After June Jones took over as head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats mid-way through last season, players raved about the change in culture and environment. But how did a soft-spoken 65-year-old who hadn’t coached at the professional or collegiate level for more than three years get a roomful of unknown players to buy in?
And, more importantly, how does he keep it going this season?
Jones talked a little bit about his leadership style during the Hamilton Tiger-Cats season preview conference call on Tuesday as the team heads into 2018 with heightened expectations after a 6-4 finish following last year’s catastrophic 0-8 start.
“I really believe that the leaders of the team have to take ownership of the team and that allows all the guys to play at a high level,” Jones said. “We help them with the things we do and they have to trust us in some of the things we tell them but at the same time, the good teams take ownership and accountability and that’s how you get the best out of players.”
This is not a particularly unique philosophy – it actually sounds a lot like the one espoused by former head coach Kent Austin – but there were some subtle practical differences under Jones. He addresses the entire team after virtually every practice (something Austin rarely did) and also introduced mandatory team dinners the night before games on the road.
Jones also seems to recognize the importance of plurality in leadership, that his voice and style won’t necessarily resonate with every player. He points to new defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville – one of the most colourful people in football – as the sunglasses-at-all-times yang to his ying.
“There’s a whole bunch of different personalities, some guys need a kick in the ass, some guys need a pat on the back,” Jones said. “I’m a laid back kind of guy but at the same time, I have guys in place that are different from me and that’s how you get a well-rounded player.”
Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who generally takes the same low-key approach to leading as his coach, nonetheless acknowledges that his role will be different given that he arrives at training camp as the undisputed No. 1.
“It’s been a little different for sure, just mentality-wise, knowing that the success of the offence has a lot to do with how I perform,” Masoli said. “That responsibility is in the back of your mind so you just want to make sure that you’re as ready as can be.”
Masoli has evolved both as a player and a leader in his five years with Hamilton. He arrived as a former big-time college quarterback – new American players are still more likely to know him as the ex Oregon star who played in the Rose Bowl – who developed a work ethic that remained steady even as he tumbled down the depth chart in 2015.
When he finally got his opportunities – filling in for the injured Zach Collaros, then replacing him when he faltered last year – Masoli’s teammates were already sold on his demeanour and ability.
Much of that core group – receivers Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker, linebacker Simoni Lawrence, defensive tackle Ted Laurent to name just four – remains intact. And many, like Masoli, elected to return when Jones re-signed as head coach in December.
“We kind of got a taste of some of the success and potential we have and that’s why a lot of the guys signed back,” Masoli said. “We see that the sky’s the limit for us and all we have to do is put the work in and it will pay off. It’s an already proven system for us.”
It will, of course, be different this time around. Taking over a 0-8 team and leading them back to something resembling contention was impressive but Jones and Masoli won’t catch anyone by surprise in 2018. Hamilton will be expected to continue the upward trajectory on which they finished last season.
Unsurprisingly, both Jones and Masoli seem entirely unphased by whatever artificial expectations will be placed upon them by outside forces.
“There’s always pressure and expectation, we’re lucky to be in a position to have that. I never really feel pressure just like I don’t think Jeremiah does in a game,” Jones said.
“You do what you do, you get everybody ready and you let the chips fall where they will.”