One of the most significant decisions facing the Hamilton Tiger-Cats this off-season surrounds the fate of vice-president of football operations Kent Austin. But if it’s up to a number of Ticat players, he won’t be back.
Close to a half dozen players who spoke to the Spectator say they believe Austin’s return would significantly reduce the likelihood of several prominent free agents-to-be re-signing with the club as well the team’s ability to recruit players from around the league. They also believe it’s unlikely June Jones will return if Austin remains in his current role.
The players spoke on the condition of anonymity due to Austin’s position of authority within the organization.
Sources say the problems began during 2016’s disappointing 7-11 campaign, which included the departure of offensive coordinator Tommy Condell just before the opening of training camp. It was also the final season of long-time defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer.
“Things were OK as long as Tommy and O were here but after Tommy left, things started to go down hill,” said one player. “Then when Orlondo left, things really got worse. Those guys were buffers.”
With Austin entering his fifth season as head coach in 2017, the Ticats started 0-8 – including a 60-1 loss to the Calgary Stampeders. Multiple players said there was disorganization behind the scenes that was significantly impacting the team’s on-field performance.
“Guys really started to get frustrated in training camp. Then when we started losing, there were guys speaking up in the locker room, guys who you wouldn’t expect to speak out,” one player said.
Said another: “It became evident he had lost the locker room.”
When June Jones took over as head coach in late August, players said the environment around the team changed dramatically for the better. Not only were their cohesive offensive and defensive game plans but the mood around club improved significantly. A number of players have spoken on the record about the cultural shift.
“I’m really, really impressed with June. He’s one of the best football coaches I’ve ever been around and what he did with an 0-8 team was pretty impressive,” said Luke Tasker during locker room clean out on Saturday and who played for Austin at Cornell in college. “I would be very pleased to see him hired here next year.”
But while the players were buying into Jones’ notion that they could make the playoffs despite their bad start, the decision to trade two veterans in defensive end John Chick and running back C.J. Gable for draft picks and neg list players caused some to wonder if Austin was on board with the effort.
“We let John Chick go for nothing, a guy that was great for the locker room. Same with C.J., we traded him for who?” one player asked. “Nobody that could help us right now.”
Said another: “‘Sabotage’ is a word that’s been thrown around a lot in our locker room.”
Even though he is no longer the head coach, multiple players say they believe Austin isn’t an asset to the organization.
“You look at the coaching decisions he made, some of the staffing decisions he made, some of the personnel decisions he made and you lose faith in his ability to make good decisions,” a player said. “If you don’t have faith in the vice-president of football operations, how do you have faith the organization is going anywhere?”
The Ticats have a number of key players set to become free agents in February including quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, thousand-yard receivers Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker, defensive tackle Ted Laurent and linebacker Larry Dean.
“Speedy has been telling everybody that he won’t re-sign if Kent is still around in any capacity,” one player said. “I think some other guys are in the same boat.”
While Jones has said he would like to return and that he has a constructive working relationship with Austin, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Jones’ meetings about his future have been with CEO Scott Mitchell and not Austin, who is technically his boss.
“I’ve never seen those two have a conversation and I don’t think June wants to be in an environment like that. He’s not that kind of guy,” one player said. “I think June can have a relationship with anyone and he did what he had to do to be here but they weren’t on the same page in any way.”
Said another: “Honestly, if June’s gone and Kent’s still here next season, I have no idea what would happen. But it wouldn’t be good.”