April 15, 2017

Saskatchewan bench boss attracting players to Riderville

Matt Smith/CFL.ca

There was something that kept coming up each time a Roughrider was asked why they signed in Saskatchewan.

It wasn’t just the brand new state-of-the-art stadium – although they said having the facility at their disposal did help make the decision a little easier and they’re all more than thrilled to play in the opening game at New Mosaic Stadium on July 1.

And it wasn’t so much of a thing as it was a person – a he, to be more specific.

It was Riders’ head coach and general manager Chris Jones.

Whether they had battled against Jones’ teams in the past, played for him or met him somewhere else over their careers, the consensus between them all was, “we want to play for him.”

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Chris Jones started the rebuild in Saskatchewan last season and has added more pieces to the puzzle this year (CFL.ca)

Free agent signings Chad Owens and Derek Dennis both agreed that having Jones leading the Roughriders’ charge was one of the major reasons why they decided to sign in Regina.

Willie Jefferson and Henoc Muamba, who both signed with Saskatchewan late last season, also said they headed west because of coach Jones.

“The reason why I came to Regina was really because of the coaching staff and pretty much just knowing everything out here was starting over new,” said Jefferson, who signed a contract extension in January. “I knew the defensive system and I know Coach Jones. He was really the main reason I came out here.”

So what makes the bench boss so special?

Perhaps it’s his winning record.

Before last season – his first year in Saskatchewan – Jones had never missed the playoffs in his entire career. That’s 14 years without missing the post-season.

He’s appeared in 12 division finals and seven Grey Cup games while spending time with the Montreal Alouettes, Calgary Stampeders, Toronto Argonauts and Edmonton Eskimos. He also won four of those seven trips to the final showdown in 2002, 2008, 2012 and 2015.

After the 49-year-old helped turn the Eskimos from a 4-14 team in 2013 to a Grey Cup-winning squad in 2015, he headed to Saskatchewan to try his hand at doing the same thing there.

Jones started the rebuild in Saskatchewan in 2016 after the Roughriders had a 3-15 record the season before. Near the end of last year, the team started to take shape and showed glimpses of what they’re capable of.

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

This season will be Muamba’s first full season in the CFL since his stellar 2013 campaign (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

That’s when Muamba joined the Roughriders, near the end of the season, when the team started to click together. The linebacker had spent 2014 and 2015 in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys before deciding to return to the Canadian game last fall.

Muamba had met Jones back when he was still going to school in Nova Scotia at St. FX. Jones had put on a combine out in Eastern Canada that Muamba had attended and the two kept in touch since.

“I had multiple options,” said Muamba, who had numerous teams offering him deals when they caught wind of his decision to return to the CFL. “But this is the decision I went with because I wanted to be a part of the defence that was here. I know the record (in 2015) didn’t really speak volumes but I looked beyond that and when I was looking at it, I know Chris Jones as well from way back. I know the type of defence that he’s running since his days in Calgary.

“I know a lot of guys he’s coached from down there and I’ve talked to them multiple times. Having the opportunity to play under him was (why) I had to take the jump.”

Jefferson, who spent 2014 and 2015 with Jones in Edmonton, also joined Riderville at that time and had gotten to know the coach pretty well in his time with the Eskimos.


IMAGES OF THE NEW MOSAIC STADIUM

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“The one thing that I really just like about Coach Jones is his personality,” he said. “He’s not a mean guy, he might come off like he’s mean or intimidating or intense but as a defensive coach and as a defensive player you want somebody like that on your sideline. You don’t want somebody that’s soft-spoken talking to you on the sideline in the middle of the game.”

Owens also knew Jones before Saskatchewan inked the receiver when he became a free agent in February.

Both were part of the Toronto Argonauts in 2012 and 2013. Despite Jones being the defensive coordinator at the time, Owens remembers the two still shared a special bond.

“I’d always sit down and talk to him because he’s an X and Os guy. He’s a football guy,” Owens remembers. “He breathes it, he lives it. That’s what he does. We’ve always had a great relationship.”

Perhaps that’s why they want to play for him. They appreciate his ability to build special bonds with each player, no matter the role that he, or they, have on the team.

“Coach Jones, to me, is a really motivating person,” Jefferson gushed. “He knows a lot about the game, he knows a lot about people. He tries to instill that into you. When he talks to people, he doesn’t talk to you as though you’re just a player. He talks to you like you’re a person, like you’re somebody he wants to teach the game to.”

Dennis felt the same way. His wacky ways – from his colourful hair to his outspoken personality – were embraced by Jones, along with the rest of the Riders’ coaching staff.

“It’s one of those things where if people want you here and they’re going to treat you like the person you are then (it’s good),” said Dennis. “They (the coaching staff) basically told me they want you to be you, do the funky hair, do whatever you want. Be yourself.”

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Dennis will be playing in his first year in the green and white when the season gets started in June (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

While all four of those players wanted to play for Jones, Jones really wanted them all to play for him, and for good reason.

Adding 2016’s Most Outstanding Lineman, Dennis, will help to anchor the o-line this season to protect whoever is starting under centre. Dennis says it doesn’t matter to him who is starting at the quarterback position this season, whether it’s Vince Young, Kevin Glenn or even Canadian Brandon Bridge, he will “give him the best chance to succeed.”

Owens, 2012’s Most Outstanding Player and Grey Cup Champion, adds a veteran presence to the receiving corps. The 35-year-old had his 2016 season cut short because of a foot injury but in the 12 games he did play, he had 58 catches for 808 yards and five touchdowns.

In his eight-year CFL career, the Hawaii native has a total of 5982 receiving yards and 26 major scores. His best season was in his Grey Cup-winning campaign where he collected 1328 receiving yards, 25 rushing yards, 828 punt return yards, 1588 kickoff return yards and 94 miss field goal return yards for a total of 3,863 all-purpose yards – the CFL record for the most in a regular season.

Muamba’s best season came in 2013, before he caught the attention of the NFL and made the jump south of the border. That year he was named the Blue Bombers’ Most Outstanding Defensive Player, Most Outstanding Canadian and Most Outstanding Player after he registered 111 total tackles (tied with Montreal’s Chip Cox for first in the league), one sack and one interception.

And finally, Jefferson brought size and a winning attitude to the Roughriders’ defensive line when he signed with the club late last year. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound defensive end won the Grey Cup in 2015 as a member of the Edmonton Eskimos. That season, the 26-year-old collected 23 defensive tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles.

It seems the puzzle is coming together in Saskatchewan with an established coach bringing in the final pieces to complete the picture. The excitement and optimism is palpable in Regina as Jones and the rest of his team get ready to start a new era of sorts, equipped with a new stadium and new attitude.

“Just walking around here (in Regina), there’s a lot of excitement,” Muamba smiled. “It’s a great atmosphere and we’re excited to perform well for Rider Nation. I think the really deserve it, especially in front of these fans and this new stadium. It’s going to be great.”