O’Leary: Who will be the Riders’ next head coach?
At the end of what felt like a chaotic week in Saskatchewan, Jeremy O’Day sat in the GM’s chair in Regina and channeled a feeling that has proven elusive to Riders fans.
Yes, Chris Jones left for the NFL a week after signing a contract extension. Yes, his remaining coaching staff is under contract for this coming season. And yes, O’Day has to find or appoint a new head coach and continue the organization’s quest for a starting quarterback, also while signing all of the free agents it was hoping to before this change.
But O’Day, who has been with the Roughriders since 1999, already looked the part of the team’s VP of football and GM, even if when he boarded his flight to Mexico City a week ago he had no idea he’d be getting the promotion.
O’Day admitted that there’s still a lot of work to be done but said it wasn’t just starting with the announcement of his job. There are coaches that are out of work looking to get back into the CFL. There are candidates on other CFL coaching staffs. Then there are the candidates just down the hall from O’Day, or at least from the pile of boxes that are sitting in his new office.
Even though he and Riders president and CEO Craig Reynolds stressed that it’s still only January, there’s no time for a grace period. The new GM has had to jump right into his role and make a crucial and, given the situation of an already-existing staff, unique hire for head coach.
O’Day said numerous times on Friday that he was looking for “a leader of men” and wanted to hire the best coach available.
That will entail someone sitting at the head of the table when the rest of the table has been set, seated and eating for essentially the last three years together. From that standpoint, promoting from within would make sense.
In the days after leaving his job with the Riders, Jones has lobbied for three members of his staff. At head coach, he’s spoken highly of offensive coordinator Steve McAdoo and longtime special teams coordinator Craig Dickenson. Jason Shivers has worked with Jones from Day 1 of his head coaching tenure, starting in Edmonton. Jones has said that Shivers is ready to run a defence in the CFL. Moving from within might be the most cohesive move for the existing group of coaches.
O’Day certainly won’t let his decision-making be influenced by Riders fans, but a big-name hire at head coach would please a fan base that lives and dies with its teams moves, even when training camp weather is still months and feet of snow away.
The no-brainer hire in that category would be Marc Trestman. The 2017 CFL Coach of the Year and a four-time Grey Cup winner, Trestman’s Argos only won four games in 2018 and he was fired at the end of a disappointing season. Hiring an offensive-minded coach like Trestman would presumably lead to the Riders making an internal promotion to DC.
There are a couple of big-name defensive-minded coaches out there as well, that could come in and work the DC role, the way that Jones did. Jerry Glanville told the Canadian Press this week that his phone hadn’t rang after Jones’ departure in Saskatchewan, but that he’d listen if O’Day did call. At 77, Glanville spent last year as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ DC and stepped away from the team for personal reasons, after building an aggressive, powerful defence. Glanville was last a head coach in 2009 with Portland State but only has the one year of CFL coaching experience. Hiring Glanville would be a bold move for the Riders at this point.
Benevides, meanwhile, is a highly qualified coach still looking for work after the Eskimos released him in December, a casualty of the team’s football ops cap. Benevides spent 12 years in BC as the defensive coordinator before assuming head coaching duties from 2012 to 2014. He spent the last three seasons in Edmonton as defensive coordinator and added assistant head coach to his job title last year.
There are a handful of coaches that are currently a part of CFL staffs that could also be good candidates for the job. Paul LaPolice interviewed in Toronto and declined the job, opting to stay with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He has history in Saskatchewan, serving as the OC in 2008 and 2009 before moving on to the Bombers to be their head coach from 2010 to 2012.
One of the more interesting names on the list of currently employed coaches is Ottawa DC Noel Thorpe. He might be the league’s most-ready head coach in waiting that hasn’t yet had an opportunity to coach a team. Over the last 15 years, opponents around the league have come to expect a physical, turnover-forcing defence from Thorpe. He’s more than experienced enough and despite it being his first head coaching job, he could be a good plug-and-coach type fit as far as handling what were Jones’ on-field duties.
Ottawa has a pair of coaches that could be in the mix for the job. On the offensive side of the ball is coordinator Jaime Elizondo. The REDBLACKS offensive production over the last three years speaks for itself, but when you add in the franchise shifting from Henry Burris to Trevor Harris and winning a Grey Cup and playing for another in a three-year span, it speaks volumes to the work Elizondo has done. While he hasn’t had a head coaching job, he’s been a CFL OC for five years, getting his first shot with the Argos in 2010 and 2011.
A coach’s name came up in Frank Zicarelli’s story on the Argos’ coaching staff that has me wondering about him as a dark horse candidate. Marcel Bellefeuille was rumoured to be at least on the Argos’ radar for a hire as a coordinator. Would O’Day shift his attention to the former offensive coordinator and head coach? It’s been almost eight full years since he was a head coach, but he could be a fit with an already assembled coaching staff.
Finally, in any coaching search in the CFL you’ll hear a few names that seem unrealistic. Scott Milanovich’s name goes to the top of this list. In his third season with Jacksonville in the NFL after leaving the Argos, he was confirmed this past week to be holding on to his QBs coach role. It might appease some Riders fans to have a coach leave the NFL for the CFL after the opposite just happened with their team, but it seems unlikely.
Nostalgia may play a role in Kent Austin’s name popping up in at least Twitter conversation, but his hire in Saskatchewan seems like a long shot as well. After leaving his consultant role with the Ticats in late 2018, he took a job with Liberty University as co-offensive coordinator and QBs coach. A second Kent Austin return to Regina doesn’t seem plausible, at least not at this point.
Phillip Lolley’s name doesn’t carry the same weight in the CFL as the other two previously mentioned coaches, but his moving to Saskatchewan seems equally as far-fetched. He was just named Edmonton’s defensive coordinator on Jan. 3. And while he might love a chance to be a head coach, he only has four years coaching experience in the league, with just a part of the 2017 season as a DC.
In Riderville, calm is as infrequent a visitor as early springs. It’s always like that when the team’s fans feel every move, let alone the big ones, so deeply. O’Day knows that and has seen it first-hand for years. He sat at the table at that press conference on Friday and looked very cool and collected, which is what you want to see out of your GM as he navigates an unusual situation. Bringing calm to the fans of his team after a week like this one is a tall task but on Friday, O’Day made it seem like it was possible.