Screengrab courtesy Toronto Argos

The Toronto Argonauts are setting sail with a new crew guiding the boat.

Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons and John Murphy have been hired by team president Bill Manning as general manager and vice president of player personnel, respectively.

Clemons wasn’t his usually smiley self reflecting on one man — Jim Popp — losing his job while revealing his passion and energy for the Canadian Football League as the 40-minute press conference went along.

These are some key takeaways from Toronto’s new setup and regime.

Courting Clemons

Manning had to convince Clemons to take on a larger role with the team and sell the Hall of Famer on his vision for the double blue.

“When I first met with him we were 0-6 when I talked about, ‘would you ever consider coming back with the Argos in some capacity?’ Pinball became an advisor and saw some things in this franchise that we need to fix,” Manning said.

“When I was asked the first time, I said no. And then I said no again. And then I decided that this was bigger than me – most everything is bigger than me,” the five-foot-six, 170-pound Clemons said with a laugh.

Watching Toronto being beaten 55-8 by B.C. in Week 17 sealed the deal. But don’t get it twisted — Pinball did not take the job because he needed it.

“I’m here because I love it,” Clemons said with conviction.

“He called me after the B.C. game and said, ‘I’m in.’ When we were eliminated I felt we needed to make a change. I did not expect we’d be 2-12. As the season has dragged on, clearly we’re not close,” Manning said.

Clemons suited up in 12 seasons for the Argos, earning CFL MOP honours in 1990 and won three Grey Cups as a player. In a span of one week during the 2000 season, Clemons went from stepping between the white lines to directing the team from the sidelines. He compiled a 67-54-1 win-loss record while earning a Grey Cup championship in 2004.

Division of roles

Pinball has been a bench boss, even a team president, but has never been in a football personnel role such as general manager. That’s why Clemons wanted to promote Murphy who had been with the Argos in a consulting role during the 2019 campaign.

“As it relates to the things that are usually associated with the GM, negotiating contracts and all of those things that’s going to fall in Murph’s hands. He’s the player hawk, he knows the players in the league, he knows process, he’s been around successful organizations,” Clemons said.

“John Hufnagel himself was the one who gave the suggestion. I will have last call on many of the things that we do, but we will do them collaboratively, we need to agree.”

Murphy’s tasked with overhauling the roster.

Most important position on the field

The Argos do not have a quarterback with a CFL start under contract for 2020 or beyond.

Zach Collaros, James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson are pending free agents. Dakota Prukop as well. Canadian QB Michael O’Connor signed a three-year contract following his selection in the third round, 20th overall during the 2019 CFL draft.

Clemons wants a franchise quarterback like Toronto’s title teams have had in the past.

“In six Grey Cup championships here our quarterbacks have been: Matt Dunigan; Doug Flutie; Damon Allen; and Ricky Ray. Ultimately we can’t disguise the importance of that position,” Clemons said.

Asked specifically about Collaros, Clemons added, “Zach Collaros could be that guy, but right now Zach Collaros is not physically playing. He could emerge as that guy. Is he feeling better? Yes. It will serve us no good to speculate.”

Numbers game

Analytics are going to be utilized by the Argos in the future.

Jarel Cockburn was selected by Toronto in the 2002 CFL draft, but he did not play for the Argos. The Columbia University graduate had been working on Wall Street.

“He’s great at the big data and we’re going to try to take advantage,” Clemons said.

“When we look at what the Raptors and Masai Ujiri has done and the way they’ve used analytics and have done some forward thinking.”

Calgary East

Manning believes the Calgary Stampeders are the model franchise league-wide and he wants to replicate the consistency the Stamps have created.

“I believe every winning franchise has very little turnover. You look at Calgary right now, that is a consistent front office staff led by John Hufnagel who is the general manager and the team president. That’s what we need to build here,” Manning said.

“One of the challenges that I laid out for Pinball was we need to create a core of players. We need to create the best front office and best coaching staff that we can have to produce a franchise that can win championships.”

Hufnagel’s Stampeders have made the playoffs every year since he was hired by the franchise in 2008, winning three Grey Cups (2008, 2014 and 2018). That’s the level of competitiveness the Argos want to institute following back-to-back last place finishes.

“John Hufnagel is the best in the business right now — what he’s done and what he’s built out in Calgary,” Manning said. 

“We have to build a champion and building is a process. I hope Michael is the general manager for the next 20 years. In terms of the leadership, this is going to be Michael’s team.” 

Comments

Justin Dunk is the pre-eminent CFL insider and unabashed supporter of Canadian quarterbacks. He is one of the founders of the new 3DownNation.