Davis: Extending Chris Jones the right move for Riders

Unlike his predecessors as Saskatchewan Roughriders head coaches, Chris Jones has not been required to live year-round in Regina.

Upon their hirings, Corey Chamblin, Kent Austin, John Gregory and Danny Barrett were among the head coaches who bundled up their families to spend windy summers and frigid winters in the Canadian Prairies. It was a coaching prerequisite for the community-owned franchise to be entrenched year-round in the community.

Jones’ hiring before the 2016 season with a three-year contract — followed by a one-year extension announced Tuesday — came with only one prerequisite. Jones was tasked with making the Roughriders consistently capable of challenging for a Grey Cup.

Realizing his past CFL successes and coveting Jones dearly, Roughriders CEO Craig Reynolds and the volunteer board let Jones leave his family in Tennessee while the guy they hired as vice-president of football operations, general manager and head coach spends his football seasons living in a Regina hotel and returning home in the offseason.

The Roughriders’ brass realized that planting Jones in the community wouldn’t make him any more popular than he would become if the team resumed winning football games.

Jones wasn’t extremely popular in 2016. After being lured away from the Edmonton Eskimos, where he had won the 2015 Grey Cup in his second season as their head coach, Jones whirled through a record number of newcomers and veteran players en route to a 5-13 record. The Riders were disciplined regularly by the CFL for breaking roster rules and the doubters (guilty!) were wondering if Jones knew what he was doing.

During his first 15 seasons in the CFL as an assistant coach, defensive co-ordinator and head coach, 2016 was the first time Jones had ever missed the playoffs. But he put in place a huge hierarchy of assistant coaches and GMs and talent evaluators capable of making the Roughriders respectable following the embarrassments of 2015 (which cost Chamblin his job) and 2016.

With a completely overhauled roster — only four players remain from the 2013 Grey Cup-winning team — the Roughriders improved to 10-8 this season and advanced (as a crossover) to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Facing back-to-back road games, they eliminated the reigning-champion Ottawa Redblacks before falling in the East final on a last-second field goal to the eventual Grey Cup winners, the Toronto Argonauts.

Such success, indeed such a turnaround, made Jones extremely popular among Roughriders fans and players. That led Reynolds to logically offer Jones a contract extension. They began discussions before the season ended and recently agreed on a one-year extension through 2019. It likely bumps up Jones’ reported annual salary of $750,000 and ensures he won’t be just a lame-duck head coach who might only be returning to Saskatchewan for one more summer.

Darrell Davis has reported on the Riders for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2006.