It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” – Muhammad Ali
OTTAWA – This was the quote that Hamilton Tiger-Cats players found on the whiteboard when they arrived for practice on Thursday morning. Each day, new head coach June Jones writes out a different nugget of wisdom and asks players to copy it into their notebooks.
It’s a small thing but one of many minor changes Jones has made as he attempts to turn around a team that was winless when he took over from Kent Austin on Aug. 24. With more than 30 years of coaching experience that includes head coaching stints in the NFL and with major U.S. college programs, Jones has learned culture is key.
“Whenever you come into situations that are upside down, creating the chemistry and creating a new belief system is what turns things around,” Jones said. “You have to put your stamp on it and get everybody realizing that it matters. It’s not just the Xs and Os, it’s the other stuff is what makes good teams great.”
Jones has lengthened the on-field practice sessions as he’s installed a new offensive system and he’s also increased the reps between the first team offence and the first team defence. He meets with the team, albeit briefly, after almost every on-field session. And he’s been open and honest about the limitations of his CFL knowledge, which includes one season as a player and another as an assistant coach in Ottawa more than two decades ago.
“He asks us for our input and that’s the first time I’ve experienced something like that. He really wants to know what the players think about certain things, he’s not just a dictator,” said veteran defensive back Emanuel Davis. “It’s been a shock to see a guy who has been around football so long still asking other people what they think. I’m happy to be playing for a guy like that.”
The Ticats are coming off their first win of the season on Labour Day against the Toronto Argonauts and will face a Redblacks team on Saturday that has won three straight games. An Ottawa win – and they are 11-point favourites at home – would give them the season series against Hamilton and further dent the Ticats’ already faint playoff hopes.
But they are, believe it or not, still thinking post-season. While no team has ever made the playoffs after starting 0-8 (or 0-7 for that matter) one of Jones’ subtle messages has been this team’s ability to make history should they find a way into the Grey Cup tournament.
Brandon Banks, who is enjoying a larger role in the offence under Jones, talked about the restorative powers of just one victory.
“It was like a relief, like everything was off our shoulders. We just had to break through that first wall and know we’re trying to build off it, put a historical comeback together,” Banks said. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of history? It’s what you live for, it’s what you play for. Man, if we turn this around, what better story could you be a part of?”
To continue the fairy-tale script, Hamilton will have to put the brakes on a white-hot Ottawa offence, led by former Ticat Greg Ellingson. The CFL’s leader in receiving yardage, Ellingson had two decent seasons in Hamilton but fell out of favour with the coaching staff and ultimately signed with Ottawa where he’s blossomed into one of the league’s best.
“The first year I was here, there was a little element of revenge but since then it’s just been about trying to contribute to my team,” Ellingson said. “Maybe deep, deep down there’s still a little something. But things have worked out and it’s a great feeling to have everyone in the front office and the coaching staff believe in you.”
Right now, Jones is trying to get the Ticats to believe in each other. The plan is to take care of business at home – Hamilton still has four games at Tim Hortons Field – win their inter-divisional games and steal a couple on the road. Unlikely, yes; impossible, no.
“Success is a formula and it’s not rocket science. You just look at what other people have done and why they are the best they can be,” Jones said. “If you can emulate that, then you’ll take your game to another level and that’s what we try to do.”
Sounds like good white board material.