Tom Higgins is not new to anyone who has followed the CFL for the past three decades. His new role, however, may come as a surprise to many.
The former head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders was chosen to lead a new team on Tuesday, only this one doesnât wear any football pads or helmets. As the new director of officiating for the CFL, Higgins will lead the third team on the gridiron, the officials.
âI am as excited as I can possibly be,â admitted Higgins. âItâs just like being a coach all over again, because every new season brings that optimism that youâre going to have a great journey, and I donât believe for one moment that this is that much different from coaching a football team.â
âI get to coach a group of dedicated officials who are willing to sacrifice their time and do the best they possibly can.â
It may seem like an odd combination; a former head coach guiding the officials. After all, donât head coaches get along with officials about as well as the Montagues and Capulets? But Higgins wasnât selected for the new role simply because he has experience roaming the sidelines.
âWe didnât hire Tom as a coach, we hired Tom for all of the experience he has and intangibles he has and Tom represented the best fit for the role,â explained CFL COO Mike Copeland.
âThe role reaches well beyond technical expertise. It requires strategic planning, and administrative skills. It requires someone who can motivate and recruit the next generation of officials and it requires someone who can manage the often times harsh communications from the clubs.â
Higgins will, however, bring a unique coachâs perspective to the new role.
âItâs great because you always want to have something thatâs a little outside the box,â added Higgins. âThis is a little bit outside the box but not that far, because we donât play this game without the officials. So you have a great feeling and understanding of what they need to do.â
Higgins has not had any officiating experience in football, but he had donned the stripes for wrestling (the legit sport, not sports entertainment). He admires those who take up the cause.
âTo me wrestling is very black and white. If you take an athlete down, you award him two points,â explained Higgins. âItâs amazing that you canât please anybody. I always marvel at the fact that people would actually want to officiate.â
"It's very important that we have officials. You can't play games unless you actually engage somebody to take the bull by the horns and grab a whistle, a striped shirt and go on out there and officiate."
One of the aspects of officiating that get some individuals in a furor is when a flag is thrown for a minor infraction, or one that doe not necessarily affect the end result of a particular play.
"Do you want the officials to throw a flag at 61 kilometres an hour when the speed limit is 60 kilometres," explained Higgins.
"It's getting the coaches and the officials on the same wave length to actually where it is that flag or the speeding ticket gets administered. Hopefully that's where we are going to make our greatest strides."
Higgins believes that new technology will be key in helping the officials reach that desired consistency that coaches and fans also crave for, whether it is the creation of a command centre that oversees various angles of a game, or aid for officials when they go under the hood for replay by adding an additional person to help determine the correct call rather than putting all the pressure on the referee.
Another aspect of Higgins job will be the recruitment of a new generation of football officials, increasing the pool of suitable candidates for the professional level. This means continued growth of the game at a grassroots level which includes officiating.