In learning the ins and the outs of the CFL over the last two years, Bill Manning said he’s been studying each franchise very closely.
The president of the Toronto Argonauts has travelled across the country, meeting with other team presidents and executives, learning what works for them and what doesn’t, both on and off the field.
Wherever Manning went, he said on Tuesday morning, the same question always found its way to him.
“A number of times people have said, ‘Why isn’t Pinball (Michael Clemons) involved with your football operation?’” Manning told a room full of reporters.
“When Michael and I met for the first time…(with) me really talking to him about joining the front office, I asked him why he hasn’t been involved in the last 10 years, since 2009 in a real football operations capacity.
“He said that no one asked.
“So I asked him and he said no.”
Clemons, seated next to Manning, was one of many in the room that broke out in laughter.
It took some persistence from Manning to get Clemons in that chair on Tuesday, where he was announced as the Argos’ 20th general manager, replacing Jim Popp. Clemons actually turned down the offer twice this season, while the Argos struggled to find their way on the field. He’d taken on an advisory role with the team in recent weeks and was on the road with them in BC, where they hit rock bottom in a 55-8 loss to the Lions.
While Clemons didn’t want to use the first hours of his new role to publicly analyze his roster and coaching staff, he saw enough on Saturday night in Vancouver to know that change was needed. He called Manning and told him he was in. The Argos relieved Jim Popp of his duties on Monday.
It’s new territory with a team that Clemons has given his all to over the past 31 years, winning three Grey Cups as a hall of fame player and bringing another one in as a head coach. He’s affiliated with the 2012 and 2017 Grey Cup squads as the team’s vice chairman.
“I didn’t need a job. I have a wonderful foundation that I love. I’m not in this job because I need a job. I’ve got a bunch of jobs,” Clemons said. Even on a day where he said he’d smile less than normal because he felt bad for Popp, his passion for the Argos and the game simmered through on occasion.
“I’m here because I love it and I care about our fan base and we want to make it better. It’s not going to happen overnight but we’re going to do our best to infuse our passion to every player that walks through that door.”
The Argos opened their season with a 64-14 blowout loss at home to Hamilton. They lost their first six games, including losing one on a rouge against BC in Week 4. They showed some fight in the middle third of the season, but the wheels started to come off again over their last two games, culminating in loss No. 12 in BC. As this season has slogged along, passion is something that’s been lacking on the field and in the stands at BMO Field.
Clemons should provide an instant injection of that.
While he has no prior experience as a GM — former Stamps and Riders assistant GM John Murphy will serve as VP of player personnel — Clemons’ increased presence around the team should only help them as they close out the season. There’s no one more respected and revered in the world of the Argos than Clemons.
“I’ve gotten to know Pinball over the years and what really impressed me the most was that he’s so charismatic and his (high) football IQ,” Manning said.
“To me, I could not think of a better person to lead this franchise going forward, with the winning pedigree he has, the ability to motivate, the ability to bring unity and to show the path forward than Pinball Clemons.”
Clemons briefly addressed the team on Tuesday morning, before he and Manning sat down in front of reporters. The Argos were eliminated from playoff contention this past weekend, but they still have four games to play, with two of them at home against Ottawa. A win would go a long way with a fan base that has endured a lot of losses over the last two years, but many would probably be happy with a good, competitive game when the REDBLACKS visit on Friday.
“What’s wonderful about the fans is they give us their allegiance when we don’t deserve it,” Clemons said.
“Fanatic, it means, ‘I support you when it defies logic.’ You can argue in the last little bit (their support) maybe does defy logic. What we’re trying to do is build that trust back. There’s no way we can earn it, it always has to be given but we’re going to do our best to earn as much of that respect and understanding. This is their hard earned money that we work for.”
When it comes down to it, the business of sport is always about selling hope, and Clemons’ hiring brings hope to a situation where it felt like it had all been vacuumed up; especially after what he saw his team endure in BC.
Clemons will no doubt spend these final weeks of the season further evaluating what the team has and where it needs to improve. He said he’s studied some of his Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment counterparts over the past year, Masai Ujiri and Kyle Dubas in particular and wants to introduce some of the things they’ve done that have brought them success. Right now, that centres on an analytics hire, a close friend of Clemons’.
Manning said that in a lot of ways, the 2020 season started for the Argos on Tuesday. It’s something of an unconventional hire, but it brings hope where there wasn’t any after a bad season hit a low point. Clemons brings a spark to everything he does, everywhere he goes. The Argos need that right now.
“My greatest strength is to understand how important I’m not,” Clemons said.
“We are going to build strength around us. We’re excited about the challenge that is ahead of us. That I can be excited about today. I’ll smile more tomorrow.”