‘Make sure you’ve got a healthy quarterback’: architect of Ticats’ last Grey Cup provides pointed championship advice to current regime

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym/RFB Sport Photography

The architect of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ last two Grey Cups victories wouldn’t be putting all his chips in on the franchise’s current starting quarterback.

Long-time pro football executive Mike McCarthy was a guest on CHCH‘s Sportsline podcast with Bubba O’Neil this week and shared some pointed advice on how to break the CFL’s longest active championship drought.

“Just make sure you’ve got a healthy quarterback,” McCarthy advised the current regime. “Shoot, that’s why I kept bringing them in because they kept getting hurt.”

The 71-year-old began an illustrious CFL front-office career with the Ticats in 1985, coming over from the USFL to serve as director of player personnel. He would go on to hold positions with the Toronto Argonauts, Ottawa Rough Riders, B.C. Lions, and Montreal Alouettes over the course of more than two decades in the league and was involved in some of the biggest transactions in its history, including the signing of Rocket Ismail.

However, McCarthy was most associated with Hamilton, enjoying multiple stints in Steeltown. That resulted in Grey Cup victories for the franchise in both 1986 and 1999, a feat that the team has been trying to replicate ever since.

The Ticats hoped that acquiring two-time Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell would be the piece to put them over the top last year, but the 34-year-old underwhelmed in his first season for the club. The veteran started six games in 2023, missing time with an adductor injury and a fractured leg. He completed 59.1 percent of his passes for 1,031 yards with six touchdowns and ten interceptions, posting a 2-4 record before getting benched for the playoffs.

“It’s a shame he’s been hurt,” McCarthy said. “He’s missed as many games as he’s played in, he’s at 50 percent playing and hurt, and I think (head coach Scott) Milanovich knows that.”

The team surprised many when they recommitted to Mitchell this offseason, albeit at a greatly reduced price. For McCarthy, who dealt with more than his fair share of injured passers in his career, committing exclusively to the hope of an unreliable pivot is a risk.

The native of Rome, New York made acquiring QBs a point of emphasis when he first came to Hamilton, bringing with him Most Outstanding Rookie finalist Ken Hobart. Even after Hobart led the team to a Grey Cup berth in his first year, McCarthy acquired Mike Kerrigan in year two and he claimed the starting job mid-season to help the Ticats hoist the trophy in 1986.

The path to victory under centre was simpler in 1999, as the acquisition of Danny McManus in free agency a year prior proved to be the difference. However, that move only came about after incoming head coach Ron Lancaster deemed incumbent Anthony Calvillo expendable — an eventual Hall of Famer whose late-career revival the Ticats now hope Mitchell can replicate.

“You have a quarterback and it’s like the eye of the beholder,” McCarthy explained. “It’s not just about you having great ability and signing guys like that but that ability is what you really feel. You’ve got to get a guy to come in and you’ve got to battle people. But it’s all changed now, the money’s higher.”

Second-year pivot Taylor Powell is Mitchell’s only real competition on the Ticats’ roster. Despite the Eastern Michigan product posting a 4-5 record as a starter last year while throwing for 2,283 yards, 10 touchdowns, and nine interceptions, all indications are that it is the veteran’s job to lose.

That could make for a boom-or-bust campaign for the Tabbies, the first for Milanovich on the sideline. He and team president Orlondo Steinauer were both scouted by McCarthy as players, before later working with or playing for him at various stages of their careers.

Beyond the sport’s most important position, the veteran scout did have another nugget of wisdom for the team as they look to end 25 years of heartbreak.

“Make sure you have or form a team of winners where football means a lot to them because you’ve got to take it a little farther, take it the next step,” he urged. “The unity of ’86 team and even the ’99 team is that these guys all hung out after practice. They were a team all day long, all night long. These were the guys that loved each other and that was really cool to see.”

The Ticats will open their 2024 regular season by visiting the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium on Friday, June 7, a game which will mark Mitchell’s first against his former team.