One of Kent Austin’s first moves after being hired as the vice president of football operations of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in December of 2012 was to hire Eric Tillman as a consultant. Given Austin’s lack of experience – he’d never been a CFL general manager before – the move a lot of sense, given Tillman’s long history in the league: he’s won Grey Cups with B.C., Toronto and Saskatchewan and also served as the GM of the Ottawa Renegades and the Edmonton Eskimos. The two men have been friends for three decades and enjoy a unique working relationship, one that entered a new phase when Tillman was promoted to general manager of the Ticats earlier this month.
Tillman talked with 3DownNation’s Drew Edwards about his life in football, his bond with Austin and the Ticats’ roster needs.
Drew Edwards: How does Eric Tillman get into football?
Eric Tillman: It’s amazing where life takes you. Growing up in Mississippi, going to school at Ole Miss, I loved athletics but it certainly wasn’t the path I had carved out. I was incredibly fortunate that coming out of university the first opportunity I got was an entry-level position in the NFL with the Houston Oilers. I thought it was going to be a two or three-year opportunity but I got into the stream, things developed and here we are, almost 40 years later.
DE: How did you end up in the CFL?
ET: Everyone can look back in their life and see forks in the road where other people had an impact, where a person’s support or interest or opportunity really changed your life for the better and in my case that was a guy named Joe Galat. He was an assistant coach when I started in Houston and he had come from the CFL and went back to Montreal as the head coach. The staff he put together – and we’re talking about the early 80s – included Wally Buono, George Cortez and Dave Ritchie, all getting their first opportunities to coach in the CFL. And he opened the door for me to come to Canada. Not only am I very grateful to Joe Galat, I think a lot of others are, too.
DE: Does meeting Kent Austin when he was a senior at Ole Miss and you were running the Senior Bowl qualify as one of those life-changing moments, for him or for you?
ET: I think for both of us [laughs]. That is one of the ultimate examples of how when you look back at life, it’s amazing that people you cross paths with can have such a significant impact. It was January of 1986 that I invited Kent to play in the Senior Bowl. He’d suffered a knee injury and couldn’t play but he came down and stayed the entire week and us both being Ole Miss guys, we developed a good relationship. I introduced him to Dan Rambo, who was then the assistant general manager with Saskatchewan and Dan and I talked about how Kent might be a terrific player in the CFL. Then you look at all the other times our paths have crossed: trading for him when I was in B.C., to giving him his first coaching opportunity in Ottawa to his first head coaching job in Saskatchewan and then for him opening the door for me in Hamilton. It’s certainly a very unique relationship.
DE: What’s that dynamic like?
ET: We are polar opposites, which is probably a very good balancing act for both of us [laughs]. When I look back on my career, he’s certainly played a huge role in much of the success that we’ve enjoyed and I hope that I’ve been helpful to him in some ways. There’s a trust – and you can’t overemphasize that word – there’s a mutual respect. We have a strong enough relationship that I can disagree and tell him why because he knows that I care about him and I care about the club and that I understand that there’s one decision-maker when it comes to football, and that’s him.
DE: Is this situation – being named general manager but with Austin retaining control of football operations – is that unusual for you and does it pose challenges?
ET: No, because of the relationship we have. When I was a consultant, when I was director of U.S. scouting, we had the same kind of dialogue. At the end of the day, all you care about is winning. That’s our collective goal, to win a championship for the fans in Hamilton. One of the refreshing things about this organization is that we have good, smart, team-oriented people and it’s not about titles or who has the final say. It’s about working together collectively for the betterment of the club.
DE: You’ve won three Grey Cups as a general manager. Is there one that stands out above the others?
ET: I’ve been blessed with some great opportunities and success is a collective effort but they’ve all been fun. It’s kind of like your children; each one brings a special joy. In B.C., in 1994, we were the first team to play against a Baltimore team made up of all American players and the whole country was behind us, so that was incredibly special. In Toronto [in 1997] we had one of the greatest teams in CFL history and that’s something that has special meaning. And, quite frankly, there’s nothing like winning a championship in Saskatchewan. Each is special in a different way.
DE: I think you have been more involved in Ticats player personnel these last three years that fans realize. Is that true?
ET: Let’s give credit where credit is due. Kent is very, very bright, he asks great questions and seeks out multiple opinions before going forward with the philosophy he thinks is best for the club. Certainly, we’ve had many, many discussions going back to the days when I was just a consultant. But across the board, Kent includes all of us, discusses things with us and you have to give him credit for where the club is. I think they success we’ve enjoyed during his tenure is a credit to him and speaks volumes about our organization collectively.
DE: You’ve found some excellent players during your time in the CFL. Do you have a specific philosophy or methodology?
ET: The most important thing from a personnel stand point is to understand what your coaches need and want from a schematic standpoint. It’s not just about finding players, it’s about finding players that fit the schemes on both sides of the ball and in the locker room. One of the great things about the Hamilton situation is that there’s such clarity in terms of what our coaches want. I’ve also done this a long time and have a ton of contacts.
DE: Is there a particular need this team needs to address this off-season?
ET: You can always improve and Kent would be the first one tell you that there are areas where we can get stronger, where we want more depth, where we want more flexibility. In a league that’s driven by Canadian content, you want to have as much ratio flexibility as you can. What we’ve tried to do is to give our coaches depth and ratio flexibility while also giving us salary cap flexibility in the decision-making. We have a good football team but competition is always a good thing and that’s not going to change. Our mindset is always going to be to bring in good football players, to create strong competition. If the coaches have difficult decisions to make, that’s a good thing.
