Those of us who cover the Saskatchewan Roughriders with any regularity can be forgiven for initially viewing the team’s recent head coaching search as a formality to hire Scott Milanovich.
Why wouldn’t Jeremy O’Day try to hitch his wagon to a Grey Cup-winning head coach so highly thought of that even the grand-daddy of us all, the NFL, has reached out to him not once but twice?
The Trevor Harris connection, who played for Milanovich in Toronto and was a big reason why that same coach left the Jacksonville Jaguars for the Edmonton coaching job that COVID scuttled, was just icing on the cake for a perfect reset the Riders’ general manager desperately needed to combat an impatient fan base beginning to question his own contract extension.
Milanovich was the perfect fit. Until he wasn’t.
It will be Corey Mace pacing the Saskatchewan sideline for the foreseeable future, while Milanovich received his own promotion in-house with the Ticats.
As the boss making this hire, O’Day needed to listen to himself and himself alone. He needed to throw caution to the wind and not worry about the optics of what everyone else thinks.
These coaching hires are often pre-ordained without much thought put into the actual hiring process itself. So many of these interviews are a sham, but that didn’t happen here.
According to the reporting of 3DownNation’s Justin Dunk, the Roughriders’ GM, who lives year-round in Regina, wanted someone he could share an office space with during the offseason. Someone WANTING rather than merely WILLING to be involved in the community.
That enthusiasm was evident throughout Mace’s introductory press conference when he spoke of living at the University of Wyoming and his 12 years in Calgary, which is an eternity for any football person to be in one place.
It is understood that Milanovich did not want to live in Regina during the offseason and with the harsh winters that hit the prairies each year, those of us who live here don’t blame him. It would have, however, been enough to make him a poor choice to be head coach of the Roughriders.
The last coach, Craig Dickenson, had an offseason home in Montana but was seen around the team offices regularly throughout the winter months. Before him, Corey Chamblin (2012-2015), Greg Marshall (2011), Ken Miller (2008-2010), even Kent Austin (2007), Danny Barrett (2000-2006), Cal Murphy (1999), and Jim Daley (1996-1998) were either living in Regina year-round or extremely visible in the community throughout the offseason.
That leaves Chris Jones (2016-2018) who left Rider fans feeling like he was always just passing through town which, of course, he was. That left a sour taste in the mouth of the organization and a chunk of its fan base too, especially after Jones darted south for what sounded like a low-level position with a low-end franchise like the Cleveland Browns.
All that after Jones had been the most highly paid coach in franchise history, had been given the most titles of any head coach in franchise history and had publicly announced he was staying with the Roughriders. The optics from all of it were really bad and O’Day and CEO Craig Reynolds learned from that. Don’t underestimate the Jones experience as to why the Riders wanted someone connected to the community. It’s ironic that Edmonton, where Jones is back coaching again, hired and paid Milanovich for a season only to see him leave without ever coaching a game for them.
And let’s not forget there were other reasons to pass on Milanovich.
Although some three-down loyalists feel an inferiority complex to the National Football League, there are plenty of coaches with NFL experience who have fallen flat on their faces in Canada, too. Some, like Marc Trestman and June Jones have succeeded where others like Mike Sherman and Bart Andrus have underwhelmed considerably.
Let’s not overlook that in five seasons as head coach of the Toronto Argonauts, Milanovich had a losing record. In fact, his record isn’t much different from the guy who the Riders are replacing, Dickenson.
Sure, Milanovich did guide the Argos to a memorable championship in the 100th Grey Cup of all time but he did it with the help of a Hall of Fame quarterback, Ricky Ray.
Did I mention I’m still bitter about the Ticats’ lacklustre offensive performance in the East Semi-Final after I told bettors on this website and on television that Milanovich had their offence turned around? Or so I thought.
None of this is to besmirch Milanovich or suggest he won’t make a quality hire for Hamilton. There is plenty of reason to predict he will rise back to the top and break a Grey Cup drought. Just not in Regina, at least not now, and that’s okay. We’re not sure if he wanted this job anyway. Mace left us all with no such doubts.
Judging by O’Day’s facial expressions each time his new head coach spoke, it’s easy to see how Mace won his new boss over. And that’s okay too. Football is supposed to be about passion, enthusiasm and fun. These are things most football coaches lack which is also a big reason why so many of them fail.
The Riders went a little off the board with this one, which is precisely why it feels like such a good hire. We often criticize football coaches for playing not to lose but by hiring Mace, the Roughrider fan base is feeling like its team is once again playing to win.
That’s something Rider Nation hasn’t felt in a very long time.