KAMLOOPS – Off the field it’s still football on a whiteboard, playbooks and a projector, but each day inside one meeting room on the second floor of the athletic building at Thompson Rivers University where the B.C. Lions hold training camp, Marcello Simmons is performing a transformation.
And he’s not even talking about the game at all.
Before every session, the Lions’ new special teams coordinator starts by identifying a leader in sports or business and talks about the attributes that made them successful. One day it’s a short discussion about the competitive nature of basketball great Bill Russell and another, before he entered hospital prior to his passing, it’s Muhammad Ali.
It’s an approach that wouldn’t fly with every member of the coaching staff, least of all Wally Buono. To this point in camp though, it has gained the respect of the position group that needs to improve the most and may turn out that the arrival of Simmons becomes the Lions’ best move of their off-season.
Simmons says he doesn’t run meetings differently because he sat through too many boring sessions himself as a CFL defensive back for seven seasons, including a three-week stint with the Lions in 2000 during the final days of Greg Mohns as coach.
But as Buono has done in his own way this year Simmons acknowledges the need for a different approach.
“It’s just taking a minute to understand that we’re talking about life through football,” the 45-year-old Simmons said explaining his routine to start the meeting workday. “We want to maximize our time. If I can bring a different approach within that but get guys to rally them I’m all for that. You can’t just line up and tell players to go places because you said so. I’m an old school guy with a bit of new school feel.”
If this ever turns into a football movie, you’d call it To Sir With Love, with Simmons playing the role once portrayed by Sidney Poitier.
Recruited and convinced by defensive coordinator Mark Washington to consider the Lions after two seasons as a special teams assistant with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats under another innovator, Jeff Reinebold, the arrival of Simmons has given the unit new life.
His predecessor, Chuck McMann, was universally loved by the Lions but was routinely being outcoached. McMann thought the players he coached were either too light or disinterested, but the result was still the Lions were losing the field position game badly.
B.C. had the league’s top punter, Richie Leone, last year, but the Lions finished seventh in the league covering kicks and just blocking for Leone was an adventure at times. They were last covering kickoffs and were caught napping on a couple of occasions giving up onside kickoffs.
“Last year was definitely the low point,” one veteran said. “They (Lions) had to do something.”
For that reason alone perhaps, it’s no wonder players are responding to a new message, one compiled by Simmons through his days coaching in the CIS, CFL and a year as a special teams assistant with the Seattle Seahawks.
“Guys are buying,” said Jason Arakgi, the team’s unit leader, who starts the year eight tackles away from the league’s career special teams mark.
“Marcello’s the type of coach you want to bust your bust your butt for,” said Leone.
“You definitely are going to listen to what he says,” said returner Chris Rainey.
Buono, who admits Simmons’ style isn’t for him, had his attention captured immediately during one meeting session last week when he walked in and saw his players giving their position coach a standing ovation. It turns out Simmons had just told his unit he had just learned his wife was back home having delivered the couple a new baby. The response, however, was proof in the eyes of the head coach, much less his players, that what Simmons is doing is working.
“He’s hands on and that’s what a lot of younger guys need,” said Arakgi, who’ll play his first game under Simmons Saturday when the Lions open their pre-season schedule against the Saskatchewan Roughriders (6 p.m., TSN/TSN 1040).
“The whole organization is putting more onus on the unit. He knows that. It’s a big change for us and a lot of guys are bringing back the respect our teams used to have.”
“I understand the value,” said Buono, who also gets the value of sticking to the task at hand and had his wife, Sande, in attendance on his behalf when he was inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame Thursday. “The important thing is that he’s reaching the players.”
Simmons says the focus of his talks isn’t different, just the delivery.
“There isn’t much change in the game,” said Simmons, who admits he would have gone into teaching had he not found a coaching career in football. “You have to relate to them differently but the old-school philosophy is still the same.” It’s similar to the approach employed inside the meeting rooms adjacent to the Lions training camp home after they leave every spring. Reaching one student at a time is considered progress in the classroom and on the field.