Making sense of the Ticats football operations moves

On the face of it, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats football operations department has undergone a seismic shift in the last few days. General manager Eric Tillman has moved on from Hamilton to the Anne-of-Greem-Gables pastures of the Maritimes while the remaining cast – and few new additions – is set up in a way that, at first glance, seems less than conventional.

But while there are some new faces, what remains retains much of the structure that was in place last season with a few important tweaks.

For starters, it’s important to realize that Tillman held the GM title in Hamilton in name only but didn’t have the final decision-making authority on football operations matters that usually comes with the role. Instead, personnel decisions were made by committee, one made up of assistant general managers Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang, head coach June Jones and assistant head coach Orlondo Steinauer. It’s also good to remember that team CEO Scott Mitchell usually plays a significant role in the big decisions – he and Tillman met with Montreal general manager Kavis Reed to get the Johnny Manziel trade finalized.

Tillman was a Kent Austin guy, brought in as a consultant shortly after Austin took over as vice president of football operations, general manager and head coach. Tillman and Austin have a relationship going back to Austin’s days as a college player and enjoyed a Grey Cup run in Saskatchewan. Austin, new to the general manager role, needed someone with some management experience to help with his considerable workload while Tillman needed work after a tough stint running the Eskimos – he famously traded Ricky Ray – and a controversial end to his tenure in Saskatchewan.

But with Austin having more or less left the building in April 2018 after stepping down as coach the previous season, Tillman’s status was always something of a question mark. His relationship with Jones was valuable – they go way back as well – but with Burke and Allemang in the mix and Steinauer returning as the clear heir apparent, it made for a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. There was some tension.

Burke and Allemang now have the identical titles of “senior director of personnel co-manager of football operations” and have been part of the front office since the Bob O’Billovich era – they have essentially grown up within the organization. Burke started in community relations and communications before transitioning into football ops, diligently learning the craft from Ron Lancaster, Obie, Marcel Bellefeuille, George Cortez, Austin and any other football mind that came through the door. He’s handled contract negotiations, salary cap management, player relations and a lot of other heavy lifting – much of his work unrecognized and uncredited. He’s been seen as an up-and-coming potential general manager for quite some time. Everyone calls him “Burkie.”

Meanwhile, Allemang literally grew up in the Ticats locker room, his father Marv a long-time offensive lineman for the club. He got his first chance under O’Billovich and has handled the Ticats Canadian scouting for the better part of a decade – the Ticats were one of the first teams to dedicate a guy more or less full-time to the procurement of Canadian talent and Allemang was that guy.

What’s interesting about both Burke and Allemang is that they’ve earned the trust and respect of not one, not two, not three, but four general managers and/or head coaches: Obie-Bellefeuille, Cortez, Austin and Jones/Steinauer. That’s remarkable.

They have enjoyed growth and learning curve, albeit in slightly different – and complementary – areas of the game. It’s why neither of them holds the more typical “general manager” title and why the Ticats didn’t bring in an outsider to take the job. Fan speculation immediately turned to a guy like John Murphy, the recently-departed assistant general manger of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, but inserting a new personality into what is already a functional dynamic makes little sense, particularly in the new football ops cap era.

Instead, the Ticats added former Argonauts GM Jim Barker as a consultant and repatriated Spencer Zimmerman as director of U.S. scouting, another young football mind who got his start in the Ticats organization before departing for the Argonauts before the 2016 season. He was retained when general manager Jim Popp took over in Toronto but is returning to the Ticats, where he has established working relationships with all the major players. It makes a ton of sense for both sides (and I really hope he shows up for his first meeting back at Ticats HQ wearing his 2017 Grey Cup ring, the prize that has eluded his co-workers thus far.)

Barker, meanwhile, has a wealth of experience and the network of relationships that are sure to come in handy. He also has a relationship with Steinauer dating back to their days at the Argonauts and, obviously, with Zimmerman. He’s an old school guy around to help the young bucks.

The Ticats will run football ops by committee, one involving Steinauer, Jones, Burke, Allemang, Barker and Zimmerman (with Mitchell overseeing it all, as always.) While it’s unconventional in some respects – especially in the hierarchical world of football – the personalities and long-standing relationships between the major players gives it an excellent chance of success. With Tillman gone, whatever odd power dynamics that existed are resolved and this group will be expected to pull together and produce results.

Whether it works or not will be determined on the field so the only judgment we can pass now is on the sensibility of the structure. From the outside looking in, there’s reason to be skeptical; with a better understanding of the personalties involved – and I’ve been covering the major players for a decade – it seems like a more reasonable idea.

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