The Montreal Alouettes addition of Mike Sherman to be their 24th head coach brings credibility to a tattered brand but his NFL resume hardly guarantees any success north of the border.
Mixed Results for NFL coaches in Canada
The Alouettes have had pretty good luck so far with hiring NFL-turned-CFL recruits. Marv Levy won a pair of Grey Cups in the 1970’s between stints as an NFL assistant and another leading the Buffalo Bills to a record four straight Super Bowl appearances.
Marc Trestman won a couple of championships too. After piling up an impressive resume running high-powered offences with the likes of Steve Young and Jerry Rice in the NFL, he came to Montreal for his first ever head coaching job. His five seasons of three down ball worked out so well that it got him the Chicago Bears head coaching gig.
But for every success story, there’s been a failure. Forrest Gregg was plenty qualified to coach the Cincinatti Bengals to a Super Bowl 16 appearance and later Sherman’s Green Bay Packers. But his 13-39 record with the Toronto Argonauts and Shreveport Pirates would indicate he was hardly a fit for our league.
Bart Andrus did yeoman’s work tutoring NFL legend Steve McNair as Tennessee Titans quarterbacks coach before deciding to give Canada a try in 2009 when the Argos gave him their head coaching job. 3 wins and 15 losses later, Bart was fired, back in the states and instructing his new employer to not accept any interview requests from Canadian media.
Needless to say, that experiment didn’t go so well.
Humility the key
Trestman didn’t name drop and in fact, earned brownie points for his show of respect to Canada. He instructed his players to think about where they would be without this country during the Canadian national anthem before each game. Bud Grant and Marv Levy were the same way. Humble and not overly egotistical despite their tremendous success.
June Jones, of Atlanta Falcons head coaching fame, took on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 0-8 disaster with enthusiasm last August. He couldn’t put enough lipstick on that pig to make it well enough to qualify for the playoffs but did post a winning record down the stretch and offered hope for 2018.
Others who have failed, in particular Andrus and Gregg, strutted into Canada hiring their friends from down south with limited to no Canadian Football experience. University of Colorado Buffaloes ex-boss and former ESPN analyst Dan Hawkins started his Montreal Alouette adventure by going with Arizona Cardinals assistant Turk Schonert to run his offence despite having no Canadian football experience either. The whole thing made franchise quarterback Anthony Calvillo so cranky that the duo was history after just five games.
Lesson learned: This league is different. Not inferior to NFL or U.S. college ball.
That would be good advice for any coach loaded up with high level experience about to run a CFL sideline who happens to be unfamiliar with the nuances of the Canadian game.
Rely on experienced CFL Assistants
No-one should expect Mike Sherman to hire a bunch of Canadians he’s never met. Quite the opposite. His contacts in the NCAA and National Football League are an asset and he will need people he’s familiar with and can trust in order to build a winner in Montreal. But it’s equally important for him to put long time CFL people into key roles.
June Jones recognized he still had much to learn about the three-down rulebook when he put former McMaster University coach Stefan Ptaszek in charge of the offensive play-calling. Jones would pick a play he liked and Ptaszek would match it to a play in their pre-existing system and radio it down to quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. It takes selflessness to for a boss with NFL credentials to put his ego aside far enough to defer to a Canadian college coach like that. And it worked via a 6-4 record.
Good Exposure for Canadian Football
The 2018 season will open up with no less than one third of all teams run by sideline bosses with NFL head coaching experience. The successful Marc Trestman era in Montreal has opened a pipeline to Canada never seen before. It earned him(Trestman) his head coaching promotion to the Chicago Bears and later brought him back to Canada to re-load the Toronto Argonauts for their Grey Cup run back in November.
It has no doubt contributed to both June Jones and Mike Sherman trying the Canadian game too. The high six-figure salaries being doled out to CFL head coaches irks the players union but has also established this league as a viable landing spot for high-level pro football coaches.
A win-win scenario for the league and it’s followers. When a big name from down south succeeds here, it attracts more big names trying to duplicate that experience. When an NFL name fails here, it earns some badly needed respect for the CFL as a legitimate competition with a higher calibre of play than the U.S. college ranks.
Might even help commissioner Randy Ambrosie get that sweet American TV deal he’s craving(unlikely but never say never).
Success for the league is virtually guaranteed with this. For the teams actually hiring these coaches, not so much.