As Ticats finally return home, Austin deserves credit for leading the nomads


For the long-nomadic Tiger-Cats, Wednesday is the first day of the rest of their lives.

A semi-exile that had reached 1,002 days neared its end late Monday when team staff began moving material and equipment from the team’s downtown head office to Tim Hortons Field.

On Wednesday, the players return from post-Saskatchewan rest to get acclimatized to their meeting rooms and state-of-the-art training facilities, and to re-familiarize themselves with the luxurious locker-room they could use only on the specific day of the seven games they were allowed to play at the stadium last year.

Thursday, they begin practising in earnest in preparation for the resurgent Argos on Simcoe Day and, judging by the way they’ve handled everything else, it will be as if the past 33 months never happened.

Business as unusual, and why are you asking?

Through daily bus trips from their basement locker-room at head office to practices at McMaster University and, beginning late last August, Tim Hortons Field, dressed in full uniform like house league peewees, the Cats players almost always conducted themselves as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Oh, 40 minutes of lost meeting and practice time per day, inching down a rickety stairway to a field while workers watched in construction hats? Hardly noticed.

The Tiger-Cats – from The Caretaker down to the janitors – have a lot of which to be proud. They have played home games in Guelph, at Mac, in Moncton, at Mac again, and seven one-offs at their new digs, the first few in front of limited audiences and with construction rubble spiking the ambience.

And both years they made the Grey Cup game.

Two-and-a-half seasons of disruption, delays, decimating injuries, roster turnover – hardly anyone in the current lineup would recognize the name Ivor Wynne – and eerie returns to campus, and the Cats never gave any hint of internal revolution, woe-is-me, or using any of the above, let alone all of it, as an excuse.

Kent Austin would not let them … and, at least in public, he himself refused to blame the club’s poor starts in 2013 and 2014, or the rash of injuries, or the usually-weak starts to most games on the potentially corrosive circumstances surrounding the team.

And that is the intention here: to give praise where it’s been due for a long, long time. To Kent Austin and to the home-away-from-the-home-they-didn’t-have, located in the formerly musty bowels of the franchise business office.

One Jarvis has been more than an address from the moment, very soon after his arrival here, that Austin was taken on a tour of the building.

In an inspiration that would actually help solidify a franchise which could easily have gone a little wobbly during week after week of increased costs, diminished income, incessant fan and media complaints and public doubt, Austin suggested that the basement was big enough to house a reasonable facsimile of a clubhouse, with meeting rooms, coaching rooms and other amenities, if the Cats would spring for the money. And, to their credit, Scott Mitchell and Bob Young immediately did.

The result was that the Ticats had somewhere to hang their collective hats and hearts, even in the winter, a place where, over time, they could develop a closeness and appreciation for each other that for a team jockeying from place to place to place for so long, would have been impossible without it. It is a happy place where every cultural idiosyncrasy, every style of music, may be teased but ultimately also is accepted and celebrated.

Austin and his perceptive coaching staff oversaw this, but let it grow organically, trusting not only the leaders, but also the team’s ability to recognize those leaders. This is an extension of the Austin coaching style and it is transferable to the new digs.

This is not to say that the constant shifting didn’t wear on the players at times. If you were around them enough you could see it, and occasionally hear mild references to it. It was time to get into a permanent home where they could make their permanent mark.

But through what we may someday refer to as the Temporary Era, they would not permit themselves to feel temporary. In fact, over the past three decades, this franchise and its players have never seemed so stable.

This is on Austin. He, like all men, is not perfect. But for an otherwise often messy transition from a stadium linked to the past to a stadium linked to the future, he was the perfect man.