San Francisco 49ers’ linebackers coach Johnny Holland believes the level of talent in the CFL doesn’t get nearly enough credit south of the border.
Prior to landing with the Super Bowl LVIII contenders in 2017, Holland spent parts of three seasons coaching in Canada. His first opportunity came as a guest coach with the Saskatchewan Roughriders ahead of their Grey Cup-winning 2013 campaign before he eventually signed on full-time as linebackers coach for the B.C. Lions under head coach Mike Benevides and defensive coordinator Mark Washington.
Though his tenure was brief, it left a lasting impression on the Bellville, Tex. native.
“For me, having played in the NFL, coaching in the NFL and then coaching in Canada, I was really amazed at the talent,” Holland told podcaster and Lions’ play-by-play voice Bob Marjanovich during Super Bowl media night.
“The level of players they have there, the quality of football that they play there and the (competitiveness) that they have, it was awesome. It needs to be known a lot more that the quality of play that they played with up there was great. I enjoyed my time up there coaching and seeing players that can really play football.”
A former All-American at Texas A&M and second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, Holland jumped right from playing into coaching and already had 17 years of experience as an assistant with Green Bay, Seattle, Detroit, Houston and Oakland before arriving in Canada. After returning to the NFL with Cleveland in 2016 and moving to San Francisco the following season, he hasn’t missed a beat.
The 49ers have now propelled themselves to Super Bowl LVIII thanks in part to the tremendous play of linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, both mid-round draft picks developed by Holland. However, it isn’t the first time he’s coached a dynamic duo, as his stint with B.C. in 2014 and 2015 involved working with arguably the greatest linebacker tandem in CFL history.
“I had an awesome time. I had two great linebackers in Solomon Elimimian and Adam Bighill,” Holland recalled. “They were fun guys to coach. Good team; really enjoyed my time there.”
Elimimian and Bighill’s partnership, commonly known as Team 100, was already well-established by the time Holland arrived on the scene, but hit new heights while he was in Vancouver. In 2014, Elimimian set a new single-season CFL record with 143 tackles and became the first defensive player to ever win the league’s Most Outstanding Player Award. The following season, with his teammate injured for half the year, Bighill would fill the void by winning what would be the first of three Most Outstanding Defensive Player awards in his career.
The pair combined for 409 total tackles, 17 sacks and four interceptions during Holland’s tenure, leaving him absolutely certain that both players would have been forces in the NFL if not for the fact that both stand under six feet tall.
“No doubt,” he insisted. “I had been in the NFL for a long time. It was easy to identify NFL potential players and those two guys definitely could have played. Bighill had his opportunity to play and Solomon was with the Vikings for a year or so earlier in his career, but they both were very talented guys. Not only good football players, they’re awesome guys.”
Elimimian had already received his lone NFL look before Holland arrived, spending time with Minnesota and Cleveland in 2012 before returning to B.C. Bighill would get his own shot with the New Orleans Saints in 2017, seeing action in just three regular-season games on special teams despite being arguably the team’s best defensive player in the preseason. He would request his release from the team that offseason and go back to the CFL.
According to Holland, those disappointing stints may have simply been a matter of not checking all the measurement boxes that NFL teams look for.
“I always say talent is talent. Guys that can play, they can play,” he remarked. “I always tell my players if he’s a pretty good high school player, he probably was a pretty good college player and if he’s a pretty good college player, you probably get the chance to play pro football and be a pretty good player.”
“Some guys, the size is not quite there or maybe the speed is not quite there, it doesn’t say that they can’t play. They still can play football. It’s all about the heart, the competing, and I’ve noticed a lot of guys up there that were really competitive and competing to play at this level.”
Elimimian retired after the 2019 season and was enshrined into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame last year, a rare first-ballot inductee. Bighill will undoubtedly join him in that elite club but remains active as a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, guiding the team to four straight Grey Cup appearances and two victories.
Warner and Greenlaw will be in search of their first professional championship when they take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, February 11. The pair will likely find extra motivation in the 58-year-old Holland, who is coaching despite being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2019 — an incurable form of blood cancer.
Warner is to be named Super Bowl MVP, while Greenlaw is . Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nev.