While the Hamilton Tiger-Cats may have lost Saturday’s contest to the Calgary Stampeders with a truly putrid first half in which they fell behind 39-1, it was the second half that may cost them the season.
With the game out of hand after 30 minutes, Ticats head coach Kent Austin implored his players at halftime to focus on execution, to show some pride and confidence in themselves. A win was out of reach, but they could still make a statement before the night was out.
How did his team respond? By giving up touchdowns on the first three Calgary drives of the third quarter – with back up quarterback and Canadian Andrew Buckley at the helm – while failing to register a single point on offence.
The final score was 60-1, the second-worst defeat in franchise history and the third-worst in CFL history. The only game on the ledger with a larger margin of defeat for Hamilton: an 82-14 loss to Montreal in 1956.
Even more concerning: Austin couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say if he thought his players had continued to play hard until the final whistle.
“I can’t speak for the entire team,” Austin said. “I’ll know that better when I talk to the individual coaches and when we watch film.
There have been plenty of ups and downs during Austin’s four-plus seasons at the helm of the Ticats, his record now at 36-41. But even during the lowest points – and the 1-6 start in 2014, the struggles after quarterback Zach Collaros tore knee ligaments in 2015 – there was never any question that Austin had the room, that players were giving it their all.
That’s not a given anymore. And if players have “let go of the rope,” as Austin put it, then there may not be a way back for this group of players and this coaching staff.
There could be changes in the offing but it appears that Austin is safe, at least for now. Owner Bob Young, who was asked for comment after the second-worst loss in team history, said that Austin or team CEO Scott Mitchell would deliver any news on changes.
“As is obvious – what we have been doing has not been working. We are working on improvements. Some immediate, some longer term,” Young said. “Kent, Scott will be in touch as soon as we have anything to report.”
Unless Austin is being asked to deliver the eulogy at his own football funeral, it sounds like he’s staying on and Mitchell cautioned against making a rash decision.
Clearly we all need to be much better than we have been. Only Bob Young and our fans are immune from the justified criticism that we all deserve. Bob and our fans are doing their part, the rest of us are not,” Mitchell said. “When you have an embarrassing loss like last night, our passion for the team gets the best of all of us. What we need right now though is prudent thought that leads to solutions, not emotional responses.”
For his part, Austin acknowledged there would speculation on his employment status.
“I understand that. I can’t focus on that. I told the team, ‘we always start with ourselves first as a staff. I look at myself first, hold myself accountable,” Austin said. “I’m pretty honest and self aware and I’m not going to hide behind anything, I’m going to be very honest in evaluating that, getting better and doing right by our team.”
Collaros’ job is also safe, despite being pulled in the third quarter in favour of back up Jeremiah Masoli having completed 14 of his 21 passes for 102 yards and a pick six. Austin said his struggling starter will be behind centre against the 5-0 Edmonton Eskimos on Friday.
“There might be a situation where Jeremiah has to play this year and we were down by quite a bit,” Austin said. “It was an opportunity to get him playing time in a real game and take hits off of Zach.”
As they have been for much of this season, Austin’s post-game remarks were delivered in thoughtful, measured tones – a far cry from the terse, often confrontational media sessions that have often followed losses during his time in Hamilton. In other words, he’s made an effort to change.
Whether he can manifest the same kind of evolution within his locker room remains to be seen. He delivered a longer-than-usual speech to his players following the loss, echoing much of the same sentiments he expressed at half-time.
“The hard providences are going to be there and what we’re going to do is demonstrate the quality of individuals that we are and get back to work,” he said. “But this a pretty low point but I have a strong belief in our ability to overcome those things.”
Whether they heard him is anyone’s guess.