After watching the Kent Austin-led Saskatchewan Roughriders win the 2007 Grey Cup, fan Sandy Monteith celebrated in Toronto's Rogers Centre for so long that security guards had to ask him and a throng of overjoyed Rider fans to clear out.
"I was there to see Kent Austin quarterback us to the Grey Cup in 1989 in Toronto, and then I was there celebrating again when he won it as a coach in 2007," recalls Monteith of Saskatoon, a well-recognized long-time Riders super fan known as The Flame who still wears green and white face paint today along with a fire-shooting helmet.
"I said, buddy, we haven't won it in 18 years, we're going to be here celebrating for a while."
Monteith is in Regina this week awaiting his team's appearance in the Grey Cup. But this time instead of helping to deliver Rider Nation another moment of pure elation, the once-beloved Austin – now 50 – will be trying to beat their beloved team as head coach and general manager of the opposing Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Austin's accomplishments in Regina have him etched in Roughriders lore, up there with the likes of franchise legends Ron Lancaster and George Reed. An enormous banner with his picture stretches for multiple storeys on the outside of Mosaic Stadium, site of Sunday's championship game. The fans were heartbroken when Austin asked to be traded away in 1993, and again in 2007 when he left the reigning champs to coach a football team in the NCAA. Still, the man with a keen offensive mind commands a certain respect around town.
"He was great for us, that will never change," Monteith said. "Now, he has taken over a Hamilton team that had a good offence last year but couldn't make the playoffs, so we respect what he's accomplished. But come Sunday, I'm gonna boo him."
After a stellar college career as a quarterback at Ole Miss, the St. Louis Cardinals drafted Austin in the 12th round of the 1986 NFL Draft. After one year as a backup, he was released and joined the Riders.
"I've loved Kent to death ever since he befriended me in St. Louis before we both got cut," said former Roughriders receiver Don Narcisse. "When I saw him in Saskatchewan, I was happy as heck, and we picked right up where we left off. He was like a coach on the field and was so smart when it came to watching film. But let's say you've got to know Kent to love him. If you don't, you might hate him."
Some at the time described Austin as arrogant or abrasive. But he was a winner. He tossed for a jaw-dropping 474 yards passing and was the MVP of Saskatchewan's 1989 Grey Cup victory over the Ticats. Despite the freezing late-November temperatures, thousands of fans were there to meet the Riders at the airport upon their arrival home to Regina.
Austin quarterbacked in the fishbowl that is Rider Nation for six years. After a stellar 1992 campaign in which he became only the second pro quarterback to throw for more than 6,000 yards in a season, Austin asked for money, then demanded a trade.
He was traded to the B.C. Lions, and upon his first game in Regina against the Riders, fans paid $1 each to charity for the chance to swing a sledgehammer at an Austin Mini painted with his old No.5 outside the stadium.
He went on to win another Cup in B.C. in '94, played for the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers and finished his career in 1996 with the 11th most passing yards (36,030) and third-best completion percentage (.576) in league history.
He started a coaching career in 2003 with assistant gigs on staffs of the Ottawa Renegades and the Argos. His first head-coaching gig finally came in Regina.
"I learned so much from Kent back then," said Darian Durant, who will start as Riders quarterback this Sunday, but was a third-stringer under Austin back in 2007. "He would ask me for advice about plays in quarterback meetings. I was a third-string quarterback behind Marcus Crandel and Kerry Joseph, two Grey Cup champions, and he's asking me what I think. Kent meant a lot to me and my development. He is the one who changed my delivery."
In a single season at the helm in Regina, Austin led the Riders to Grey Cup victory. Again, fans came en masse to the Regina Airport and to the victory parade as it roared down Albert Street.
But after the confetti settled, Austin decided to leave Saskatchewan again. He took a job as the offensive co-ordinator at his alma mater, Ole Miss, to be close to his mother, who was sick at the time.
"They gave a lot to me and I feel I gave a lot back as a player and as a coach," Austin said to media this week. "Sometimes things change, circumstances change. All I've tried to do with my family is try to make the best choices possible."
In two seasons with the Rebels, Austin's offences averaged more than 400 yards and 30 points a game. It earned him a shot as head coach at Cornell University, where he turned the culture around quickly for the struggling Ivy League program and helped it to its first .500 record since 2007.
"The culture there was like bedrock, and he was determined to change it, just like he's been able to do in Hamilton," said Ticats offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell, who was also Austin's offensive co-ordinator at Cornell. "He's an individual that knows what he wants and has the fortitude and strength to get it done. He always want to do it the right way, every time, whatever it takes. He'll get a bulldozer and rev it up if it's the right thing to do.
"And he's definitely a family man first."
Tiger-Cats president Scott Mitchell had a long-standing friendship with Austin and often told him he hoped to work together someday. The need for a coach in late 2012 timed nicely for Austin, his wife, son and two daughters, and they were open to moving back to the Southern Ontario area they enjoyed when he coached in Toronto, a place they still have friends.
"When I called the athletic director at Cornell to ask permission to interview Kent, I could tell he clearly did not want Kent to go anywhere, as it was quite evident he was beloved from the school president on down," Mitchell said. "But this came as a unique opportunity for Kent because we're letting him run the football operations here from top to bottom. People underrate that – he's a great head coach, but he's also done an outstanding job as general manager. There are no obstacles when it comes to creating the culture he wants."
One of Austin's first moves to build a winning culture was proposing to have a team facility constructed within the Ticats' downtown office.
"Some people are strong on x's and o's, others are just concerned with finding talent and building a team, but he has both talents, and you would be surprised how rare that is," Mitchell said. "His idea for a facility here has created an organization-wide family atmosphere. We have meetings here, a locker room, they get treatment, they stay as long as they want, family members drop in, they're hanging around by choice until 9 p.m. at night because they're all having so much fun."
Austin has led the Ticats to Sunday's Grey Cup after a 1-4 start to the season. The franchise hasn't been in the title game since 1999.
"The credibility he brought from winning those two Cups has gone a long way in establishing the team dynamic he wants," said Ticats offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski. "He picks his spots to talk, so when he talks, everyone in the room is listening. He's the GM too, so you know that every guy here is a guy he wants."
When Austin was asked this week if the team is at all similar to his 2007 Roughriders, he had to admit, both teams shared the trait of resiliency. He'll have to live with the raucous boos from Rider Nation this time around.
"I'm not going to think about it, it's just not relative to the game," Austin said. "I have a team to coach, no different from the other side. I'm only focused on the things that will tangibly affect the outcome of the football game."
His old teammate Narcisse, who still lives in Regina, wears his 1989 Grey Cup ring and will always call Austin "my quarterback," says he'll be singing and rooting against his old friend come Sunday along with the Rider faithful in this rare opportunity for a championship at home.
Austin treaded lightly this week, careful to show confidence in his own team as well as gratitude to the city where he launched his pro career.
"Anytime you're in the Grey Cup, it's an awesome experience, and it's hard to get here," Austin said. "If we're not going to win it – and we hope very much that we will – but it would be good to see Saskatchewan to win it."
Follow me on Twitter: