Grey Cup or bust: Bo Levi Mitchell’s tenure with Ticats will be defined by ability to win CFL title

Photo courtesy: Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Ever since Danny McManus left town nearly 20 years ago, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have had a number of purported quarterback saviours.

Jason Maas, Casey Printers, Henry Burris, Zach Collaros and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Glenn, Jeremiah Masoli and Dane Evans have all worn the crown as Hamilton’s franchise quarterback.

All those players were believed to be, at one point or another, the foundational piece of a championship puzzle. Yet all failed to put the pieces together, which led the team to find their replacement.

On Tuesday, the Ticats unveiled their latest replacement when they signed Bo Levi Mitchell to a three-year contract extension tying him to the black and gold through the 2025 season. Mitchell’s rights were acquired from the Calgary Stampeders last November following the team’s loss to Montreal in the East Semi-Final, a defeat that extended the team’s championship drought to 23 years.

It was a familiar ending for the franchise and one that Mitchell will need to ensure doesn’t happen again for his move to Steeltown to be considered a successful one.

Some might argue that’s an unreasonable level of pressure to apply to the 32-year-old gunslinger, particularly given that he hasn’t played a full season since 2018. But it’s no less pressure than what any of Hamilton’s previous believed-to-be saviours faced when they arrived in the city.

The Ticats have been fingertips away from claiming a long-sought-after title four times in the last decade. Anything less than finally reaching the peak of the mountain with Mitchell at the helm has to be considered a failure.

The Katy, Texas native seems up to the task and comes to Hamilton with a résumé as impressive as any quarterback to have ever played for the team. He is a two-time Most Outstanding Player and a two-time Grey Cup champion, having hoisted the trophy in 2014 and 2018 as a member of the Stamps.

Mitchell brings a swagger and confidence level that we haven’t seen around these parts in quite some time, though swagger only matters if you can back it up. Casey Printers famously told people to “get their popcorn ready” at his introductory press conference back in 2007 but failed to live up to the hype. Gaudy numbers and regular season wins will only go so far in a city starving for a championship.

The visions of championships — yes, that is championships, plural — currently dancing in fans’ heads are the same that appeared when Maas, Printers and Burris were brought in. None of them fulfilled that promise.

Mitchell might not fail as spectacularly as Maas and Printers did, neither of whom made the playoffs with the Ticats, but his Steeltown story has only one acceptable ending and that is with him raising the Grey Cup over his head.

Mitchell doesn’t have to win the Grey Cup in his first year in black and gold, although, for fans of the team, ending the drought at home in front of a partisan crowd would be a welcome way to exorcize over two decades worth of demons. But he does have to win at least one at some point or else the fans will turn on him quicker than they did on any of the previous so-called franchise saviours.

Most fans appear to have welcomed Mitchell with open arms but there are still some who think incumbent Dane Evans is getting a raw deal, worrying that 25-year-old history could repeat itself.

When the Ticats signed Danny McManus in 1998, the Ticats let go of a promising, albeit inconsistent quarterback by the name of Anthony Calvillo. Calvillo not only had one of the greatest careers of all time in Montreal, he also guided the Als to eight Grey Cup appearances and three championships during a decade in which the Ticats were arguably the worst team in the league.

The Tabbies won a Grey Cup with McManus at the helm in 1999, making the decision to let Calvillo leave a short-term success. With that said, watching Calvillo light it up year after year in Montreal has always been a sore spot for fans in Hamilton.

Dane Evans is unlikely to become the next Anthony Calvillo but if he goes on to achieve success elsewhere, it will only heighten the angst of local fans.

Regardless, if Mitchell doesn’t want to be remembered in the same breath as the failed franchise saviours that preceded him in Hamilton, there’s only one thing he can do: win the Grey Cup.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.