The Argos have won three straight games for the first time in 2017 and the new regime, led by general manager Jim Popp, is settling into life in Toronto. We caught up with Popp to discuss the transition from Montreal, life as a soccer dad and how the Argos turned it around so fast.
Justin Dunk: You were in Montreal for more than 20 years and then come to Toronto, what was it like to make that transition?
Jim Popp: I was ready for it after being out for four months. I had already moved on. It was a great opportunity: world-class city, world-class ownership. Once I met Larry Tanenbaum and the ownership group and realized how family oriented it was and how much they cared, I felt fantastic about it. It’s about getting to know Toronto better. It’s quite a fascinating city, I’ve enjoyed that aspect of it.
JD: What’s the biggest difference from being with one franchise for a long period of time and then coming to a new place?
JP: I did anything and everything that I had the power or allowed to do. I was very loyal to the organization. I did things to help out that was maybe detrimental for me. Sometimes it turns on you a little bit. That’s the way it goes, this is a tough business. I was very fortunate to be in one place, it’s rare, very few people have ever been somewhere for 21 years and had the success we had. It was hard enough to win but to consistently win for a long period of time is very difficult. Before I ever stayed in Montreal as long as I did, my whole niche was taking start-up operations and building them from scratch and turning them into something. After I got out of college coaching, I went right into the first year of NFL Europe, which was the world league of American football, from there I helped start a new football league called the professional spring football league, from there I went to Saskatchewan to turn the program around, from there I went and built the Baltimore Stallions, from there I went and built the Montreal Alouettes. Then I stayed somewhere 21 years that I had to rebuild, and it may not have looked like it, I don’t know how many times. Even to a point where people might have looked at the last few years being lean, and obviously, you understand when you’ve had so much success, maybe not the playoffs, but it wasn’t that we didn’t feel like we had the right people, we just had a lot of challenges. Whether we had a lot of changes in the coaches or whether we had a lot of quarterbacks go through the system, a lot of them had to do with injuries. Every time you change offensive coordinators – six times – they want a different guy. You gotta win more than you lose, that’s just the name of the game. It’s a new challenge and I embrace it.”
JD: What has changed for you from a family perspective because you’ve been based in the past out of North Carolina?
JP: Canada is another home for me, you gotta understand. In 24 of the last 26 years, I’ve either lived permanently in Canada or in and out of Canada for long periods of time. Even when you’re living in Canada, I’m a GM that travels and scouts. When you get to different parts of the off-season I’m not here for months at a time because you’re on the road. I have a place permanently here and I also own a home in North Carolina. Whether your home is here or North Carolina you’re in and out of town all the time. My family has been up here, everybody but my two daughters who are college students. My wife Kim does an unbelievable job, she’s tremendous, I have six kids and I don’t know how she does it. She gets them everywhere.”
JD: One of your children, Preston is a talented soccer player, how did he end up playing for Toronto FC Academy?
JP: He finished in the top two or three in the nation (United States) in scoring last year in academy soccer as a junior in high school. TFC doesn’t play in the USDA academy, all the other MLS teams do. There are 72 academy teams across the United States and Canada. He wanted to be with an MLS team and they wanted him. He’s a dual citizen, so he’s Canadian. He’s here permanently living. He’s got one more year of high school and he’s earned a scholarship in the NCAA, it’s verbal because until you’re a senior you can’t officially sign the letter of intent. He went ahead and verbaled to UNC Charlotte, they finished No. 5 in the nation last year in soccer. He’s had every major university scout him: Stanford, UCLA, Notre Dame, Virginia and North Carolina. He was playing in the Charlotte area, so those coaches saw him all the time and they play a very similar system that he was successful in. All the coaches are from Europe, very high-level guys, great program and facilities. He was comfortable. They gave him basically a full ride, that’s tough to get in college soccer. Bill Manning and Danny Dichio, his coach (with TFC Academy), wanted him bad. He’s going to go to Blyth Sports Academy in Toronto to finish his schooling up.
JD: It seems as though you’ve gotten the franchise stabilized on the field in a short time period?
JP: There were very good football people here. Things just weren’t going the way people wanted. I could’ve said the same thing about Montreal. There’s a lot of factors that go into that and contribute to it. Sometimes it’s just a little tweak that you need to do. When I came in I had no intentions or ambitions of getting rid of people. I wanted to get to know people, I wanted to analyze them, I wanted to see what we had. I thought as little change as we can make would be the best. There was only one change made out of everything we did with front office people and support staff. In regards to players, there’s been some change, there was change before I got here. Tremendous people love working with them, I’ve added a person or two to the organization. Put a great coaching staff together. Everybody was critical of the organization, hiring people late and starting late, the great thing for Mark and I was I don’t know if either one of us would’ve been here if it didn’t happen late. It kinda worked for us to be here – and together. Probably I would’ve had a better chance of being here earlier than him. But it all worked out. We hit the ground running, tweaked just a little, tried to change the culture. Because we didn’t spend money in free agency, as guys came available we’ve been able to add them or get players through trade. Add pieces to the puzzle one little bit at a time. It’s been very steady – even keel. Not a lot of egos, we have a great locker room, it’s like starting something new and building their own brand. Sometimes it just takes a little change or tweaks. Even go to Winnipeg a year ago, subtle change, all of a sudden that whole crew is talking about not being there to having a great year and contract extensions. It’s usually not that far off to get something back going. I’m very grateful to be here, have this job, there is only so many of them in the world and be in a city like this.