He led Saskatchewan to victory as a quarterback in one of the most exciting Grey Cup games ever in 1989, then again eight years later as the Roughriders head coach.
On Sunday night, Kent Austin will return to Regina for the first time since 2007, but as the head coach, GM and football operations director of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Saskatchewan’s football fans are not only among the CFL’s most rabid but also its most loyal. But it’s unclear how Austin will be received when he steps on to the field at Mosaic Stadium.
“I don’t really know and it doesn’t really matter,” Austin said Tuesday. “Listen, this game’s not about me.
“It’s about our two football teams and about our players and our staff getting our players prepared to play. It has very little to do with me.”
Austin spent his first seven CFL seasons with Saskatchewan, leading the Riders to a wild 43-40 Grey Cup win over Hamilton at Rogers Centre in ‘89. He threw for 474 yards and three TDs before smartly moving the Riders downfield to set up Dave Ridgway’s game-winning 35-yard field goal.
Austin spent the final three years as a CFL player with B.C., Toronto and Winnipeg before returning to the CFL as a quarterbacks coach in ‘03 with Ottawa. He became Saskatchewan’s head coach in ‘07 and led the Riders to a 12-6 record before capping his rookie season on the sidelines celebrating a 23-19 Grey Cup win over Winnipeg.
Two months later, he left Saskatchewan to become the offensive co-ordinator at his alma mater, Ole Miss, before being named Cornell’s head coach Jan. 26, 2010.
Austin returned to the CFL on Dec. 17, 2012, joining the Ticats as their head coach, GM and director of football operations. However, he fondly remembers his time in Regina.
“Great fans, they love their football team,” he said. “I’ve experienced that as a player and a coach and they have an environment you want in football.
“Some of my best memories ever in football are obviously there and that team, that organization, that community means a lot to me and my wife and I’m looking forward to going back trying to beat a really good football team with my guys.”
But Austin’s return isn’t the only storyline this weekend.
The Ticats’ roster also features quarterback Henry Burris, who had two stints in Regina (2000, ‘03-’04) and slotback Andy Fantuz, a 2006 Riders’ first-round draft pick who spent his first six CFL seasons with Saskatchewan before signing as a free agent with Hamilton in 2012. Fantuz is doubtful for Sunday’s game due to injury.
Riders linebacker Renauld Williams will face the Ticats for the first time since the CFL club released him this off-season. Hamilton gave Williams his walking papers despite finishing third overall in tackles in 2012 with a team-high 94.
Williams amassed 185 tackles over two seasons with the Ticats after spending his first three seasons with Saskatchewan.
Riders’ quarterback Darian Durant’s status is also unclear after he suffered a foot injury in Thursday’s 39-28 road win over Toronto. Durant hasn’t thrown an interception in leading Saskatchewan (3-0) to the league’s lone unbeaten record.
Slotback Geroy Simon is expected to make his Riders’ debut against Hamilton. Acquired in the off-season from B.C., the CFL’s all-time receiving yards leader has been sidelined with a lower-body injury to start the season.
RECORD START: It’s been a record-setting start for Saskatchewan Roughriders running back Kory Sheets.
The five-foot-11, 208-pound sophomore has a league-high 442 rushing yards for the unbeaten Roughriders (3-0), the most to start a season in league history. Sheets broke the mark of 411 yards set in ‘75 by Calgary running back Willie Burden.
Granted it’s still early, but Sheets is on pace for over 2,600 rushing yards, which would smash Hall of Famer Mike Pringle’s league record of 2,065 yards established in 1998.
Sheets also has Pringle’s league mark of 2,414 yards from scrimmage in his sights. He has accumulated 491 yards and is on pace for 2,946 yards.
While Sheets’ rushing total is the best to start a season, he’s not even close to CFL record for most total yards over a three-game span. Pringle holds that mark, having accumulated 548 yards late in ’98 after performances of 186, 127 and 235 yards.
Pringle also holds the CFL record for most rushing yards over a four-game span at 651, set in ‘98.
Lost in Sheets’ impressive start is Calgary’s Jon Cornish having rushed for 304 yards. At this pace, the native of New Westminster, B.C., would finish with over 1,800 yards and surpass the 1,457 he had last year when he broke Normie Kwong’s 56-year-old single-season rushing record for Canadians.
NO PANIC: The defending Grey Cup champions are 1-2 but Toronto head coach Scott Milanovich has some advice for Argonauts fans: Don’t panic.
“We’d rather be 3-0,” Milanovich told reporters this week. “It’s no time to panic.
“A lot of these players and coaches have been in this spot before.”
Despite it’s record, Toronto is in a four-way tie for first in the East Division. Last season, Toronto posted a 9-9 record before winning all three of its post-season contests, including the iconic 100th Grey Cup game at Rogers Centre.
This off-season, Milanovich was named the CFL’s coach of the year.
Toronto faces the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Investors Group Field on Friday night.
LOKOMBO ON LIST: A little preseason recognition for Canadian Boseko Lokombo.
The native of Abbotsford, B.C., is on the watch list for the 2013 Butkus award, given annually to the top linebacker in U.S. college football. Lokombo is entering his senior campaign at Oregon.
Lokombo had 39 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 13 games with Oregon last year. He was the top-ranked prospect for this year’s CFL draft but fell to B.C. in the third round because he was returning to school and is expected to garner NFL attention in 2014.
Oregon kicks off its season Aug. 31 hosting Nicholls.