Opinion: Chris Jones versus Saskatchewan is still a rivalry worth watching

Photo: Matt Smith/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

He hasn’t worn his black shirt for Saskatchewan in more than five years but that doesn’t mean the matchup between Chris Jones and the Roughriders has no meat left on the bone.

It would be silly to suggest that Edmontonians are the least bit excited about Saturday’s Week 1 matchup, given that it comes on the same day that the Oilers will open the Stanley Cup Finals. That is especially true given the game features two squads that have collectively averaged five wins per season in the last two years.

Simply put, this battle between the Elks and Riders has been nothing more than a prairie version of the Toilet Bowl since the pandemic-shortened season. But as hard as these two laughingstocks have tried to kill any meaningful rivalry, the Chris Jones connection still reverberates in Saskatchewan.

Including Jones himself, there are no less than seven coaches on the Elks’ staff who worked together with the Riders — and that doesn’t even include former player Takoby Cofield. Some of them, like offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson, defensive coordinator Jason Shivers and special teams coordinator Mike Scheper, even hit for the cycle by following Jones to Regina in 2015 after the Evil Empire’s last Grey Cup victory.

Some have called it the “Cult of Jones,” which is probably a bit over the top, but there’s no getting around the significant loyalty that Edmonton’s head coach and general manager has towards his staff and vice-versa. To see coordinators flock with their leader for this long is a rarity in the cut-throat what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of pro football.

It’s a kinship that these assistants never appeared to have with Craig Dickenson after Jones left Saskatchewan and that showed.

It’s only been nine months since running back Kevin Brown and the rest of the Elks’ ground game trashed the Riders’ run defence for 265 yards and a couple of scores in their only win over Saskatchewan of the 2023 campaign. It was O-line coach Stephen Sorrells, the scapegoat of the Roughriders’ 77-sack disaster in 2022, who strutted around with his chest out that night, knowing full well that his unit had just flipped the bird to the Roughriders’ decision-makers on his behalf.

Dickenson may be gone now but general manager Jeremy O’Day remains. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, that hard feelings remain. They sure do for Rider Nation.

 

All these years later, the unfulfilled expectations created by Jones’s arrival in Saskatchewan have never really faded. The highest-paid head coach in the Canadian Football League had his team on an upward trajectory and had vowed to return for two more years to finish the job. One week after making that promise, he departed for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.

Rider fans will forgive anyone for wanting to try greener pastures in the NFL but seriously, he ditched the Ferrari he was given in Rider Nation for the Browns? It was a betrayal many will never forget.

After a predictably disappointing stint in Cleveland, fate would carry Jones back to the city that made him famous and the first franchise he scorned, Edmonton.

The back-and-forth might not be enough to make the Roughriders a bigger Edmonton rival than Calgary. Nor will it be enough to render the Elks a bigger Saskatchewan rival than Winnipeg. But according to some, including Elks receiver Kyran Moore, it’s pretty damn close.

“Outside of Calgary, in my time here, I don’t see a team that we’ve actually looked at as a close rival,” he said this week. “If anyone, it would be Saskatchewan. I don’t think that’s far-fetched at all.”

Moore was brought into the CFL by Jones and that connection made him decide to walk away from Saskatchewan in 2023, re-uniting with his old coach. He didn’t let the public perception of Chris Jones as an insensitive rule-breaker change his view of the man.

“I never looked at Coach Jones like that”, Moore said. “My relationship with him has always been fun and games. He always jokes with me but he also knows when it’s time to work and get the team together. But he throws short jokes all the time”.

“Coach Jones is like, ‘Swerve, you’re standing next to me during the national anthem because we’re the same height.’ He throws jokes at me if I get a new hat or a new shirt and he says, ‘Hey Swerve, did you get that from Baby Gap?’. So, he jokes with me in front of the team all the time.”

Fans may not get to see the fun-loving, soft side that Jones occasionally shows his players, but that doesn’t matter. A decade-long odyssey has brought Edmonton’s bench boss from northern Alberta to southern Saskatchewan and home again and it has entangled these two fan bases in the process.

These teams have a history and a history that still matters. That makes this season opener worth seeing, even on such a busy sports weekend.

The Roughriders (0-0) and Elks (0-0) will clash on Saturday, June 8 at Commonwealth Stadium with kickoff slated for 4:00 p.m. EDT.

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