Kent Austin bristles politely at the use of the word rebuilding as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats new head coach and general manager prepares to get down to work.
“I don’t believe in rebuilding,” he said Monday in the CFL’s last pre-season league conference call, with rookie camps set to start in a few days and main camps opening on the weekend.
“I believe in putting together a team right from the jump that has the ability to compete for championships.”
It would be a big jump for the Ticats, after finishing last in the league in 2012 (although the Winnipeg Blue Bombers shared the same 6-12 record).
But the Ticats did it in a pretty novel way, scoring both the most points in the league and also giving up the most.
Austin wasn’t throwing out much praise or much blame Monday, although he did express confidence in returning veteran quarterback, Henry Burris, starting just his second season with the Ticats and his 14th in the CFL.
It doesn’t seem misplaced after Burris set Ticats single-season records in passing yards, completions and passing touchdowns, while also setting the single-game passing completions record with 37 at Toronto on Nov. 1.
“We feel there are lots of areas where we are comfortable with the quality of our personnel,” was about all Austin would say.
Instead, he said he and his coaches need to start working with their players at camp before they can really make any detailed judgments.
“My staff has not coached these guys and certainly not coached these guys live when the bullets are flying,” he said. “We’ll have a better idea of where we’re at and how quickly it will take us to rise to a level of being able to compete week in and week out after we get the pads on these guys.”
The changes they have made have helped make the team more athletic and faster, he added.
“We needed to get faster as a football team on both sides of the ball,” he said.
He also wasn’t looking to make any excuses in advance for an unusual season that will see the Ticats play their home games at the University of Guelph, as a new stadium is built on the site of Ivor Wynne.
Hamilton is getting the new field thanks to money earmarked for the 2015 Pan American Games and team president Scott Mitchell said renovations will be complete this weekend on their temporary home, which will seat between 13,000 and 14,000.
“Football has a way to make you uncomfortable in a lot of areas,” said Austin. “We will focus our team in eliminating all of the distractions.”
One distraction that could be eliminated very soon is the issue of whether Chris Williams will suit up again this season for Hamilton.
With a rumoured NFL deal in his pocket, last season’s outstanding special teams winner in the CFL wants to be released from his contract and his challenge has gone to arbitration. The Ticats are now waiting for the decision.
“I would say at this stage it’s probably not looking good,” said Austin.
The Ticats have drafted two game plans — one with and one without the talented receiver and punt return juggernaut.
He scored a league-leading 17 touchdowns last season (a new team record), racked up 1,298 receiving yards and 1,117 receiving yards and was named the CFL’s most outstanding special teams player.
Veteran offensive lineman Marwan Hage insisted Monday that Williams would have no problems with his teammates if he did return to the lineup, no matter how unlikely that might seem right now.
“He’s part of this family,” he said. “When he comes in he’s going to be welcomed as part of this family as part of this team and we’ll just move on. This has nothing to do with us as players.”