DE: I’m only going to ask one direct player personnel question: who is going to kick for this team next season?
ET: At this point, we don’t have that answer. We have discussed different scenarios and we understand that this is an area that’s going to be critically important and watched very closely in training camp. Justin Medlock was a special player but there is always a changing of the guard. When I was in Ottawa, we brought in Lawrence Tynes and he had never kicked in the league. He kicked 85 to 90 per cent for a couple of years before he left for the NFL. In Edmonton, we brought in Swayze Waters and he’s had a great career. At some point, in a salary cap league, the reality of the business forces you to go young. It’s not always what you’d prefer but its the reality. Kent’s a guy that has extreme confidence in himself and his coaching staff. At positions where we need to go young, he feels players will emerge and hopefully that will be the case in our kicking game.
DE: You’ve been in this league a long time but do people talk enough about your successes? They certainly talk a lot about the Ricky Ray trade but do they talk about other positive things?
ET: If you asked my wife and my mother, they would say ‘no’ [laughs.] But everybody has a different perspective. I understand the criticism of they Ricky Ray trade but I wish I wish that trade could be evaluated with some form of balance. The original reaction was we traded Ricky for a jar of jelly beans, and, sadly, many continue to advance that false narrative four years later. But let’s try to look back at it fairly. In return for Ricky we received the Argos first round pick in the 2012 draft, Steven Jyles and Grant Shaw, who has developed into one of the more effective all-purpose kickers in our league. That first rounder from Toronto, which was second overall, was flipped to B.C. for their fourth overall pick and a second rounder. Know who we drafted with those picks? Austin Pasztor and Justin Capicciotti. Think about how good those two are. Justin, who wasn’t protected in the Ottawa expansion draft, has become one of the top Canadians in our league, with double-digit sacks in each of the past two seasons. And, Austin Pasztor, whom we viewed as the key to the trade, beat the odds and made the NFL as an undrafted free agent. He has now started almost 30 games in NFL between Jacksonville and Cleveland – mostly at tackle. Let me emphasize that – he’s a Canadian offensive lineman starting in the National Football League. So, looking back, we secured the rights to three high quality Canadians via the Ricky Ray trade – Capicciotti, Shaw and Pasztor. And, if that trio were in Edmonton now with Mike Reilly, the trade would be viewed very, very differently. Unfortunately, Ed didn’t protect Justin in the expansion draft, and, more importantly, I failed big time in rolling the dice and not getting Austin Pasztor signed. The saddest thing is this: After Minnesota cut Austin in 2012 as a rookie, he flew up to Edmonton for a visit. He had a great time but wanted to wait just a little longer on another NFL shot. A week later, his agent verbally accepted our offer, but the day before Austin was supposed to fly in and sign with us, the Jaguars offered him a contract. He was just hours away from becoming an Eskimo. But it didn’t happen, and, using football as an analogy, if a game ends with you on the one yard line, you don’t get points for being close.”
DE: The trade also allowed Edmonton to save a ton of cap space.
ET: It did, about $250,000 per year. Ed spent that wisely, later, on Mike Reilly. And I think Ricky has started 42 or 43 out of 72 regular season games as an Argo. But, if we’re going to talk about his injuries, we have to be fair to Ricky and remind everyone that he was the key to Toronto’s 2012 Grey Cup championship team.
DE: How do you view your time in Edmonton now?
ET: No doubt, many mistakes were made that were my responsibility. But, if you`re looking at the totality of my tenure, you acknowledge that the Eskimos were 2-8 when I was hired, and, among those eight losses, three were to Calgary by a combined score of 144-37. Do the math – that’s losing to your arch rival by more than 35 points a game. Additionally, Edmonton had only earned one winning season in the previous four years. By comparison, when I was fired 26 months later we had a 23-21 regular season record, and, in 2011, we also hosted the first home playoff game at Commonwealth since 2004. But, since the positives are rarely mentioned, people are genuinely shocked when they realize we actually had a winning record.”
DE: One of the first moves Austin made after you joined the Ticats was to trade Nathan Kanya and Carson Rockhill to Edmonton for Simoni Lawrence, Jeremiah Masoli and Greg Wojt. In retrospect, that trade is incredibly lopsided and you would have known all three from your time with the Eskimos.
ET: Yes, all three of those players were guys I knew well from Edmonton and Kent and I discussed them at length prior to the trade. But, let’s give credit where credit is due: Kent negotiated that deal with Ed. He simply sought my advice in advance, which is what he does on a regular basis with several of us. He’s very smart in that way and in many other ways, too. He listens to everyone on our staff before making decisions, but, ultimately, he is the decision maker.
DE: You’re 58 now and you’ve done a lot of different things in CFL. What’s left for you to do?
ET: Às you get older, you look back and reflect on how fortunate you’ve been along the way. You think about the mistakes you’ve made, too, and you look for the opportunities you still have to be helpful to others. We have some terrific young guys in our organization like Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang, and if I can help with their growth and development – even in a small way – that would be very rewarding. Each of them has so much ability. The truth is we have an organization full of talented, team oriented individuals – on the football side and on the business side, too. Collectively, we all have one goal – winning the Grey Cup. It wouldn’t get much better than seeing Bob Young, Scott Mitchell, Kent Austin and Angelo Mosca riding in a Grey Cup parade. Our fans have waited a long time and they deserve to savour a moment like that.
Note: This interview has been edited for length.