November 21, 2012

Morris: Experienced Hufnagel keeps his cards close

After a warm handshake the opposing coaches in this weekend’s 100th Grey Cup game posed for pictures Wednesday beside the glistening silver trophy both men want to win.

Toronto Agronaut coach Scott Milanovich stood by tradition, and maybe superstition, and kept his hands off the Cup.

100th Grey Cup Centre

The 100th Grey Cup Championship matchup is set, as the Calgary Stampeders will duel the host Toronto Argonauts. Here is everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s game.

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Not so John Hufnagel. The Calgary Stampeders’ coach and general manger had no problem grabbing the Grey Cup’s handle.

“I think my name is on it,” Hufnagel said with a smile when asked why he wasn’t superstitious.

If Hufnagel has any nerves about the week he’s hiding them well. Later in the day he was spotted outside the team’s hotel taking slow puffs on a long cigar.

Like many successful men Hufnagel can be simple to explain and complicated to deal with. Former teammates say even when he played as a quarterback in the CFL Hufnagel thought and planned like a coach. There’s an easy-going side to the man but he does have an edge.

Stampeder offensive lineman Dimitri Tsoumpas said the 61-year-old projects like a father figure.

“He’s a little bit laid back but at the same time you don’t want to cross your old man,” said Tsoumpas. “There is a ton of respect for him in the locker room but he still manages the guys well.”

Hufnagel has found coaching success in the CFL, NFL and Arena Football League. While the budgets and media exposure have varied, the job has always pretty much remained the same.

“You coach your players or your position to put them in a position to succeed,” he said.

“You can always learn from winning or losing. You have to learn from either situation. Each game that you play, the next game you want to play better, whether you finished that game as a loser or a winner. It’s an on-going process.”

This is Hufnagel’s second trip to the Grey Cup as a head coach.  

The Stampeders beat the Montreal Alouettes 25-19 to win the CFL championship in 2008, which was his first year as Calgary’s head coach. That earned him the Annis Stukus Trophy as Coach of the Year. Many people are picking him to win coach of the year again this season.

Prior to the 2008 game, Hufnagel delivered one of the great locker room speeches.

“We are playing Montreal in Montreal,” he told his players. “We are playing on the road; we are playing in a dome.

“We are playing in front of 65,000 screaming fans. Men, we’ve got them right where we want them.”

Hufnagel laughed when reminded of the talk, which still can be viewed on YouTube.

“I’m not a rah-rah type of coach, in my mind,” he said.

Hufnagel plans to use that victory as a blueprint for success Sunday against the Argonauts.

“We know what the plan is, now it’s just a matter of following it,” he said.

During his five years in Calgary the Stampeders have finished first in the West twice and played in four Western Finals, but this season might have been one of the most challenging for Hufnagel, as a series of injuries resulted in Calgary using a total of 72 players.

The biggest blow came when starting quarterback Drew Tate suffered a shoulder injury early in the season. Veteran backup Kevin Glenn, obtained from Hamilton as an insurance policy in the trade for Henry Burris, took over and was 10-5 in the regular season.

Glenn credits Hufnagel for revitalizing his career.

“You have to respect the fact he’s been around football for a long time,” said Glenn. “He has a mind for offence.

“He’s been around so many great quarterbacks you can’t do nothing but listen to him and take heed to what he’s telling you.”

Hufnagel has a hearing problem which means he sometimes misses questions, especially when dealing with the media. He can be viewed as grumpy, but does have a dry wit.

This week a CFL poll media poll conducted by the Calgary Herald and Winnipeg Free Press showed Hufnagel had lost his crown as the league’s least quotable coach. Instead the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ George Cortez had taken the title Hufnagel had held for four years.
“George?” Hufnagel told The Herald. “Wow. I really tried my hardest this last week.”

Hufnagel began his coaching career in 1987 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders as a player/coach. He became the Stampeders offensive coordinator in 1990 under Wally Buono and helped guide Calgary to three Grey Cups and a victory in 1992. During his time he coached quarterbacks like Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia.

Hufnagel spent two seasons in the Arena Football League as head coach and GM of the New Jersey Red Dogs before joining the NFL Cleveland Browns in 1999 where he spent two years as quarterbacks coach.

One of the quarterbacks released by the Browns during that time was Milanovich.

“I knew he saw me play in Cleveland,” said the Argo coach. “I wasn’t a very good player. I hung on as long as I could.”

In 2001 Hufnagel was the quarterbacks coach for the Indianapolis Colts where he worked with Peyton Manning. He spent 2002 as quarterbacks coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

He then moved on to New England to become the Patriots’ quarterbacks coach in 2003, helping Tom Brady become Super Bowl MVP. He spent the next three seasons as offensive coordinator with the New York Giants before returning to Calgary.

As a player, Hufnagel was named an All-American quarterback at Penn State University. He led the Nittany Lions to a Cotton Bowl win and a loss in the Sugar Bowl. In 1972 he finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting.

After spending three seasons with the Denver Broncos, Hufnagel had a 12-year CFL career with the Calgary (1976-79), Saskatchewan (1980-83, 1987) and Winnipeg Bombers (1984-86).

Hufnagel believes playing quarterback gives him a coaching edge.

“It is a passing league,” he said. “You have to have a real good understanding of pass offence and pass protection. Usually a quarterback has a little bit of a hard start in that area.”

There’s a tradition at Grey Cup to ask the coaches what their thoughts are about players having sex prior to the big game. It’s meant to be a fun question but the answer sometimes reveals something about the man.

Knowing what was coming Hufnagel didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“About a quarter of the way through this season, when our lineup was a revolving door, we had a motto ‘no excuses, just results,”’ he said.

“When the new season started, the playoffs, our motto became ‘don’t do your best, do whatever it takes.’ I think that answers your question.”