Hall of Fame former Riders president Jim Hopson still not sure he would have hired Chris Jones

Graphic: 3DownNation (Photos: CFL.ca/Kevin Sousa | Bob Butrym)

The Chris Jones era of the Saskatchewan Roughriders will be remembered as one of the most fascinating and controversial chapters in club history, but it might not have happened at all if the organization’s greatest-ever president was still at the helm.

Legendary Riders’ executive Jim Hopson joined The Rod Pedersen Show to weigh in on the state of the CFL. While addressing the current turnaround attempts in Edmonton, the 71-year-old Hall of Famer rehashed his feeling around the current Elks’ head coach and general manager when he was in Regina.

“Chris is a strong individual and he doesn’t worry a lot about what people think about him. He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do,” Hopson said. “[Jones’ time in Saskatchewan] wasn’t a good situation. We were so desperate and we were basically handing him the keys to the farm. Right from the start, I think he had that freedom but his record speaks for itself.”

A former offensive lineman for the Riders, Hopson served as club president and CEO from 2005 until 2014, ushering in a new era of dominance for the franchise. The team announced record profits and won two Grey Cups over the course of his tenure.

Coming off a 3-15 season, Saskatchewan poached Jones fresh off a Grey Cup victory as Edmonton’s head coach in 2015. He was handed dual roles as head coach and general manager, tasked with returning the Riders to the status of prairie juggernaut.

Jones spent three seasons in charge, posting a 5-13 record in his first campaign while earning a reputation for brutal cuts and continuous roster turnover. The Riders made the playoffs as the crossover team in 2017 and finished second in the West a year later but were often mired in controversy, including allegations that Jones was attempting to circumvent CFL roster rules.

Looking back, Hopson — who retired two years before Jones’ hiring — isn’t certain he would have been able to work with the team’s former coach.

“I would have been challenged, no doubt about it,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know if I would have been able to hire Chris just based on personalities and everything else.”

Jones left the Riders before the 2019 season after landing a job with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, finishing with a 27-27 record as head coach. He returned to the CFL as a defensive consultant with the Toronto Argonauts in 2021 and quickly landed the top job back in Edmonton, where he first became a head coach in 2014.

The Elks finished 4-14 in his return season, a year that mirrored the constant turnover of his early days in Saskatchewan. Having brought in a number of big free-agent additions, the roster looks much improved and Edmonton management has been pulling out all the stops to lure fans back into the stadium.

“They’ve got to do something. It was embarrassing last year. I’m sure they had 10,000 people there. It was just embarrassing. Of course, when you haven’t won a game at home in over 1,000 days…” Hopson shrugged.

“But they’re gonna win this year. I don’t predict they’re going to be at the top of the heap but they’ll definitely have more victories this year. Jones, whether you like him or you don’t like him, he makes you better. He’s not afraid to make the tough moves.”

Despite his prickly personality and questionable ethics, Hopson believes that Jones is among the CFL coaching elite. He simply isn’t sure he’d be able to work alongside him or trust him to stick around long-term.

“He made us better, there’s no doubt about that. And he’ll do the same there, but how long will he last?” he queried.

While there appears to be no love lost between him and Jones, Hopson maintains a close relationship with his Edmonton protégé Geroy Simon. The Elks’ assistant general manager won a Grey Cup with the Riders in 2013 and the man who once controlled his paycheques often wonders how he manages to work with his new boss.

“Geroy is a great guy,” Hopson said. “I think he’s underrated as an executive because of that superstar persona, but I can see him being a GM one day.”

Simon is receiving a crash course on that lifestyle from Jones and few live it quite as thoroughly as the 55-year-old. He continues to operate on a level unlike any other in the league, something Hopson can respect even if it seems to make him shake his head.

“I don’t think he’s mellowed. I don’t think he can and that’s who he is,” he marvelled.

“He doesn’t sleep. He’s in the office first thing, in the night still, but the great coaches it seems that’s what they are. They live the job, they sleep in the office and it’s a heck of a sacrifice but it’s what they choose and they win.”