If there’s a risk in hiring Stefan Ptaszek as the new offensive coordinator of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, it’s this: Kent Austin doesn’t really know the man.
Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection.
It began in 1994 when Ptaszek was the ninth overall pick in the CFL Draft, selected as a receiver out of Wilfrid Laurier by then-B.C. general manager Eric Tillman. He arrived to rookie camp later that spring to work out with the other first-year players and the team’s quarterbacks: starter Kent Austin and back up Danny McManus.
Ptaszek would hurt himself in training camp and return to Laurier for a final year so he never played a game with Austin, who was in Toronto by the time he returned the following season. But on the final day of rookie camp, Austin and Danny Mac showed up with refreshments and tried to make what for many would be their final pro experience a good one.
“A lot of these rookies were [being released] I mean, you’re never going to see most of these players again, why do you care?” Ptaszek remembers. “I thought it was really classy.”
Austin and Ptaszek followed different football trajectories over the next 20-plus years but Tillman remained the one constant in both their lives, helping Austin land his first coaching gig in Ottawa as well as his first head job in Saskatchewan. While there’s little question that Austin and Ptaszek have done their best to forge a fast friendship during a speedy recruitment process, Tillman – now general manager in Hamilton – was able to provide each man with insight on the other.
“I was retired for three years and I wanted to come back and have a better experience and the first person I called was Eric Tillman. He not only drafted me, he gave my second chance,” Ptaszek said. “He’s a mentor and someone that I have reached out to throughout my career to ask questions. Kent’s friendship with Eric holds high, high value with me.”
Ptaszek also saw the family side of Austin when his son Wes, a local high school football player, visited McMaster for a recruiting visit a month ago. This wasn’t Austin the coach but instead Austin in Dad mode.
“He was so focussed on his son’s academics and making sure that he was going to be in the right environment,” Ptaszek said. “Seeing him as a father, the respect for the son’s career, his support for him provided as much insight into the human being as I could possibly have.”
Even Ptaszek’s wife Karen has her own sense of Austin. A producer for TSN, she was an editor on a series of roundtable discussions among CFL coaches that featured Austin and appeared on the network last year. She also knows Tillman from his time as an analyst on the network.
It was all these small threads weaved together – along with five hours worth of interviews and film breakdown – that has allowed Austin and Ptaszek to feel confident that the partnership can work. But it is an usual one, to be sure.
Generally speaking, head coaches have well-established working relationships with their coordinators, in the same way that many organizations often prefer to hire within. The man Ptaszek is replacing, Tommy Condell, worked with Austin for three seasons at Cornell University, then three more in Hamilton. The new offensive line coach, Mike Markuson, was with Austin at Ole Miss.
Ptaszek, who is coming off an 11-year stint as a successful head coach at McMaster, understands the uniqueness of his situation and the potential pitfalls. But his answer in addressing those concerns was, well, Austin-esque.
“There are things you can control and things you can’t. What you can control is the people you can work with, and the skill set that you have,” Ptaszek said. “With the team that we have and how committed I am to making this work, I think this is a risk worth taking.”