Tom Higgins has been in this situation before, and he hopes history is doomed to repeat itself.
Higgins was the head coach of three Canadian Football League teams — Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal — for a combined eight years, led the Eskimos to the 2003 Grey Cup, spent 11 seasons as a GM or assistant GM, and was the CFL’s director of officiating from 2008 to 2013.
But his first job on the sidelines, two years after his professional playing career ended, was as defensive co-ordinator for the University of Calgary Dinos, with whom he won the Vanier Cup in 1983. He left for a pro coaching career, also in Calgary, after the 1984 university season, his third with the Dinos.
So, talk about your déjà vu all over again.
“Where does 32 years go?” Higgins mused aloud this week from Calgary while he prepared to accompany the Dinos to Hamilton for Saturday’s Vanier Cup as — guess what? — their defensive co-ordinator.
“I was coaching here before any of these kids were born. And now I’m coaching the kids of some of the players I coached back then.”
When Higgins was fired by the Montreal Alouettes last summer after a year and a half at the helm, Dinos coach Wayne Harris Jr., son of the legendary Hall of Fame linebacker, called and said, “You’re always welcome in Calgary.”
For years Higgins and his family had made Calgary their home base — he operated out of there in his final three seasons with the CFL head office — so he spent last season as a consultant to the team, while Harris was named the country’s top coach in his first year on the job. This year, Higgins took over the defence full time.
“The players are heads and shoulders above 30 years ago,” he says of the difference three decades makes. “The technology they have is so much better, the training and coaching they’re getting is better. They’re bigger, faster and stronger. The old guys would say, ‘but not as tough,’ but that’s not true at all.”
Higgins said he’s been too busy to pay everyday attention to the CFL so would offer no comment on what’s transpired in his old department, officiating, this troubled season.
But he has schooled himself on the Laval Rouge et Or, the Dinos’ opponents on Saturday.
“They’re well-coached, always,” he says of the eight-time Canadian champions. “They have a strong quarterback (Hugo Richard), who can run, they have a well-balanced attack and are very solid on D. And they’re very confident.”
And the Dinos?
“It’s next man up for us,” he said. “Last year, the U breezed through the season and lost the conference finals to UBC, and had Andrew Buckley (two-time Hec Crighton Trophy winner), the starting centre for the Argos (Sean McEwen) and a running back for the Tiger-Cats (Mercer Timmis).
“So we knew this year was probably going to be a meat-and-potatoes type of team. And we fought through a lot of injuries to get where we’re at.”
One of those injuries was the five-week sidelining of quarterback Jimmy Underdahl with a knee injury, but Underdahl returned to lead the Dinos to a 50-24 victory over St. Francis Xavier X-Men in Saturday’s Mitchell Bowl.
Underdahl is in his last year of eligibility, and among those vying to replace him next year will be current high schooler Cole Belway, whose father, Brian Belway, played on the defensive line for both the Dinos and the Stampeders.
And, of course, his father played, in both places, for Tom Higgins.
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