If you’ve listened to Orlondo Steinauer in interviews, you start to notice certain patterns.
The head coach and recently-named president of football operations of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats deflects opportunities to talk himself up and will instead spread praise to the people that work around him. He sometimes simplifies his role within an organization that’s enjoyed a great amount of success over the last two seasons, playing in back-to-back Grey Cups, with he and his players racking up annual award nominations and wins along the way.
Our conversation is an interesting one, but Steinauer sticks to his protocols. It’s refreshing that someone who has every right to speak to their significant accomplishments, the most recent being that presidential title added to the nameplate on his office door, isn’t much interested in doing that.
“It’s a collective thing. Nothing’s changed from that standpoint, to be honest with you,” Steinauer says of his new role.
That’s true in a practical sense, but Steinauer is the one steering the ship in Hamilton now, from that football operations standpoint. He’s brought in assistant GMs Ed Hervey and Spencer Zimmerman and they work alongside assistant GM and director of Canadian scouting Drew Allemang, who has been with the Ticats for the last 14 years.
His new title has also had to see him work his way through the hiring of athletic therapists and strength and conditioning coaches. He’s had the regular off-season duties any coach would have. He’s had to tweak his coaching staff with the departure of special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold and help steer the team through free agency this month.
“There’s more on your plate,” Steinauer says, “but it’s not like I’ve arrived, or whatever. It’s like, OK. Let’s go to work.”
Steinauer’s promotion has moved him into some relatively uncharted territory. He was one of two Black head coaches in the league last season (Montreal’s Khari Jones being the other). He is now the only Black person with a presidential title in the league. Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons is his predecessor in that role, having held the title with the Argonauts in 2002, before later taking on roles as the team’s CEO in 2008 and vice chair of the team in 2009. Clemons, of course, has been the GM of the Argos since 2019.
There have been just four Black GMs in CFL history. Roy Shivers held the post in Saskatchewan from 1999 to 2006; Hervey did the job in Edmonton from 2013 to 2016 and in BC from 2017 to 2020; Kavis Reed served as GM in Montreal from 2016 to 2019 and Clemons is heading into his third season steering the Argos.
The significance of that isn’t lost on Steinauer.
“You’re kind of breaking down some of the barriers that have existed over time, right? The fact that you can name them tells you how few there have been,” he says.
He remembers Clemons becoming the first Black head coach in CFL history to win a Grey Cup. Hervey was the first Black GM to lead a CFL team to a championship. He throws in the BC Lions’ hiring this week of Tanya Walter as a defensive assistant coach, making her the first female full-time coaching hire in the CFL.
“I’ve been around some of those things that have been firsts. It feels good that we’re considered for these opportunities, because that’s all you can really ask for is an opportunity,” he says.
“You would hope that one day we’re not talking about jobs because of people of colour and whatnot, but I think for the timeframe that we’re in, it is significant and worth noting.”
While those numbers are still small, they’re important. Steinauer saw Shivers in the GM chair in Saskatchewan. As a player and later as a coach he was around Clemons in the multitude of roles he has held with the Argos. He’s competed against teams run by Hervey and Reed. In the same way he’s seen those people, he has players, coaches and aspiring executives in the football world seeing his career progress and the barriers that he’s breaking.
“To be added to that, I think it’s extremely important. I think it feels great,” he says. “I think it comes with responsibility and not responsibility to…obviously you’re always going to want to strive to do well, but it’s to keep it going. It’s when you’re in this chair, then it’s a chance for you to follow through and really take a look at an organization.
“It’s about following through. It’s about, what is your action plan? What are you doing that’s within your control? As you move up you are able to do different things and hire different people and bring different awarenesses and have a little bit more say in different things throughout an organization.
“That’s what I mean by the added responsibility. It’s not just the things that everybody sees. A lot of things you can change from the inside-out. Along with the visible aspects of it, which is extremely important also.”
Steinauer veered a little outside of those interview parameters just once in our conversation. That came when he listed off some of his inspirations through his 25-plus total years in the league as both a player, coach and now president.
He mentioned Clemons and Chuck Ealey, but got emotional talking about Bernie Custis.
The first Black quarterback in pro football history and a fixture in the Ticats’ organization, Steinauer remembers Custis as coach Ron Lancaster’s right-hand man when he was a player and how he got to know Custis through his four years playing for the Ticats.
“He was just always a form of comfort. He was just there,” Steinauer says.
“He didn’t speak a lot of the times I was around him but when he did or when he pulled you aside, it was a huge amount of respect.
“I still remember a great car ride up to the hospital. I had to get my ankle shot up and he drove me up there. I was really unaware of who I was really riding with. Then we talked a little bit about Al Davis stories and things like that, but he’s just an awesome person.
“Of course when I was in Toronto I had Chuck Ealey, actually sat down with me and we’ve had a couple of conversations. ‘ve been real fortunate to be around some great Black people, not just athletes, but ones that chose to make their home here. You add Mike ‘Pinball’ Clemons into that mix and you’re talking about three people that…well, I’m talking about them. So there you go. The fact that I’m talking about them means something.”
Custis passed away in 2017 at the age of 88 in his adopted home of Burlington, Ont. The Bernie Custis Secondary School stands across the street from Tim Hortons Field and it helps bring that familiar comfort to Steinauer when he’s at work. Asked what he thought Custis might have said in December when Steinauer’s promotion was announced, he paused.
“I’m not sure of the quote he would say, but I know he would say he’s proud of me. I think he would say something along those words in his own way,” Steinauer says.
“I know he was a fan of mine from afar. Obviously, he couldn’t be biased to anybody but I think he’d be proud.”