Yes, Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach Kent Austin is a hyper-competitive guy and, yes, it’s one the many reasons he’s been so successful in the CFL, both as a coach and a player.
But that win-at-all-costs mentality doesn’t fully explain – or justify – his behaviour on Friday night when TSN cameras caught him intentionally bumping into a Toronto Argonaut player who had made his way onto the Ticat bench at the end of the fourth quarter play.
Pretty much everybody involved professional football is well versed in the ways of dog-eat-dog. The players, coaches, team presidents, ball boys – it’s almost impossible to get to the CFL level without an uncontrollable desire to win hardwired in. Former Hamilton Tiger-Cats general manager Bob O’Billovich once said he’d never “let” his grandson win at anything – he had to earn victories, even at Tiddlywinks. In the world Obie lived in his entire adult life, that hardly made him unique.
What does make Austin different, however, is his emotion. Or, more exactly, his willingness to experience and show that emotion in many situations where his peers do not. Most professional coaches pride themselves on keeping an even keel, lest the highs and lows of winning and losing have an undue impact on both themselves and their team.
Austin doesn’t bother with any of that. On the sideline during games, Austin’s emotional state is played out in real time, with the TSN cameras hunting to find him at every opportunity. He is charming and affable in interviews with the media after wins and can be downright snarky after losses. Austin once screamed at a guy he thought was clandestinely filming practice, then – when it turned out to be an innocent iPhone snap – apologized and made the guy’s day by posing for pictures and signing an autograph. The guy was a huge Riders’ fan, it turns out, and he walked away beaming.
Authenticity as one of Austin’s leadership tentpoles and it’s difficult to be real while constantly trying to throttle your emotions. And getting a genuine human reaction from a coach after a win or a loss can’t be criticized in media-savvy world where players and coaches read constantly from the same book of boilerplate quotes. The byproduct of Austin’s anger is often a great line or sideline reaction shot and, most importantly, it’s real.
But while that emotion is – like his competitive nature – a key element to his on-field success, every now and again it can result in a momentary lapse in judgement. And that’s what happened on Friday.
Coaches can’t mix it up with players on a physical level or even get involved in the incessant trash talk battle that permeates every game. Austin still experiences the game as if he were a player, with all the same intensity and emotion, and while he is an integral part of on-field events he must remained a step above the fray.
Austin knows it, too. While his post-game comments feigning ignorance of the incident – again, given with the post-game emotional heat still on high – didn’t feel particular genuine, the apology he issued Sunday was both fulsome and contrite. In addition to a competitive nature and an emotional disposition, Austin also possess something not commonly found among football types: self-awareness.
And while we’re in no way making excuses here, let it also be said that the target of his shoulder-bump – former Ticat receiver Dave Stala – is hardly a neophyte in the dark arts of psychological warfare, football style. Stala chirps kickers, talks trash, plays mind games and was doing some or all of that when Austin bumped him. He’s unlikely to be offended by any of this: he probably finds it hilarious.
The CFL announced late Sunday they have fined Austin $5,000 “inappropriate conduct.” It seems unlikely to change the general perception of the man, however: he’s already a polarizing figure and this incident falls into either narrative quite easily.
Austin won’t make this mistake again but nor will he change the fundamental essence of what’s made him undeniably great as a player and as a coach. Those are both good things.