November 21, 2012

Scianitti: Milanovich instills sense of family into Argos

Scott Milanovich sat politely in front of a big media contingent, inside a big Toronto ballroom, at the start of the biggest week in Canadian football; but the Toronto Argonauts head coach really did not want to be there.

Wednesday was the annual Grey Cup head coaches’ press conference, and Milanovich, 39, is well aware of all the demands on his time in days leading up to Sunday’s 100th Grey Cup — he helped plan the Grey Cup itineraries for his former boss, Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman.

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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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But Milanovich just wore the bemused smile of a tired football coach who would rather be staring at reams of game film than into the blank camera lens and the expectant eyes of reporters that packed into a ballroom inside Toronto’s Royal York hotel. Beside Milanovich, Calgary Stampeders head coach John Hufnagel was relaxed and funny. Hufnagel touched the Grey Cup. Milanovich did not.

“I think my name’s on it,” Hufnagel said, referring to Calgary’s last Grey Cup win in 2008.

“Tradition,” was the reason why Milanovich refrained. “We decided, as a team, that we weren’t going to touch [The Grey Cup],” he said unsmiling.

A winning tradition is what Milanovich thinks he is building in Toronto. The coach continues to balk when asked about the significance of the Argos’ playoff victories, especially last Sunday’s win over Montreal in the Eastern Final. “We’ve done nothing but win one game,” is the usual response.

Milanovich knows his team is not perfect.

“The mistakes you make when you win, you can be a little bit harder on your team,” Milanovich said Wednesday. “And when things haven’t gone well for us this year we’ve lost games and tried to stay calm and patient and keep the spirits positives.”

Milanovich demurred as the media asked him to explain Toronto’s success; it is the quintessence of the coach in his rookie season. Some Argonauts believe it is a characteristic that continues to inspire.

“The moment is never too much for [Milanovich],” said rookie defensive tackle Armond Armstead. “You never question his play calling — it always seems like he is making the right decisions. He just says what needs to be said, he has just been there for our team, and is focused on what is really important.”

Under the glare of the national spotlight, it is easy to forget how arduous Toronto’s season was, in fact. Milanovich, and a largely new coaching staff, slowly tinkered with a new quarterback, a new offence, and several new, young players on defence. Too many penalties (204,most in the league), too few touchdowns near an opponents’ goal line (24, tied for sixth in the league), and overall inconsistency plagued the 9-9 Argonauts in the regular season.

Toronto lost five of six games between September and October. Milanovich, the son of a high school football coach in West Pennsylvania, rarely flinched.

“He just doesn’t panic,” quarterback Ricky Ray said. “If you see a coach panic, you don’t know how to react. You panic. Scott is focused. He knows what he wants, and we know what we want.”

Trust is all Milanovich demanded for in 2012: belief from the offence as it learned the nuances of a pragmatic passing game, and belief from the defence as it learned a strenuous man-to-man pressure scheme.

“I told this story many times that [his father Gary Milanovich] used to take me and we’d watch [game] film together on that old 16mm projector on white bedsheets. When I became a quarterback his message to me was always about poise: ‘When you’re a quarterback and a leader everybody looks to you —when things go badly or when things go well — to see how you’re going to react.’ His mantra to me was always stay even keel.”

After a subpar 2011 season, when Toronto finished near bottom in most offensive and defensive categories, the Argonauts have won four of their last five games en route to the Grey Cup. Ray has thrown 11 touchdowns and just one interception in that span, while Toronto’s defence exploited Edmonton’s weakened offence in the Eastern Semi-Final, then outlasted Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo in the Division Final.

The fruits of the trust between the coach and his players are now conspicuous. A tradition is forming.

“[Milanovich] grabs our mental [focus],” said linebacker Marcus Ball, who has three interceptions in the post-season. “Most coaches want to physically run you [down], but Scott reaches our mental, and he grabs what is important to you and keeps you’re focused.

“After the East Final, a couple of hours went by and the next thing you know [players] are saying ‘Man, when are we going to practice? When are we going to get back at it already?’”

“[Milanovich] has been great in instilling that belief and that vision into us,” said slotback Andre Durie. “I fumbled the football [in the fourth quarter of the East final], and he came over to me and said ‘I love ya, we’ve got your back. Don’t worry, we’re going to get this.”

The burgeoning sense of family is the reason why some players believe Milanovich deserves much praise. The coach thinks differently. A reporter at Wednesday’s press conference asked Milanovich how much he wants his name etched on the Grey Cup. How much does he want the glory?

“My name being on that cup is not important to me. I have two rings [as an offensive coordinator with Montreal], and I’ve also lost one [in 2008], to this gentleman sitting next to me,” Milanovich said with a vengeful smirk as he looked at Hufnagel.

Milanovich quietly told a local reporter earlier this week that he expected the Argos to make it to the 100th Grey Cup, even when he was at the bottom of the mountain after the team hired him last December.

“What is important for me is for our players’ names to be on there. This has never been about me — this is about our players, this is about our organization, about the Argonaut brand growing. I’m just fortunate and thankful that [Toronto] gave me an opportunity to be a part of this.”

And then the press conference was over, and Milanovich relaxed, if only a little. He stood up, and quickly shuffled out of the ballroom, away from the cameras and needy reporters, back to the only thing that matters — back to his work.