The journey Dave Dickenson has followed from CFL player all the way through the coaching rankings has been carefully plotted. It’s been a progression that has allowed Dickenson to develop his teaching skills while sharing his experiences as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation.
Dickenson won two Grey Cups as a player during his 13-year professional career. This week, however, will be his first appearance as a coach when he takes the field as the offensive coordinator for the Calgary Stampeders when they play the Toronto Argonauts Sunday in the 100th Grey Cup at Rogers Centre.
“It’s different,” said the soft-spoken Dickenson. “We have been working a lot of hours.
“You have to make sure the guys are prepared. You want to feel like you gave them the best chance to win.”
Fit and trim, the 39-year-old Dickenson looks like he could still play for the Stamps. He says the adjustment from wearing a helmet to walking the sidelines with headphones has been easy.
“I don’t want to sound too cocky but it’s been a smooth transition, very natural,” said the native of Great Falls, Mont.
“I didn’t call plays as a quarterback. When you feel comfortable doing something, and get so much support from your other coaches and have a head coach like John Hufnagel, it felt real natural. I’m really enjoying myself.”
Dickenson played 11 years in the CFL, six of those with the Stampeders. When he made the move to coaching in 2009, Calgary Head Coach and GM John Hufnagel decided to let him wade slowly into the job instead of having him dive into the deep waters.
“I knew how bright a mind he possessed,” Hufnagel said.
He first had Dickenson work with the running backs so he would get a better grasp of how the overall offence worked. In 2010 Dickenson’s role was expanded to quarterbacks’ coach. He called the offensive plays during games and was involved in game planning.
It was a calculated move by Hufnagel to reap maximum benefits with minimum risks.
“I didn’t want the pressure on him,” said Hufnagel. “If we struggled offensively I wanted people to blame me, not Dave. That year he showed to me he knew enough about the overall offence to be an offence coordinator.”
During the 2010 season, Calgary led the CFL with 626 points scored, 7,769 offensive yards and 2,618 rushing yards and quarterback Henry Burris was voted the league’s most outstanding player.
Last year Dickenson was promoted to offensive coordinator. This year the Stampeders overcame an avalanche of injuries, including losing starting quarterback Drew Tate for most of the season, and still managed to finish second in the West with a 12-6 record.
During the post-season, Dickenson put together a masterful plan, one that was perfectly executed by quarterback Kevin Glenn and a then-healthy Tate, who both led Calgary to victories over the Roughriders and BC Lions.
The Stampeders flooded zones with receivers, stretched the secondary and dominated the line of scrimmage to give running back Jon Cornish plenty of room to ramble.
The next challenge for Dickenson is duelling with Chris Jones, Toronto’s defensive coordinator. The Argos beat the Stampeders twice this season and have won the last five games.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Dickenson, sounding like an Alberta rancher eyeing storm clouds on the horizon.
“We have struggled with Toronto. Somehow we have to get over that hurdle. Sometimes it’s just matchups, sometimes things don’t play out in our favour. We feel like we have a good plan and I think we are a lot better team than the last few times we have played against Toronto.”
Dickenson’s awe-shucks, laid-back demeanour covers an intensively competitive personality.
“I’m absolutely certain if Dave didn’t have his issues with concussions he would still be playing,” said running back Jon Cornish, who was named the CFL’s Outstanding Canadian Thursday night.
“He brings so much knowledge to the game but he also brings intelligence. He’s able to analyze things in a different sort of way than the traditional football coach. He’s a player’s coach. He’s really receptive to players’ input. He’s able to create game plans that include everybody.”
Tate said Dickenson is totally focused on football.
“He eats, sleeps and breathes football,” said Tate, who will miss the Grey Cup with a broken arm.
“You try to have a conversation with him and he’s good for about 30 seconds. Once we hit about 35 or 36 seconds we are already talking about Cover Four (defences) or hitting a guy on the fly.”
Some really good players don’t make great coaches. Never the biggest, or the fastest, Dickenson always worked hard to be a good quarterback. That might contribute to his attitude toward coaching.
“It’s what kind of player you were,” said Dickenson said. “If you are naturally gifted, how hard did you have to work to be a good player?
“My parents are both teachers. I think it’s just teaching. You can’t teach all people the same. You have to decide how they learn and try and focus on what’s best for that guy.”
Dickenson also tries to relate to today’s players.
“Coaching to me isn’t about yelling or degrading anybody,” he said. “It’s about finding a way for them to learn and then doing it together.
“Maybe certain players can’t make that transition. I found it was fairly easy for me.”
The next logical step for Dickenson is to become a head coach.
“Dave Dickenson will be a fine head coach one of these days in the CFL,” said Hufnagel.
It’s a move Dickenson isn’t in a hurry to make.
“I am happy where I’m at,” he said. “I’m not that concerned about it to tell you the truth. I was much more goal-orientated as a player.
“As a coach my number one priority is to be in a good situation, win football games and be happy. I’m not concerned about the accolades or the money. I want to be in a nice city, involved with a good organization I respect and that we are going to win a lot of games. You can check off all those with Calgary.”