July 27, 2009

Kent Austin’s remarkable CFL journey

Mark Masters

On Saturday the Saskatchewan Roughriders celebrated their 1989 Grey Cup win. Kent Austin was the quarterback who led the Green Riders to the championship. The franchise did not win another Canadian Football League title until Austin returned to coach the team in 2007.
The next year Austin left the CFL to take a job as offensive co-ordinator at Ole Miss.
Austin could not make the celebration in Regina last weekend, but he remains a larger-than-life figure on the Prairies and in the CFL history books.
As the Saskatchewan franchise marks the ’89 Grey Cup victory it’s worth looking back at Austin’s at times tumultuous CFL career.
Last summer I conducted interviews with Austin, Toronto Argonauts former head coach and current vice-chair Michael (Pinball) Clemons and Eric Tillman, the Roughriders general manager. This column is based on those interviews.    
In just two years Kent Austin reached the depths of hell in the CFL and then rebounded to reach its peak. And then he made the decision to leave it all behind.
It was a remarkable journey for the man who played 10 seasons in the league before making a transition to the coaching ranks.
Austin was signed as an offensive co-ordinator by the Toronto Argonauts in 2004 and in his first season the club won the Grey Cup.
The following year Austin helped quarterback Damon Allen win the most outstanding player award for the first and only time in his lengthy career. 
Then on the eve of the 2006 season the Argos signed Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, who had been suspended by the National Football League.
Despite the excitement generated by the Williams signing, for Austin the start of that season was about as bad as could possibly be imagined. Injuries ravaged his offence and the team struggled out of the gate.
“We lost our MVP quarterback (Allen) in the first game, on the first play of the season and I lost two starting tailbacks, I lost a starting receiver, a starting right guard. I think at one point I had five starters out of the lineup,” Austin said in an interview last August. 
The situation got so bad that in one loss to the Montreal Alouettes the Toronto offence did not move the ball past the midfield stripe.
Austin, considered a rising star in the coaching ranks, was suddenly on the hot seat.
“At the end of the day it was my responsibility to get the offence to perform regardless of the amount of injuries and I didn’t get that done and I was held accountable,” he said.
The decision was made to fire Austin and Toronto’s head coach, Mike (Pinball) Clemons was responsible for delivering the news.
“He had reached a point where he was so frustrated with what we had to work with that it was affecting how he was seeing things,” said Clemons. “I told him, ‘You are one of my best friends, but I think the best thing for you to do now is step away.'”
Clemons calls that moment one of the toughest ones he has faced in all his years in football.
“By the end of it I was crying like a baby and he was consoling me,” said Clemons. “I told him, ‘I’m not sure why this is happening, but I’m sure it’s for the best.'”
Those words would prove prophetic.
Austin, who played with the Roughriders, Argonauts, BC Lions and Winnipeg Blue Bombers before retiring in 1996, bounced back quickly thanks to Eric Tillman.  
Tillman, who had just joined the Riders as general manager, was looking for a head coach to replace the fired Danny Barrett.
“I had no doubt Kent was special,” said Tillman. “As a player, and as an assistant coach, he had a unique skill set: a great work ethic, an off-the-charts intellect and natural leadership ability.
“The two of us had a great rapport, outstanding communication and a shared philosophy about how to build a winner. So, while some viewed his hiring as risky, with only three or four years of coaching experience, I felt from day one Kent was going to be a grand-slam decision.”
Tillman and Austin’s relationship dates back to 1986 when Tillman, at the time executive director of the Senior Bowl, an all-star game for college football players, first noticed Austin’s talent.
“The Senior Bowl was the genesis of Kent’s Canadian journey,” said Tillman. “That week I told the Roughriders assistant GM, Dan Rambo, I thought Kent would be an outstanding CFL quarterback. That happened and years later, after his successes with the Riders, I was named GM in B.C. and we acquired Kent via a trade.”
After Austin retired it was Tillman, at the time GM of the Ottawa Renegades, who gave the Brentwood, Tenn. native his first managerial position in the CFL as quarterbacks coach in 2003.
But it wasn’t until the pair reunited in Saskatchewan that Austin’s coaching career took off.
In 2007 Austin and Tillman led the Roughriders to the Grey Cup.
“That entire year (2007) was the most memorable year I’ve had in football on every level. It just was at so many levels so special,” said Austin. “It wasn’t just the wins, the thing that was most important to me is that we created a new identity there and I really felt like we had a real team in the truest sense of the word.”
Austin was loving life and loving his relationship with his boss.
“I had a great friendship with Eric, strong relationships with my coaching staff and with my players and the management team,” said Austin. “We were all philosophically likeminded and we worked very hard to cast and maintain a vision that we believed would create success.”
But during the off-season an opportunity opened up that forced Austin to consider leaving Saskatchewan. It started with a phone call to Tillman from Houston Nutt, the head coach of Ole Miss football program.
Austin starred for Ole Miss during his college years and the school was hoping he would return to his alma mater, located close to his native Tennessee, and become offensive co-ordinator.   
Tillman knew right away he may be losing his head coach.
“When Houston Nutt called, my Adam’s apple dropped to my ankles, because I realized the dynamic of home, and how it was going to generate a real emotional pull on Kent,” Tillman said. “When the offer was extended shortly thereafter, he was torn; Kent loved it so much here, but, home is home, and, quite frankly, Saskatchewan people get the value of home.”
Austin decided it was time to leave the CFL and signed on with Ole Miss. 
“We left some very strong friendships up in Canada and the transition wasn’t as easy as I thought both for myself, my wife and also my children, who left some very strong friendships,” said Austin. “That hit us on a lot of different levels.”
While Austin said he’s comfortable with his decision to leave the CFL, he said a return to Canada isn’t something he’s ready to rule out.
“I learned a long time ago never to say never and I have nothing but tremendous respect for the CFL. There are a lot of great players, a lot of great coaches and I was afforded tremendous opportunities up there and I don’t take that for granted and if one day the path leads me back to Canada I would be willing to come back.”
TSN announced last week the availability of CFL game broadcasts via iTunes. Fans are now able to download regular season CFL on TSN broadcasts for viewing on a Mac or PC, iPod with video, iPhone and on a widescreen TV with Apple TV. What an age we live in.  
Here are my favourite CFL-themed Twitter posts from Week 4.
We start with Toronto Argonauts receiver Arland Bruce, who was benched this week by head coach Bart Andrus for unprofessional conduct. 
@mrmature1 Politics as Usual. even in the 21st century. THIS DAY TO SHALL PASS. (July 24)
Sticking with the Argos, the rocky ride for the organization last week apparently continued on the flight to Winnipeg for Friday night’s game. Just ask offensive lineman Taylor Robertson.
@TR65 Well here in Winnipeg … Wasn’t the smoothest descent ever, sorry to the seat in front of me, hope I wasn’t holding on to tight!! (July 23)
Something tells me the flight back was much more enjoyable.
Meanwhile, Edmonton’s Kamau Peterson is pumped, and rightly so, about his club’s big come-from-behind win in Regina on Saturday. 
@Gr8Grab That was a great show of character by my team. Proud of my guys. (July 25)
And since we started with the Roughriders and their 89’ Grey Cup win it is only fitting that we end on that note.
@GlenSuitor A huge thank you to all the Rider fans in the province that was an amazing reception at the 89′ reunion half time THANK YOU Saskatchewan! (July 25)