Just prior to the start of the 2017 season, Kent Austin was asked if coaching was the favourite of the many hats he wore for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
“Yeah. It doesn’t mean I’ll always be doing it,” Austin said. “But coaching is the best part of it, for sure.”
There is, however, one thing Kent Austin loves even more than coaching and it’s the reason why he ultimately chose to step down on Thursday: winning.
The Ticats are 0-8 and Austin has decided, rightly or wrongly, that his presence in the locker room and on the sidelines was one of the reasons why. My colleague Steve Milton asked Austin at Thursday’s presser if he thought the team “needed to hear another voice.” That’ a polite way of asking if Austin thought he’d lost the room.
“That’s part of it. You think of all of that,” Austin said. “That comes down to the individual player level. I believe very strongly that they’ll respond very positively to June.”
That’s an equally diplomatic way of saying “maybe.” A CFL locker room isn’t a homogenous entity in which 70 players think the same way: each guy has his own take on what the head coach does – or doesn’t – bring to the table. Still, it was clear that enough of Austin’s core audience has begun to foster varying degrees of doubt that he could put them into position to win games.
Before we go too far in dissecting how and why that happened, let’s take a second to remember the good times. Austin led the Ticats to two straight Grey Cup appearances in 2013 and 2014 and hosted a home playoff date in each of his four seasons at the helm. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when this fan base would have given the right arm of its Bernie Faloney jersey for that level of competency.
Remember too that he did it with an extra degree of difficulty brought on by stadium construction. The team played in Guelph, practiced at Mac, had their locker rooms downtown on Jarvis Street, then dealt with more chaos courtesy of stadium delays. Austin’s focus and intensity – things that would inevitably contribute to his coaching downfall – were certainly assets during this period.
In those days, however, there were built-in buffers. Offensive coordinator Tommy Condell and defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer were the relentlessly positive yang to Austin’s hyper-intense yin and their departures – Condell before last season, Steinauer before this one – robbed the team of its much-needed emotional equilibrium.
After four plus seasons, some players simply tired of Austin and his ways: that hardly makes him unique in the increasingly transient world of professional coaching.
Jones is a very different kettle of fish than Austin. He’s taken a detailed, hands-on approach to coaching in the short time since his arrival and his demeanour is, for now anyway, more upbeat. He doesn’t carry the weight of the last four years – which have included a series of soul-crushing defeats in big games – or all of the recent losses.
With NFL and NCAA head coaching gigs already on his resume and as one of the godfathers of the run-and-shoot – and therefore modern offensive football – Jones’ legacy is perfectly safe no matter what happens next. His contract runs only through this season but he won’t be concerned by the uncertainty – he seems perfectly content to enjoy this ride for however long it lasts.
That said, whether Jones can master the unique challenges of coaching in the CFL remains to be seen. Replay challenges, the three-down version of late game management, the ratio – these are things he has very little experience with. This isn’t his staff, these aren’t his players and he met Austin for the first time three weeks ago: those would be red flags in any other situation.
But with Austin out of the coaching picture, that issue has been removed as the team looks to make decisions about the future of a number of its big-name, high-cost players. Whether down performances by a number of the team’s stars is an anomaly or a new, unfortunate reality needs to be determined ASAP if this team is to reload in time for 2018.
Austin hinted at issues in player procurement and development at his Thursday press conference and, given the team’s performance thus far in 2017, that’s hard to argue with. This is a team that is still, four years after the Austin regime took over, signing guys off the street and playing them the same week. That can and should happen in the early days of a rebuild: it should not be a staple of year five.
“I need to focus on the operational side right now,” Austin said. “We need to do some things to get that piece of the puzzle going in a positive direction so there’ll be a tangible impact on the football field.”
Whether Austin remains content with life exclusively in the front office is another open question. He’s been a player and coach all his life and that competitive jones is hard to replace – it certainly can’t be done from an executive suite, where he’ll be forced to watch the game without the ability to immediately impact the outcome.
And so we’ll see. The next ten games will tell us a lot about Austin, Jones and the direction of this franchise. Most important of all: can this new arrangement covet what Austin covets most of all – even more than a head coaching job.