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TORONTO — Most would agree it was the best outcome the Toronto Argonauts could have hoped for.
The Argos officially introduced both a new general manager and a new head coach on Tuesday, reuniting former Montreal Alouettes battery mates Jim Popp and Marc Trestman.
And if you ask CFL.ca’s Davis Sanchez, who spent two seasons under Trestman and won a Grey Cup in 2009, there’s no doubt the duo can get the Argos’ ship back on course.
“The situation that’s happened here in Toronto, it couldn’t have had a better ending,” said Sanchez, who played in the league 11 years, won three Grey Cup Championships and was twice named a CFL All-Star. “This is the best duo to rectify the current situation.”
The Argos’ expansive search for a new general manager started last month, when the team parted ways with Jim Barker after seven seasons as the head of the team’s football operations. It wasn’t long later that Scott Milanovich headed south, leaving the Boatmen in need of both a GM and a head coach.
While Trestman has the fourth-highest winning percentage of all-time for a CFL coach (.656), Popp is third on the all-time list among general managers with a career record of 254-159-1 (.615). Together, Popp and Trestman went 59-31 over five years, winning two of the three Grey Cups they appeared in along with four East Division titles.
Tuesday morning’s announcement was the culmination of a long process for Argos president and CEO Michael Copeland but one Sanchez says he believes will pay off.
“It’s the two of them together that are so strong,” said Sanchez. “Over the last two decades, Jim has been arguably the best personnel guy in the league. Marc Trestman is the best coach I’ve ever been around, hands down.”
The latter, Sanchez added, is where it starts. Trestman re-defines ‘meticulous’.
“This team will play disciplined. It’ll play hard. It’ll be prepared,” said the former defensive back. “There’s no question about that. If you’re not a disciplined player — if you’re not prepared — you won’t be there. Marc Trestman does not play around like that.”
MONTREAL ALOUETTES LEAGUE RANKINGS 2008-2012
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Looking back, Sanchez recalls a coach who came into meetings refusing to waste a single second getting to work.
“He knows how important the time is in the CFL,” said Sanchez. “He would come in with three bullet points and you could tell just how much time he spent thinking about it — and I’m not talking about normal coach speak. He would come with something to the depth of ‘watching film yesterday, I noticed your legs were a little bit tired, we have a short week and the travel’ – he would go as far as mapping out the amount of rest that we had, creating a practice plan suited to getting our legs back fresh.
“Even though he’s a brilliant offensive mind, he would come over into the defensive backfield and ask what coverage we were playing and notice we were at seven yards when instead we’re supposed to be at nine yards – and he would know this.
“When the Argo players see how well-prepared Marc Trestman is, it only makes you buy into the team more. It’s infectious. When everyone sees how much work he puts in and how much he cares, people pick up on it and people jump on it.”
“The roles are clearly defined here. Jim doing what he does best, which is finding talent, and Marc doing what he does best, which is coaching the X’s and O’s of football.”
– Davis Sanchez on the Trestman, Popp duo
A quarterback in college, Trestman was an assistant in the NFL and American college ranks for 27 years before venturing north of the border in 2008, taking his first head coaching job with the Montreal Alouettes. Here, hiring an American with no CFL experience as your head coach is considered by some a faux pas. But Trestman and Popp made it work overnight.
While Trestman flourished, eventually landing a job as the head coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears in 2013, Popp ran into trouble shortly after. The CFL’s all-time leading passer in Anthony Calvillo retired while Popp took to the sidelines twice himself as the Als struggled to find both a permanent head coach and quarterback.
After 23 seasons at the head of the Als, Popp was dismissed last November. Somewhere, things had gone wrong for Popp and the Alouettes. Sanchez doesn’t see a repeat of that in Toronto.
“When he was let go in Montreal, people were too soon to forget the success Jim had as a general manager,” said Sanchez. “He’s been incredibly successful and people in the league have a ton of respect for what Jim does.
“The biggest downfall for Jim, at least with the Montreal fans, was when he became a head coach.”
Popp famously has had four separate stints as the Alouettes’ head coach since 2001. But in Toronto, Sanchez continued, that’s not likely to happen again.
“The roles are clearly defined here,” said Sanchez. “Jim doing what he does best, which is finding talent, and Marc doing what he does best, which is coaching the X’s and O’s of football.
“I think with clearly-defined roles they’ll have a ton of success.”
Sanchez and the consensus seem to agree that Popp and Trestman will get the Argos sailing in the right direction. The question now: how soon can they do it?
On one hand, the Argos have a stable of veteran quarterbacks with CFL experience that includes Ricky Ray, Drew Willy and Jeff Mathews. Meanwhile, four of their five starters on the offensive line are back on the roster for 2017.
On the other, Popp and Trestman will now have to sit down to watch film and evaluate a roster they’ve had no hand in building. A coaching staff still has to be assembled while training camp is creeping up, only three months away.
On the heels of a 5-13 season, can the Argos’ new leadership core fix things right away?
“It might take time,” Sanchez answered. “It might take time because we’re already halfway through the off-season here and they haven’t had a chance to do anything.”
Then he remembered back to the time Trestman first showed up in Montreal and how different he was.
“A lot of guys with his resume like to come in and talk about how they’ve done things,” Sanchez recalled. “When Trestman came in, to my surprise after hearing about his resume and what he’s done, he wanted to know how we do it here and how to have success in the CFL.
“Whereas a lot of guys like to put their stamp on things right away, Trestman wanted to learn from us, figure out how we do it and then tinker it the way he likes to run his program.
“That, to me, it was different.”
And it’s that type of humility that can turn around a football team and maybe even surprise a few people.
“That was the key in Montreal and it will help in Toronto as he comes into a locker-room full of new people,” said Sanchez.
“I have a ton of faith in those two guys.”