Q&A: Tom Higgins on his firing from Alouettes

We caught up with Tom Higgins, the former Eskimo and Alouette head coach currently living in Calgary, about his dismissal from Montreal, off-season interviews and what he’s doing at the moment.

Justin Dunk: When you look back on your days in Montreal, how do you view it now that you’ve had time to think about it?

Tom Higgins: “I was coach of the year two times in the CFL and that was probably one of the best coaching jobs within the coaching staff. The head coach gets honoured but it’s the staff that allows you to have success as well as the players. When we were 1-7 I stood up and said this team can go 8-2. That was unprecedented. Everything just aligned quickly. It was just one of those magical situations that happened. I don’t know if it would ever happen again. The only thing I should’ve done was say nine [wins].”

“The last game of the [2014] regular season, we had never been to Hamilton, we had never been in the locker room and we weren’t allowed to practice there the day before – we didn’t even know how to get in. We actually drove around that stadium before the game in our bus trying to get in. And then the players are going, how do we get to the field? It was a snowball effect because had we won that game Hamilton would’ve been knocked out of the playoffs and we finish in first and get the bye.”

“Marco Brouillette got hurt [in the 2014 Eastern Final against Hamilton] and it was a sickening feeling because he was the quarterback on our punt team. And then we had to put in a young kid who just hadn’t played as much. And a punt returner [Brandon Banks] had a career in one football game.”

“Fast forward one more year – this is a quarterback driven league. We started the football season with two quarterbacks that had CFL experience. Jonathan Crompton did an unbelievable job. His strength is his great leadership skills. Game-after-game reporters would say, ‘He only completed 50 percent.’” Yeah but he won. One of my best friends, who is no longer with us, said there is only one way to grade a quarterback, and that’s on his ability to win, that was Ronnie Lancaster. Is he a winner and can you win with him? That was Jonathan Crompton’s 2014 football season. He was a winner. Any deficiencies he had with being able to complete up into 70 or 80 percent it was irrelevant. It didn’t matter because he did an unbelievable job as well as the coaches to give us that chance. In 2015 he separates his shoulder. And then our backup quarterback from Hamilton [Dan LeFevour] who was going to takeover – second play in the second half he messes up his shoulder. Now we have no quarterbacks. It’s hard to win without a quarterback.”

“Obviously, the owner has the opportunity to make whatever decisions he wants. It was quite unique to actually have a Gatorade shower one night and then the next night you’re unemployed. The tough thing is I’ve put in 32 years in the CFL and I don’t know if there is a 33rd year. If that’s it, it was a great run. If not then I look forward to the next challenge and opportunity.”

JD: Was your firing by the Alouettes unexpected?

TH: “Absolutely it caught me off guard. I happened to be on the bus coming home with the team. My phone rang. Mr. Wetenhall called and said, ‘You’re being relieved of your duties, Jim Popp will be taking over, and the press release goes out in 30 minutes.’” This was a little bit different than anything that I’ve experienced before because of social media. My biggest concern was getting to the office and getting on the phone and getting ahold of my wife, we have three grown children. I just wanted to make sure that she was able to get ahold of them because exactly to the minute, at the 30-minute mark, social media had it that I was relieved of duties. Any place that I’ve been I’ve always had the opportunities to say goodbye and talk to the team, but that wasn’t going to be the case because the season was going on. You have no regrets. One of my biggest concerns when I did take the job, I said the biggest challenge is when we don’t have a quarterback how would I be evaluated? If it was on different standards hopefully we would’ve found a quarterback, but that just didn’t happen.”

JD: Did you have any coaching job interviews last off-season?

TH: “I actually had a chance to talk with Saskatchewan [about being the head coach and general manager]. We met here in Calgary. I talked to them well in advance of the season being concluded. Obviously, that [position] opened and closed real quickly after the season was over. It was while the year was still going on. Their president was working at it. He was doing a lot of due diligence. That was going to be his biggest responsibility and job to find that next person. Obviously, he was very pleased to be able to get somebody [Chris Jones] who had just won the Grey Cup coming off a high, and was able to take a whole coaching staff. I just never had that second interview, not that it was necessary because he thought that when he found his guy it was a done deal. You understand and respect that.”

JD: Were there any other coaching opportunities that presented themselves?

TH: “I didn’t have any more interviews. There was an opening in Edmonton, but I’m not sure how comfortable they might’ve been to bring me back, and that’s not for me to venture. The run there was 11 football seasons, which is an unbelievable amount of time, and we never missed the playoffs. When I finished up as GM and head coach [with Edmonton], the last four years, we finished in first three times, second once, made two Grey Cup appearances and won a Grey Cup. And when I was let go there, people wondered why. I said don’t ask me I don’t know why. They said they wanted a fresh face – I’ve been here long enough so they made a change.”

“When coaches ask about the profession, I say you have to understand you need a loving wife, a loyal dog and a great quarterback, and not necessarily in that order. We really didn’t have a quarterback, but we developed quarterbacks in Edmonton. I was able to bring in Ricky Ray and Jason Maas and they both competed against one another. We had a two-quarterback system until Ricky just took it over. Obviously, the young man is still playing today. It’s a quarterback driven league.”

“Sometimes you have to sit out. I absolutely love it and I look forward to the next possibility or opportunity if it presents itself. There are absolutely no guarantees. Professional coaching is one of the best jobs in the world and one of the worst. You can be proficient, you can be good, you can be even great, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee you employment.”

JD: What are you up to now?

TH: “I started a camp and we’re coaching young kids football skills – Canadian Football Academy. I have other things to do, but I’m still keeping my eye on [the CFL] because when the call comes I want to make sure I know what’s happening and what the vibe is to be able to run somebody’s organization.”