COX: Chamblin has daunting task in putting Argonauts back on Toronto’s sports radar

It’s all very curious. Certainly there’s a sense there’s a lot we don’t know.

A year ago, Marc Trestman was the toast of the local football community, the brains behind an upset Toronto Argonauts’ Grey Cup victory over the Calgary Stampeders. At his side was defensive co-ordinator Corey Chamblin, the mastermind of a vastly improved Argo defence. All seemed well, until Chamblin bolted and headed down for work at the University of Arkansas, ostensibly for personal reasons.

Fast forward 12 months and Trestman is gone, assigned primary responsibility for a bizarrely dreadful 2018 season in which the Argos surrendered an astounding 560 points. Suddenly, so soon after winning a championship, he was so incompetent he had to go.

Chamblin, meanwhile, has returned to Canada as abruptly as he left, and on Monday became the 44th head coach in franchise history and third in three years.

Hmmm. Most curious.

Chamblin gets one of the most difficult jobs in Canadian football in a market with the least interest, at least in actually attending games, of any of the nine CFL teams.

He’s been hired to bring some desperately needed stability to a team that went 5-13 in 2016, won the Grey Cup championship in 2017, then went 4-14 this past season.

“It actually feels like home,” said Chamblin.

Home must be under a roller-coaster somewhere.

He’s got a darn good resume, including winning the Grey Cup in Saskatchewan as head coach five years ago. His hiring also, as a side note, shows the league is putting some teeth behind its slogan “Diversity is Strength.” A few days after Hamilton hired Orlondo Steinauer to take over from June Jones, Chamblin became the second African-American to earn a head coaching position in the CFL since the season ended. DeVone Claybrooks became the third.

Three job openings, three African-Americans hired. Well done, CFL.

Chamblin’s biggest challenge, along with the fact he and the rest of the league are waiting to see if a new collective bargaining agreement can be worked out with the players, will be that unlike Trestman, he apparently won’t get to at least start the season with the great Ricky Ray as his starting quarterback.

The 39-year-old Ray hasn’t announced his retirement, but Chamblin didn’t refer to him at all when discussing the Argos quarterback situation. Chamblin talked only of James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, and how they’ll be battling for the starting job.

Not a word about Ray.

The official team explanation was that Ray isn’t under contract, and Chamblin was only talking about the quarterbacks under contract. The veteran signal-caller is apparently in California mulling over his future, although most CFL observers are anticipating he will retire after suffering a serious neck injury in the second week of the season. He didn’t play again in 2018.

Maybe the Argos are doing Ray the courtesy of letting him announce his own future. But you would think the best-known football player in town, and one of the most high profile players in the entire league, might have been at the very least mentioned by the new head coach if he was part of the team’s plans at all.

So there’s the probable absence of a proven quarterback for Chamblin to deal with, plus a new football operations cap to grabble with that limits how much teams can spend on non-playing staff. Chamblin will act as his own defensive co-ordinator, saving a few bucks there.

The fact he has to deal with these challenges while trying to develop a winning team that people might want to come out and watch illustrates the enormity of the task that lies ahead of him.

While CFL attendance has dipped three per cent over the past three seasons, Argo attendance has declined 13 per cent. An average of 14,210 fans attended home games last year, and it seems clear any hope that moving to BMO Field from the Rogers Centre would substantially alter the team’s success at the box office has proven completely unfounded.

So Chamblin’s got to put something exciting on the field, something more than just a winning team, if he and the organization hope to persuade more people to come out. With the Maple Leafs and Raptors among the very best teams in the NHL and NBA, respectively, and with the Blue Jays still attracting lots of interest, it will be nearly impossible for the Argonauts to grab any headlines in the off-season.

Chamblin will now have been a head coach in the CFL’s polar opposite cities. In Regina, every decision he made, every word he spoke, was scrutinized. In Toronto, he’s dealing with a level of disinterest in the CFL and the Argos that can be disheartening.

“He understands the CFL immensely,” said general manager Jim Popp of his new coach. “He understands what you have to do to have success in this league.”

Ottawa was the only team in the CFL’s East Division to have a winning record this season, so Chamblin has that going for him. The Argos, meanwhile, didn’t win a single one of their nine road games, so Chamblin should be able to do better than that.

A great deal of what he can do, of course, will ride on what Popp can accomplish in terms of attracting new talent. The Argos have the first and ninth picks in next May’s Canadian draft, but they also have 43 free agents, more than any other team.

Once, the hiring of a new Argo head coach would have been a big deal in this town. That’s no longer the case.

That doesn’t mean Chamblin can’t be successful.

It just means he may not get noticed much even if he is.

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