The winds of youthful change are blowing along CFL sidelines and having a ripple effect in some front offices as the 2012 regular season approaches.
Four of the league’s eight teams will have new coaches this year as first-timers take over in B.C., Saskatchewan, Toronto and Hamilton. Of the four holdovers, only two — Calgary’s John Hufnagel and Montreal’s Marc Trestman — have been with their teams for more than three seasons.
“I think it says a lot about growth, and I think it talks a lot about opportunity and, honestly, organizations having faith in some new people,” said new B.C. Lions coach Mike Benevides. “It also talks to the fact that people want to be competitive and organizations want to win. My situation (taking over a Grey Cup champion) is a little bit different, but most of the time, change comes because the organization is not happy with the way (the previous season) went.”
Most of the newcomers this year and from recent seasons are in their 30s and 40s.
“I’m happy to see a lot of young first-time coaches given an opportunity,” said B.C. Lions general manager Wally Buono. “I hate to say this in a negative way, but the passing of (longtime CFL coach) Cal Murphy is kind of an indication that the old order has to be replaced by the new order. You want to leave the league strong.”
Buono, 62, spearheaded the most profound change as he ended his legendary 22-year coaching career with Calgary and B.C. last December shortly after the Lions won the Grey Cup, the fifth of his career.
At first glance, Benevides faces less pressure than the other newcomers, because he was a longtime Lions defensive and special teams assistant. The other hires — Corey Chamblin in Saskatchewan, Scott Milanovich in Toronto and George Cortez in Hamilton — are still getting used to their respective organizations.
However, Benevides dismissed the idea that he faces less pressure than the others.
“In terms of what you want to get done, the pressure always exists,” he said. “It’s performance-based. You have to win every week.”
Benevides, a 44-year-old Toronto native who wears a hoodie and headset, has a different style than the stoic Buono. The new Lions coach high-fived and bumped fists with players during pre-season game warm-ups and served Freezies to all players still around on the final day of training camp as a reward for their hard work and intensive playbook studying. Benevides has also had part of the team’s practice facility redeveloped into a large player lounge that includes new big-screen TVs, a kitchen, computers and Internet connectivity, and arranged for the team to serve breakfast to players on a daily basis as part of his bid to create a family-like atmosphere.
Contending he is comfortable on a different life stage, Buono is now focusing on recruiting and signing talent in the GM post he previously held and playing more of an ambassadorial role with the franchise under an added vice-president’s title.
“It’s a little bit more methodical,” said Buono of his revised role. “The point is just trying to find out where you belong at the right time.”
Although he is away from the sidelines during games, he still takes great pride in assembling a strong organization.
“You want to be part of a good organization,” he said. “But then the other thing too is, you want to have the ability to have a succession plan to allow things to grow. I’m not sure you’ve done a good job if, (once) a person leaves, everything falls apart.”
In Saskatchewan, the Roughriders are looking to Chamblin, 35, after luring him away from his Hamilton defensive co-ordinator’s position, to provide more coaching stability. Greg Marshall was fired midway through the 2011 season and replaced by the since-retired Ken Miller, who had stepped down from his coaching duties to focus on a front-office role.
The Riders missed the playoffs after reaching the Grey Cup the previous two seasons under Miller.
“I’ve never been a head coach, but I’ve been a leader of the (defensive backs), a leader of the defence, and now I’m the leader of the team,” said Chamblin, also a former Calgary and Winnipeg assistant. “I’ve had success in each one of those areas, so what I need to do now is make sure that we have success as a team.”
During the pre-season, the Birmingham, Ala., native worked to remain in “teacher mode” while attempting to build a team identity quickly.
“First of all, we have to make sure this is a tough football team,” said Chamblin. “When we’re up, we have to stay up and when we’re behind, we have to fight and come back.”
In Toronto, Jim Barker has relinquished his coaching duties while remaining as general manager as Milanovich attempts to improve on the Argos 6-12 mark in 2011.
“We got rid of the old, stodgy guy and brought in a young, energetic guy,” said Barker.
He expects an easier transition to a full-time GM’s role than during his first attempt with the Stampeders in 2005.
“Last time, I had never done it, so I did everything I could to learn what a GM has to do,” he said.
Barker contended he is comfortable with the job change. He did not expect to remain long as a coach when he took the Argos helm for a second time in February 2010.
“Finding players is something I’ve always had an interest in,” said Barker. “As much as I love coaching, as I get older, this is a better place for me.”
Milanovich, a 39-year-year-old former journeyman CFL, NFL and XFL quarterback from Butler, Pa., honed his coaching skills as an assistant with the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe, the Stampeders and, most recently, the Alouettes.
According to Barker, he has a great presence, has earned his players’ respect and has “zero tolerance” for undisciplined troops.
“It’s certainly not a country club atmosphere,” said Barker.
Even though Milanovich is young in age, he is not young in “football years.”
In Hamilton, general manager Bob O’Billovich bucked the trend towards youth by appointing 61-year-old Cortez. The Port Arthur Texas native finally gets to be a CFL head coach after amassing 18 years of experience in the league as an assistant with various teams and shuffling between college and the NFL. He has also coached high school football.
“It’s very nice to be in charge of the program and answer to yourself and know that, when you get put on the scene, it is ultimately your decision,” said Cortez.
He has replaced Marcel Bellefeuille, who was fired after Hamilton went 8-10 last season.
“(Cortez) probably could have got a head coaching job, maybe, five or 10 years ago,” said Buono. “George, as stubborn as he is, is only going to take the situation that gives him the best chance to win.”
Cortez said he was never formally offered a CFL head coaching job before, but added he always had a core vision of what it would take to be successful in the CFL, and he was never presented with the right opportunity until now.
Buono said the chance for Cortez to run his own show on the field offset any financial sacrifices.
“Sometimes it’s not always just about the dollars and cents,” said Buono. “It’s an opportunity, and you’ve got to look at opportunity. Is something like this going to come around for George again? I’m not sure it would have.”
Meanwhile, Kavis Reed, 39, returns for his second season in Edmonton after guiding the Eskimos to the 2011 Western Final, and third-year Winnipeg coach Paul LaPolice, 42, looks to return to the Grey Cup after the Blue Bombers lost to the Lions in November.