ULLRICH: All dressed up, Claybrooks takes on rebuilding Lions

It stood to reason that among the first acts for DeVone Claybrooks as the new head coach of the B.C. Lions, befitting many rookies in a similar circumstance with former colleagues to thank, would be a tip of the cap.

Not the salary cap, though that will become a familiar term quite shortly.

His cap.

The cap stays.

Long before general manager Ed Hervey confirmed the three-year deal he gave Claybrooks, or before he was asked about his past influences in landing his new gig or even his life-saving mom, the important stuff was dispatched quickly.

He’ll wear his baseball cap slightly askew even as a head man and maybe wear shorts on the sidelines too, because if a hoodie works for Bill Belichick the new man in charge of the Lions can call Mike O’Shea for fashion tips.

“My old adage is that if you’re really worried about my hat looks like you’re worried what’s under the hat and I got you,” said the coach once known by his teammates as Headquarters because of the size of his melon. “My mom says now that I am diabetic I have to have pants on when we get cold but we play in a dome, and I think the hat will still be the same.”

Said Hervey: “I didn’t hire the hat. I wear my hat crooked sometimes. We’re not going to be judged by what we wear; we’re judged by how we perform.”

And with that, it’s was time to get truly serious about the enormity of the challenge ahead as the Lions begin to investigate ways to become seriously relevant in the West Division of the CFL again.

Not to diminish Claybrooks’ near-death experience, which became the talk of Grey Cup this year and made mom Sally, who was on hand for his son’s coming-out shindig Tuesday, a charming starlet. Nor is there any harm in poking under the proverbial hood of a rookie coach whose health scare means fewer visits to the barbeque restaurant he owns back home in Martinsville, Va., called the Wing Shack (“They call me Chef Biscuit for a reason,” he said).

If first impressions matter, Claybrooks is no less glib than his Canadian Hall of Fame predecessor, Wally Buono, nor is it surprising to learn he has previously done some radio work in Montreal. It’s also clear Claybrooks will invariably put to use his degrees in psychology and criminal justice from Eastern Carolina in his new role.

He’s had well-documented head coaching offers in the CFL before and Claybrooks admitted there was contact and job prospects discussed with one of his former NFL position coaches, Rod Marinelli of the Dallas Cowboys, last week.

“It’s weird that one happened to come public because every year I’ve had (some job prospects) down south. You think about it this way: With my resume I feel that if I wanted to actively pursue an NFL job I could get one, but there’s not always an opportunity to show you can run your own program,” Claybrooks said.

The bigger question is whether Hervey has hit a home run by hiring another first-year head man as he once did with Chris Jones and Jason Maas, and whether Claybrooks can be as relatable in upper management to players as a position coach.

There’s also the rather significant matter whether a rookie coach can assemble the right coaching staff. Nobody from Buono’s staff had a front-row pew at Claybrooks’ presser, which will come as a relief to those that subscribed to the belief that the problem with the Lions in recent years was not on the field.

“I think (potential coaches) have been targeting me the way my phone has been blowing up,” Claybrooks said. “It’s about fit and the right circumstances because you don’t want your first (head-coaching) job to be your last. You want to go somewhere where you know you can have faith in your organization and have the tools and people in place to be there a long time.”

That immediately distanced Claybrooks from the recent vacancy with the Toronto Argonauts, where it is believed new coach Corey Chamblin is being asked to retain some coaching holdovers. Similar obstacles were reportedly in Claybrooks’ way when he interviewed for the Montreal Alouettes job that went to Mike Sherman.

Claybrooks has a free hand to form his own staff and will not be bound by the new football operations cap, said Hervey. However, the lone Lions coaching holdover, offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson, is expected to be back. So is Rich Stubler, reportedly Claybrooks’ choice for defensive coordinator in Montreal before pulling back last year. If Stubler returns, it will his fourth tour of duty with the Lions.

“The coordinator I’m eyeing I trust him like a pop,” said Claybrooks, and there is no shortage of other familiar names reportedly on their way, from Nik Lewis and Bryan Chiu to Calgary coaches with Lower Mainland ties, like Josh Bell and former roommate Corey Mace. He’ll take what he learned under Dave Dickenson and John Hufnagel in Calgary, plus the NFL standouts like Marinelli, Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy who brought him along, and will forge a program even if all of it is not yet scripted.

“I don’t claim to have all the answers but (with Hervey) we’re going to figure it out,” said Claybrooks.

But that’s just off the top of his head.  

Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.