January 4, 2019

O’Leary: Front office shake-up unexpected in Hamilton

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

When the 2018 season ended, there was a clear picture of teams that could expect change.

It was obviously coming in BC, where Wally Buono had put the wraps on a career that spanned generations. It came in Toronto, where expectations weren’t met a year after the Argos won a Grey Cup.

But little to nothing was expected in Hamilton, where the Tiger-Cats threatened at times to be a force in the CFL, but was slowed late in the season by injuries, before conceding in the Eastern Final to the Ottawa REDBLACKS.

The roster won’t be that different in 2019, but in the span of a month, the front office has gone through an extensive overhaul. GM Eric Tillman and consultant Kent Austin are now gone and head coach June Jones stepped back to allow Orlondo Steinauer to assume the lead with the team.

» Ticats announce football operations staff for 2019
» Eric Tillman will not return as Ticats GM
» Jim Barker named Hamilton’s football operations consultant

Spencer Zimmerman returns to the Ticats as director of U.S. scouting (Arthur Ward/CFL.ca)

So when the team gets to training camp this year, the faces on the field will be familiar but those putting the pieces of the puzzle together will be somewhat different.

With Tillman reportedly taking a job with the Atlantic Schooners organization, Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang will lead the organization as senior directors of personnel and co-managers of football ops.

Spencer Zimmerman, who spent the last three years with the Toronto Argonauts, will return to where he started his career in Hamilton and will assume the role of director of U.S. scouting.

Providing the insight that accumulates through a 40-year career as a coach and football executive, former Argos’ GM Jim Barker comes in as a football ops consultant. Rich Massaro and Spencer Boehm stay with the club as the coordinators of U.S. scouting and Canadian scouting, respectively.

If this is reminding you of season six of The Office, there’s good reason for that. Michael Scott and Jim Halpert didn’t last long as co-managers, but there’s reason to think that things could be different in Hamilton (which, worth noting, is a real-life situation).

Front office structures differ from team to team across the league, but every GM in the CFL will tell you that they don’t do what they do on their own. As people climb the ladder in their careers, moving through scouting roles and into the different facets of football ops, their responsibilities will increase, just like in any other profession. Tillman has spoken highly of Burke and Allemang for years and I personally got to see Allemang shine for the Ticats when he ran the team’s draft this past May.

Jim Barker joins the Ticats as a football ops consultant (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

All of that to say that Burke and Allemang have the necessary experience for the role and have worked together for years, so it shouldn’t be a difficult transition for them to take the next step in their careers together. It may seem odd that there are two people in the top spot, but if they can make it work, it sets the tone for the rest of the front office.

While the on-field product shouldn’t look too different in 2019, the Ticats will be a club with a different feel. When so many of us wondered about the fate of Tillman and Austin when the Ticats fell to 0-8 in 2017, the organization took measured steps in those dark hours. Austin was moved to consultant — he’s headed to Liberty University for 2019 as a co-offensive coordinator and QBs coach — and Jones provided the fresh start the team needed. He went on to rejuvenate the Ticats’ offence that season and it continued to blossom in 2018. Tillman stayed on and helped build a team that should be very competitive in the coming years. You wonder what the 2018 Ticats could have been had their receivers stayed healthy late in the season.

At the top of the football ops and coaching staff sit a group of men that have graduated to their roles. They know the team, the organization and the city well. They know what they have and how close they could be to taking the next step. Change like this wasn’t expected in Hamilton this year, but the Ticats seem to have adapted well and are still in position for a bright future.