It’s been a meteoric rise for general manager Marcel Desjardins and the Ottawa Redblacks.
In their fifth year of operation, the Redblacks will face the Calgary Stampeders on Sunday in the Grey Cup game. It will mark the Redblacks’ third championship appearance in four seasons and they’ll chase a second title win after upsetting the Stampeders 39-33 in overtime in 2016.
That ended Ottawa’s 40-year Grey Cup drought, a heady accomplishment for a franchise that posted a 2-16 record in 2014, its first year of operation. Desjardins has been the GM since the team started play.
“Look, you hope for those type of things and you try to make decisions to lead to that,” Desjardins said. “But could we have envisioned that it would play out this way?
“No, I don’t think realistically anybody could.”
Desjardins has even fast-tracked his original plan from when he became Redblacks GM on Jan. 29, 2013.
“We knew the first year was going to be difficult but we’d try to be competitive,” Desjardins said. “Our second year we wanted to try to get into the playoffs and have a chance to get to the Grey Cup.
“By the third year, hopefully we’d in the game. That was kind of the initial plan.”
Ottawa made its first Grey Cup appearance in 2015 after finishing atop the East Division with a 12-6 record. After losing 26-20 to Edmonton, the Redblacks captured their first CFL title the following year against Calgary.
The Redblacks are the third pro football team to play in Ottawa. The Rough Riders, a founding member of the CFL in 1958, were founded in 1876 and captured nine Grey Cups before folding in 1996.
The Renegades began operation in 2002 but were suspended indefinitely by the CFL after four seasons due to financial instability. Following decades of mismanagement in the city, even drafting a deceased player and questionable decisions by out-of-town ownership, Ottawa 67’s owner Jeff Hunt headed up a local ownership group that revitalized Lansdowne Park and brought the CFL back to the Canadian capital with the Redblacks.
Desjardins, a native of Burlington, Ont., grew up a Rough Riders fan. He’s very well aware of Ottawa’s checkered football past and couldn’t be happier having had a hand in helping reverse those fortunes.
“There were many struggles there and I feel great to be a part of a group that’s been able to do what we’ve done in Ottawa,” Desjardins said. “I’m happy for our owners, who deserve it because they were working at it even before we were hired.
“There’s a lot of gratification in all those things. We just need to keep it going.”
Desjardins is enjoying much more success in his second GM stint than he did in his first. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats fired Desjardins on Nov. 5, 2007, less than 15 months after hiring him following four-plus seasons as an assistant to then-Montreal Alouettes GM Jim Popp.
Desjardins joined Hamilton at a difficult time. The CFL implemented a $4.05-million salary cap for 2007, forcing many GMs to make hard roster decisions.
One that didn’t work out well for Desjardins was dealing receiver D.J. Flick and offensive lineman Wayne Smith to Saskatchewan for quarterback Rocky Butler and a 2007 second-round draft pick after Flick refused to take a pay cut.
Hamilton released Butler the following year while Flick prospered for the Roughriders, finishing tied for the most TD receptions in the CFL (10).
Hamilton also signed quarterback Casey Printers to a three-year, $1.5-million deal on Sept. 6, 2007. But the ’04 CFL MVP struggled mightily and was released Feb. 19, 2009.
“I went from no cap in ’06 and they were spending to the nth degree and then having to come in the next year and slash a lot of money,” Desjardins said.
Desjardins didn’t inherit any cap issues in Ottawa. He started fiscally from scratch and has had total control in managing the Redblacks’ football operations.
He’s also shown a Midas touch when it comes to quarterbacks.
He signed Henry Burris as a free agent in 2014 and the veteran promptly led Ottawa to consecutive Grey Cup appearances (2015-16) and the franchise’s first title.
Burris retired following the ’16 Grey Cup, but Desjardins had his successor – Trevor Harris – already on the roster. Harris had a playoff-record six TD passes in leading Ottawa past Hamilton 46-27 in last weekend’s East Division final.
“Henry gave us instant credibility, instant leadership, all of the elements a new team needs,” Desjardins said. “And that was one of the reasons why we wanted to have him in Ottawa, let alone his ability to be a leader on the field.”
Desjardins was looking ahead when he signed Harris as a free agent prior to the ’16 season. It’s one of many lessons Desjardins learned during two stints working under Popp, now GM of the Toronto Argonauts.
“Just being very proactive on the personnel side of things,” Desjardins said. “One of the things Jim kind of instilled in me was we always had to have the answer before we needed the answer.
“Going from Henry to Trevor was that same kind of scenario. We knew the time would come, we didn’t know how quickly but we wanted to make sure because if we don’t have Trevor, what are we going to have?”
Another decision Desjardins got right was hiring head coach Rick Campbell. The son of Hugh Campbell – who led Edmonton to a record five straight Grey Cups (1978-82) as head coach – has been a model of consistency, on and off the field.
After Ottawa’s inaugural season, Campbell has a 39-31-2 regular-season record.
In 2015, Campbell followed in his legendary father’s footsteps as the CFL’s coach of the year and was a finalist again this year. Hugh Campbell captured the honour in ’79.
“The biggest thing for me being an expansion team was having somebody who’s going to be even-keeled throughout,” Desjardins said. “That first year, coach Campbell was the same guy day to day that he is today.
“That to me was the difference, the deciding factor, that we were going to be with somebody who was going to keep us on a steady stream regardless of what happened. Rick is the same genuine guy today that he was when we had those multiple interviews way back when.”
Like all other GMs, Desjardins heads into an uncertain off-season. The CFL and its players will begin talks on a new collective bargaining agreement that’s set to expire in May.
The expectation is few, if any, free agents will sign before a new CBA is reached.
Still, Desjardins believes his team is well placed to remain a contender in the East Division.
“I think we have a very good chance of continuing to be that team,” he said. “But until those other factors that I don’t have a lot of control over get kind of resolved, it’s kind of hard to say.”