Opinion: Regina native Marc Mueller needs to earn his stripes with Riders’ fanbase

Courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

For those of us who follow the Regina football community closely, it’s felt like an eternity since we started hearing about Marc Mueller’s pre-ordained greatness.

As a glorified tape collector for the local talk radio station in 2007, I recall being summoned to a press conference with the University of Regina to learn all about the high school kid who would join the Rams in the fall to be groomed as the long-term quarterback for the program.

There was less talk about training camp competitions or any real tryout than there was about Marc’s ties to his grandpa, the legendary Roughrider quarterback Ron Lancaster.  It’s a very heart-warming story with a nice community connection; a theme of the U of R Rams back then and one the Saskatchewan Roughriders are pushing hard today.

The Chris Jones experience still hangs over Riderville; an environment built strictly on high coaching salaries and the business of wins and losses with very little connection to the city. The coach famously lived out of a hotel and didn’t spend any more time in Regina during the offseason than he absolutely had to. The coaching staff had more of an Alabama feel to it than anything resembling a connection to the “306” or Roughriders history.

That worked okay for a while but by the time Chris Jones bolted for a low-level NFL franchise in the Cleveland Browns, just days after telling everyone he would stay for a fourth season in Regina, the sentiment among the locals was one of not letting the door hit the old coach on the backside on his way out.

It was an exercise that reminded us all that connecting with your fan base is about more than just wins and losses.

Since then, a lot has changed in that area and probably for the better. General manager Jeremy O’Day has lived in and raised his family in Regina for a quarter-century. They had a folksy head coach in Craig Dickenson who was very interactive with the fan base and now have another in Corey Mace, hopefully with much different results.

The new coach and his wife have so far said all the right things about wanting to be in Regina year-round and, in the words of O’Day, “wanting” as opposed to “willing” to be around town even during the harsh prairie winters was an important factor in hiring Mace.

And now this latest nugget, with the Riders onboarding the first homegrown offensive coordinator in the modern era of the franchise, has cemented the perception this organization cares about the community in ways it never did under Chris Jones.

But the pendulum swings both ways and finding that happy medium isn’t always so simple.

Cody Fajardo embraced the fishbowl of Regina when he took the city by storm with his MOP runner-up performance in 2019 and even publicly sassed Chris Jones, endearing him to Rider Nation just that much more. But by his third season, Cody was being run out of town.

The fan base appreciated the folksiness of Craig Dickenson when the team finished first in 2019 and won a home playoff game in 2021. But the minute the Riders started back-sliding from a 4-1 start in 2022, being the face of a struggling Roughrider football team became a miserable place to be for Coach Dickenson.

Jeremy O’Day has been beloved in the community since he arrived in the late 1990s but the end of the last two seasons has him feeling awfully lonely around town.

You get the picture: Community connections are important but they only work if the team wins.

And therein lies the rub with Marc Mueller. Happy-go-lucky to be working in an office next to the statue of his grandpa and the fourth person in his family to work for the Riders, the fan base isn’t going to care about any of it if his offence can’t win on the field.

He was grinning from ear-to-ear about his new role as offensive play-caller for the Roughriders in Thursday’s introductory press conference. But there was lots of chatter about the hometown ties and very little about the disappointing performances of the quarterbacks he’s been tutoring the last two seasons in Calgary, Bo Levi Mitchell and Jake Maier.

It would be wrong to blame the woes of those two signal caller on their position coach alone but it drives home the point that like any other coach or player, Marc Mueller still has a lot to prove to the CFL and to the Rider fan base. After all, he lost his playcalling duties mid-way through the Stampeders’ season last year, as that team narrowly beat out Saskatchewan in a race to the bottom in the West.

In a sport famous for its nepotism in landing high-level coaching and executive positions, Marc Mueller now faces the challenge of proving his worth.

He did find his way to greatness when quarterbacking the Rams, becoming one of their top three greatest quarterbacks of all time. But they never did make it out of Canada West in the playoffs with him as their signal-caller.

He’s won two Grey Cups with Calgary in roles his family connections likely helped him land, but they were junior roles as a defensive assistant and running backs coach.

None of this is to suggest that Marc Mueller isn’t a good hire for the Saskatchewan Roughriders; this story has lots of potential for a happy ending. The sky’s the limit for how high Mueller could climb up the coaching ladder, still only at the tender age of 34, roughly three years younger than his new starting quarterback, Trevor Harris.

And what Rider fan doesn’t want to see Ron Lancaster’s grandson help Saskatchewan win a Grey Cup?

Harkening back to that U of R press conference all those years ago, then-head coach Frank McCrystal teased Marc’s dad, Larry, by chuckling “I guess greatness skipped a generation!”

Did greatness really only skip one generation? At the pro level, the truth is, we still don’t know.

Brendan McGuire has covered the CFL since 2006 in radio and print. Based in Regina, he has a front-row view of Rider Nation.