In his hall of fame career, Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons loved the feeling of control that came with getting the ball in his hands.
“When you’re playing the game, you could decide if you were going to be patient or if you were going to be aggressive,” Clemons said on Thursday morning, having just arrived at his office on the Exhibition Grounds in Toronto.
“There are so many more things that are in your control when you’re out on the field. But this,” the Toronto Argonauts GM said, gesturing to the laptop at his right and a phone that was a few minutes away from ringing.
“This…some things you want to be aggressive about that you have to be patient on. Some things you want to be patient on and you’ve got to be aggressive, you’ve got to go get it.”
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When free agency gets underway on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at noon ET, Clemons will be just past the four-month mark in his role as GM of the team that he has played for, coached and represented in the community and across Canada, starting with a playing career that stretched from 1989 to 2000. This year will be his first free agency as a CFL GM.
“You have to be careful to not have the culture (of free agency) have you do things. In a rebuilding stage it’s important that we do the foundational things and we don’t get distracted,” Clemons said.
“We try to review, review, review. Constantly, we’ll go back through just to make sure that we are being disciplined in our approach and…because of what’s happening outside of us that we’re not losing our way and our focus in understanding what we have to do in order to build a product.
“Building is providing that foundation first and you constantly have to remind yourself that you don’t need the chandelier before you build your foundation.”
Thanks to the new pending free-agent negotiating window, Clemons said the Argos organization is already in free agency mode. In a lengthy and open conversation, he addressed what he wants to go into that foundation he and his team are building and who fits into it. Regarding reports that defensive end Willie Jefferson is a key piece of that vision, Clemons simply said, “he’s on everybody’s list. Our list is one of the nine.”
Chris O’Leary: What do you look for in that foundation? Is it skill, a certain character trait, a combination of both? When you’re in this building stage, where you probably need to build a culture for your team, where do you start?
Pinball: With culture it’s a few things and one is just being boring (laughs). Just being an organization that does the right things all the time. When you see a great organization, that’s what they do. They’re sound and they make good decisions all the time. The interesting stuff actually happens on the field, not off the field.
That’s where it begins and that’s part of making sure that we don’t buy the chandelier before we build the foundation. We want to be player-centric. We want to have the best environment possible for players and that involves a lot of things. Matt Black (the team’s player relations advisor and football ops assistant) is sensational in doing that and getting that program started, providing avenues for our guys so that they can make that post-career transition. We’ve developed a relationship with the Peel Police that we’re excited about and we hope that will eventually lead to the Toronto Police as well and we want to do the same thing with fire (departments).
Then there are other jobs where guys may have their interests from university, whether it be technology, banking or the trades. That’s a longer-term vision that takes time to set up.
That’s a key part of that foundation. That says to guys that we care about you, not only being successful today but your long-term success. We think that will create greater loyalty, but will also create a greater sense of focus when a guy isn’t necessarily worried about what’s coming later on.
CO: What were the conversations like with McLeod Bethel-Thompson after the season ended and in re-signing him?
Pinball: I had him and his significant other, she’s a sweetheart a really smart, really bright girl too, over for a wonderful dinner before they left. Since then, I’d check in every once in a while. There was a point in which there was a gap in communication so he picked up the phone and gave me a call and said, hey, what’s up?
I told him the staff was together at the Senior Bowl and we’d be talking after that. About two weeks later he called me back and I said, ‘OK it’s time.’ We turned the wheels and got everything done. I think it was inside a week to get everything done.
In this particular relationship and they’re all different, but in this particular situation I was the good cop (laughs). They’d been trying to get things done, conversations were happening, communication breaks down a little bit but that’s all part of the process. But there was a point where we said, ‘OK, let’s figure this out.’
CO: Assuming you sign Matt Nichols — there’s a lot of talk that you will — what do you see the quarterback situation being like come training camp? (Note: Reports of the Argos signing Nichols surfaced about seven hours after this conversation took place.)
Pinball: The big thing for me is not to predetermine that. That really should be the head coach deciding what that’s going to look like. We would have extensive conversations before that in terms of helping him to flesh out those concepts, those ideas. We be able to offer our opinions and what we think and how things should go but then you really should…with the quarterback, the head coach is the one who’s responsible for wins and losses; we all are. But I mean, he’s the guy that’s down there. That’s a head coaching decision
The first thing is that Matt is ahead of schedule. May 1st was the idea that he could be ready by then and he seems to be ahead of schedule. His regimen is incredible The very first thing is making sure he’s ready to go. You don’t want setbacks. If you go in, you have to think that right now until he is classified as healthy that Mac is the guy that’s going to be in control there and we’re very comfortable with that. We have two top-10 quarterbacks. It was a deficiency a year ago and now we have two top-10 quarterbacks and two high draft choices that go with that. I think that puts us in a good position right now.
CO: When you met with Nichols, was he able to throw? Is he at that point yet?
Pinball: No, he’s not at that point. I don’t want to aggravate the process. We’ll let the process manage itself.
CO: With this being your first time in the GM role, how much has John Murphy (the Argos’ VP of player personnel) helped you? He’s worked for different teams around the league over the years and knows the ins and outs of this time of the off-season.
Pinball: To suggest that he’s helped me would actually not say enough. What he’s done…he’s tireless. He has an indomitable spirit. I’ve had to learn to be patient and that’s a good thing. I read a long time ago that people are too impatient to be smart, so we’re on the phone for long periods of time and I’m not talking for most of those (laughs).
He’s been a tremendous addition. I feel he needs to be applauded for understanding that he’s bringing a guy in that’s been around football, that knows football but also hasn’t been around all of the processes. So as we look at scouting and setting up those things, this is a guy who’s new to this side, it would have been a bulky job to do. But it’s what you do in leadership, right? Your job is to put excellence around you.
It’s not…different than if you’re a head coach, you hire an offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. That’s what you do. But to find a guy who is deeply entrenched into the Canadian Football League and the processes and the people around it is pretty phenomenal.
CO: When you look at your defence as it’s coming together now, do you see it being much stronger and more aggressive than it was last year?
Pinball: I think if you look at Bo Lokombo, you look at Tommie Campbell and you look at Shaq Richardson, I think if you look at our team a year ago we’re probably already a more physical team, just with the addition of those guys. We also have signed several American guys that have had some NFL experience at a couple of spots: linebacker, on the d-line as well. We want to play a different brand of football and I think we’ve taken considerable steps to get there. And what we don’t sign we have to find.
CO: There’s been a lot of talk that you guys are pushing hard to get Willie Jefferson here. Is he someone that’s on your list?
Pinball: Willie Jefferson’s on everybody’s list. He’s the defensive player of the year. Our list is one of the nine.