tony Dungy when I was fortunate to have played for him in Tampa Bay. All that stuck with me, it’s just a great environment to grow up in.”
Hufnagel said no one should be surprised to see two former quarterbacks in the Grey Cup as head coaches.
“It is a passing league, you have to have a real good understanding of pass offence and pass protection but don’t neglect the running game,” he said. “Usually the quarterback does have a little bit of a head start in that area.”
While Milanovich and Hufnagel will be on opposite sides of the field Sunday, they did cross paths briefly in 2000 with the Cleveland Browns, where Milanovich was playing and Hufnagel was the club’s quarterbacks coach. However, the association didn’t last long or end well for Milanovich.
“I was released right before my contract became guaranteed so if you’re looking for another storyline there’s one for you,” Milanovich said with a chuckle. “I can answer the question what coach Hufnagel must’ve thought of my ability as a quarterback but I wasn’t a very good player.
“I hung on (and played) as long as I could and was fortunate to be with some coaches like coach Hufnagel and coach Dungy and coach Barker (current Argos GM Jim Barker) and kind of learned the coaching craft”
Barker hired Milanovich to succeed him as Argos coach last December, a move that impacted Hufnagel. One of Milanovich’s first moves as Toronto’s head coach was hiring his good friend Chris Jones as his defensive co-ordinator, a job he had held with Calgary.
But the CFL fined the Argos $5,000 for tampering because they didn’t contact the Stampeders for permission to speak with Jones.
“I talked to coach Hufnagel about this after the situation and I wish it would’ve happened differently,” Milanovich said. “What originated as Chris calling me to congratulate me turned into more than that and I could’ve handled it better in terms of the Stampeders and coach Hufnagel.
“Chris Jones is a good friend of mine . . . our families are close and if I had to choose one guy Chris is the guy that I would’ve wanted as defensive co-ordinator.”
Hufnagel said the incident is now water under the bridge.
“That’s yesterday’s news,” he said. “What I said, I said and I’m not changing what I said.
And Hufnagel said his relationship with Barker — who was replaced by Hufnagel as Stampeders’ GM after the ‘07 season — hasn’t changed.
“It’s the same as it was when we worked together,” he said. “Nothing really has changed.
“I don’t get to talk to him every day now but that’s the only change.”
On Sunday, Milanovich will look to become the second head coach in as many years to lead his team to a Grey Cup victory at home. Wally Buono capped his illustrious coaching career by leading the B.C. Lions past Winnipeg in last year’s finale at B.C. Place Stadium.
But Milanovich won’t be looking to inspire his team with a fiery pre-game speech.
“I’m not a rah-rah guy,” he said. “I try to give them one or two thoughts just before the game that I think are critical for us to win the game.
“Ejiro Kuale is kind of our ringleader as far as pre-game getting the guys hyped up, so I don’t have to do a whole lot of that. Most of the words and things I say to the team are said during the week and I try to keep it short and sweet on game day.”
Hufnagel also said he’s not that type of coach, maybe spending 15 minutes the morning of a game to decide what message to convey to his team. But in the 2008 Grey Cup in Montreal, Hufnagel delivered a stirring pre-game speech prior to his team facing the Alouettes before more than 60,000 rabid fans at Olympic Stadium.
“We are playing Montreal in Montreal,” he said then. “We are playing on the road.
“We are playing in a dome. We are playing in front of 65,000 screaming fans. Men, we’ve got them right where we want them.”
Calgary obviously heeded the words of their coach, earning a 22-18 victory over Montreal.
On Sunday, Hufnagel will again lead the Stampeders into a hostile environment. But he said it’s a similar challenge to playing at Mosaic Stadium before the Roughriders’ energetic fans or facing over 43,000 spectators at B.C. Place in last weekend’s 34-29 West Division final win over the defending champion Lions.
Calgary also finished tied with B.C. and Toronto for the CFL’s best road record at 5-4.
“I don’t think you shy away from hostile environments because you see it numerous times throughout the CFL season,” Hufnagel said. “Our team is comfortable with it.
“It’s very difficult, it’s a challenge but you have to use history to help you prepare for what’s going to occur Sunday.”