Shortly after the Hamilton Tiger-Cats season ended last November, a group of anonymous players expressed their concerns with vice-president of football operations and former head coach Kent Austin. Chief among them was that the team’s pending free agents – including the starting quarterback and star receiver – would elect to go elsewhere if Austin remained in place.
Clearly, that didn’t happen. But the players got their wish.
Every single one of the Ticats’ key pieces – including quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, receiver Brandon Banks, linebacker Larry Dean and defensive tackle Ted Laurent – signed new deals to remain with the club. Austin remained in place during that process but the team announced on Thursday that he was stepping back from his role as the primary decision-maker to become a consultant.
One player quoted in the November piece – again, speaking on the condition of anonymity – said he thinks there’s one major reason why so many of the team’s potential free agents decided to return.
“June Jones. It’s that simple,” the player said. “When June left, he told us that he had some things to figure out but that if he came back, he wanted everybody back because he felt such a close connection with our group.”
Jones took over as the team’s head coach in August after Austin led them to an 0-8 start, going 6-4 in the team’s final ten games as the Ticats made a late, if ultimately futile, playoff push. While there were questions about whether Jones would return, he ultimately re-signed with the club on Dec. 4. Masoli and Banks signed a day apart in early January while a number of others inked deals just before the opening of free agency.
“You saw a lot of guys wait to see what was going to happen,” the player said.
Other players who were quoted in the original piece said that a frustrating year – one that began with Grey Cup aspirations – combined with the team’s inability to win some key games down the stretch also contributed to their state of mind.
“I think at the end of the season everybody was so upset. It was just that kind of year and emotions were running high,” another player said. “But then everybody takes a step back and look at things a little differently.”
There are, however, still plenty of questions. With Austin’s role significantly diminished, team CEO Scott Mitchell said the Ticats are going with a “collaborative effort” in the front office with general manager Eric Tillman, assistant general managers Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang as well as Jones and assistant head coach Orlondo Steinauer.
In pro football, where order and routine are often paramount, the unconventional management structure is sure to raise eyebrows.
“What’s Orlondo’s role, what does that look like, what does that mean?” one player said. “There’s still a lot of things up in the air and there will be until training camp.”
With mini-camp scheduled for the end of April and training camp set for mid-May, players say they are optimistic heading into the 2018 season with Jones at the helm, Steinauer back in the fold and all of the team’s key contributors returning.
Even those critical of Austin last November acknowledge he deserves at least some credit for how things have turned out.
“The bottom line is that Kent did a good job bringing in players,” one player said. “And the issue wasn’t with Kent the GM.”