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Alouettes owner says Higgins hiring maintains separation of coach and GM jobs

Tom Higgins, head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos, answers reporters questions after winning the CFL's Coach of the Year award in Edmonton, on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004. Higgins has been named the new head coach of the Montreal Alouettes.


So the outriders of disunity and rancour can stand down, all is well in the Montreal Alouettes organization.

How long that will continue is anybody's guess.

The CFL team's owner, general manager and freshly hired head coach are at pains to insist they are crooning from the same songbook.

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It doesn't change the facts: The league's most successful GM of the past two decades is in the last year of his contract; he wasn't consulted on hiring the head coach; the new guy is inheriting a partially assembled staff that includes a man, Noel Thorpe, whose title is assistant head coach.

Now, it's up to Jim Popp (the GM in question) and coach Tom Higgins to make their forced union work, and there is much work to do: the Als haven't won a postseason game since 2010, and stumbled to an 8-10 record in 2013, their first losing season since 2007.

Both men are making the appropriate noises.

"This is a match made in heaven, our personalities complement each other, we both want the same things," the 59-year-old Higgins, who has been in and around the league for 32 years, said during a conference call Tuesday.

"Tom has a lot of experience and understands the league. … I don't think any of us had any doubt that coach Higgins could step in [immediately]," Popp said.

Als owner Robert Wetenhall lavished praise on his coach, and said his GM "in a great sense, is the soul of the team."

So that's that, right? We'll see.

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Popp didn't have any say in the Higgins hire; the official reason is he was in a conflict of interest as a candidate himself.

That kind of conflict didn't stop Wetenhall from involving his long-time GM in the decision – which in retrospect was inspired – to choose Marc Trestman to run the team six years ago. Although Wetenhall's son, Andrew, drew a fine distinction Tuesday, saying Popp's candidacy made it farther into the process this time.

That has the ring of plausibility, but the justification for not hiring Popp – essentially the team must have both a full-time GM and a full-time head coach – raises more questions than it answers.

If that's the thinking, why wait until after the opening of CFL free agency (which Popp handled) and the middle of February, when most pro teams and top universities have made their staffing decisions, to reach that conclusion?

And why hire a man with a long CFL résumé, yes, but who last coached in 2007, and had been unemployed since leaving the league office (Higgins essentially said he was fired) last December?

The elder Wetenhall praised Higgins's experience working with younger coaches, and his extensive football knowledge. Andrew Wetenhall, an investment banker who doubles as one of the team's directors, said Higgins's approach and temperament are reminiscent of Trestman's.

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They'll hope he's a better replacement for the current Chicago Bears coach than the man the team hired on Feb. 19, 2013 (and fired on Aug. 1), former U.S. college coach and pro football newbie Dan Hawkins – a decision Popp could conceivably still be paying for.

Prior to the 2013 season, the Als lost Trestman, who led the team to a 64-34 record and three championship games in five years (he won two). Last month, they lost Hall of Fame quarterback Anthony Calvillo to retirement.

Perhaps this is the year they also lose Popp, a talent scout extraordinaire who has consistently assembled dominant rosters since the days when the team was known as the Baltimore Stallions.

"I've been with the Alouettes 18 years. … I really have no interest in leaving," Popp said, and addressed rumours of his discontent, later, adding: "There's a lot of things that get thrown around out there, a lot of it's not true."

A person given to parsing those comments might note he said "a lot" and not "all."

Success on the field will go a long way to smoothing any rifts – perceived or otherwise – but this week won't alter the perception something is amiss with the Als.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More


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