One of the biggest names in CFL history is returning to the Toronto Argonauts in a full-time role as general manager.
Mike (Pinball) Clemons, a former star player, head coach and executive with the club, has replaced Jim Popp as GM.
The Argos, who sit a league-worst 2-12 after finishing 4-14 last year, announced Popp’s contract will not be renewed Tuesday while naming Clemons as their new GM. The move comes in the aftermath of a 55-8 loss in Vancouver against the BC Lions on Saturday.
Argos president Bill Manning enlisted Clemons’s help last month in an advisory role as the losses piled up for the club. Clemons has been vice-chair of the team since 2009.
Clemons said he turned down a front-office role with the Argos twice earlier this season before agreeing to the position after Saturday’s game.
“I didn’t need a job, I have a wonderful [charitable] foundation I love,” he said.
“I make a living talking to people. I talk and they pay me. I’m not in this job because I need a job. I’ve got a bunch of jobs. I’m here because I love it and I care about our fan base. We want to make it better.”
John Murphy, who has been working with the Argos in a consulting capacity, will stay with the club and now has the title of vice-president of player personnel. Murphy previously worked with the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders in front-office roles.
Like when he became head coach in 2000, Clemons enters the GM role without experience on the football operations side in the front office.
Clemons said the team around him will be key to his success.
“It’s not an 'I’ thing. If it’s me, this can’t be done,” Clemons said. “We’re going to build a strong, capable team around us. That’s [the] only way we’re going to have any success.”
Clemons inherits a team that doesn’t have one of its top three quarterbacks under contract for next season – McLeod Bethel-Thompson, James Franklin and Zach Collaros. The Argos hired Corey Chamblin as head coach on a multiyear contract prior to this season.
Clemons acknowledged quarterback is a pivotal position for Toronto, noting the most recent Grey Cups won by the team were with CFL stars Matt Dunigan, Doug Flutie, Damon Allen and Ricky Ray at the position.
Popp was hired in 2017 and the Argos won the Grey Cup that year with Ray.
But since Ray went down with a career-ending injury in the season opener the following season, the team hasn’t found any consistency at quarterback. The Argos were 15-35 under Popp.
“We have to build a strong team, no question about that,” Clemons said. “But ultimately, you can’t disguise the importance of that position.”
Clemons became interim coach of the Argos in the middle of the 2000 season as his playing career ended.
The 5-foot-6 native of Dunedin, Fla., stayed as coach in 2001 before moving up to team president.
But when the team fired Gary Etcheverry in 2002, Clemons returned to his head coaching role. He guided the team to a Grey Cup title in 2004 and finished no worse than second in the East Division from 2002 to 2007 before stepping down to become chief executive officer.
The 54-year-old was a star running back/returner with the Argos from 1989 to 2000. He was named the CFL’s most outstanding player in 1990 and helped the Argos win back-to-back Grey Cups in 1996 and ‘97.
Along with being the worst team in the standings, Toronto also is last in the CFL in attendance, including a crowd of under 10,000 for a game last month at BMO Field.
The move to BMO Field from the Rogers Centre in 2016 has done nothing to stop a downward slide in attendance.
Neither has an ownership change to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which has been in control of the club the past two years. MLSE also owns the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and other sports and entertainment properties.
Manning, also the president of Toronto FC, has been in the top role with the Argos the past two seasons.