December 6, 2023

O’Leary: Six Hamilton head coach candidates

Thomas Skrlj/

While the news itself wasn’t necessarily a surprise, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ front office restructuring still felt seismic on Tuesday. Orlondo Steinauer’s move to focus on his role as president of football operations allowed for Ed Hervey to move into the general manager’s chair and suddenly — and perhaps very briefly — there is a vacancy at the head coach spot.

In the team’s announcement of these moves, it said the head coaching role would be filled later this week. The Hamilton Spectator’s Steve Milton and TSN’s Dave Naylor emerged from the team’s Tuesday afternoon press conference believing that Scott Milanovich will fill that role.

Milanovich joined the Ticats in May of this year and assumed offensive coordinator duties in August when the team parted ways with Tommy Condell. He was the head coach of the Toronto Argonauts from 2012-2016 and would have been the Edmonton Elks’ head coach had the 2020 season not been cancelled.

With a Grey Cup win leading the Argos in 2012, plus six prior years as in the CFL as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator leading up to his time as a head coach, Milanovich brings a wealth of experience to the role. That the Ticats have said they plan to announce their head coach hire this week suggests their search has been a short one and Milanovich checks a lot of boxes in this quickly unfolding situation. He isn’t the only option, though. Here are a quick list of other possibilities for who could be on the Ticats’ sideline when training camp opens in 2024.

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Looking in-house

Ticats’ defensive coordinator Mark Washington has worked closely with Orlondo Steinauer and Ed Hervey over the last few years (Kevin Sousa/

Milanovich is likely the first name that comes to mind, given his experience, but he isn’t the only internal option. Defensive coordinator Mark Washington served as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator under Steinauer in 2022 and has been with the Ticats’ organization since the 2019 season, when Steinauer became the team’s head coach.

In his column on Tuesday, Milton referenced that both Milanovich and Washington interviewed for the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ head coaching job, which ultimately went to Corey Mace.

Washington played in the CFL for 11 seasons and has coached in the league for 15 seasons. He’s increasingly had his name come up in head coaching vacancy conversations over the last few years and in many ways would be a very sensible hire by the Ticats. Washington has worked closely with Steinauer over the last five years and has been around Hervey the last two seasons, so there’s no lack of familiarity with what he brings to the team and on what the internal dynamics would be with him as the head coach.

Venturing outside of THF

Given the tight timeframe of the incoming coaching hire, going beyond the confines of Tim Hortons Field feels like a stretch right now, but there are a lot of strong head coaching candidates around the CFL.

We can start that list with the reported finalist for the Roughriders’ head coaching job, in Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offensive coordinator and former CFL QB, Buck Pierce.

Pierce has been the Bombers’ OC the past three seasons and has been with the club for nine total, serving as a quarterbacks coach and running backs coach in his climb to the OC role. Like Washington, Pierce’s name has worked its way into head coaching vacancy conversations over the past couple of years, thanks in no part to the success Pierce has seen after he assumed the OC job in Winnipeg with the departure of Paul LaPolice. Pierce’s offence has allowed Bombers’ QB Zach Collaros to claim MOP awards in 2021 and 2022, while the Bombers have continued their run of Grey Cup appearances and regular season dominance. This past season Winnipeg’s offence was first in points (571), offensive touchdowns (62), net offence (414.7 yards per game), first downs (423), rushing yards (2,503), average gain on pass (10.1) and in passing touchdowns (42).

Noel Thorpe led a ferocious Alouettes’ defence to the 110th Grey Cup (Chris Tanouye/

On the other side of the ball, there’s Montreal Alouettes’ defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe. Thorpe’s defence came alive this season with the Alouettes, as it flexed its muscles in the Eastern Semi-Final, where the Als stunned the 16-2 Toronto Argonauts to advance to the 110th Grey Cup. There, the Als finished the job, playing underdogs once again and disposing of the Bombers to bring the franchise its first Grey Cup win since 2010. Thorpe has 19 years of coaching experience in the CFL and now has been a part of a pair of Grey Cup-winning teams (2002 in Edmonton, to go with the 2023 Alouettes). Thorpe’s defence led the league in opponents average pass (7.6 yards), opponents’ 30-plus-yard plays (22) and opponents’ pass efficiency (81.2). The Als were second in opponents’ passing touchdowns (17) and were second in turnover ratio, at plus-14.

There are a couple of interesting candidates in BC, as well, in offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic and defensive coordinator Ryan Phillips. Both are younger coaches that have yet to take on a head coaching role, but both have thrived in BC, where the Lions have played in back-to-back Western Finals in the last two years.

Maksymic crossed paths with Hervey when the two were in Edmonton, then again when Maksymic came to the Lions in 2020. In his short time as an offensive coordinator, he’s worked with Michael Reilly, Nathan Rourke and Vernon Adams Jr. as his starting quarterbacks. Reilly led the league in passing yards in 2021, Rourke was named Most Outstanding Canadian in 2022 and Adams had a career year in 2023, throwing for 4,769 yards.

Phillips just completed his second season as the Lions’ defensive coordinator. His defence was highlighted this year by Mathieu Betts‘ record-setting 18 sacks, which garnered him Most Outstanding Defensive Player honours, while the team’s 55 sacks were second-best in the league. The Lions were third in opponents’ offensive touchdowns (38), second in opponents’ net offence (328.8 yards per game), first in opponents’ yards per play (5.97), third in opponents’ completion percentage (65.8) and third in opponents’ pass efficiency (89.9) in 2023.

Hervey saw Phillips come into the Lions organization as a defensive backs coach in 2019. A head coaching job would be early for him, just five years into his coaching career but Phillips has excelled in his post-playing days, with the Lions’ defensive success giving hints at what he’s capable of.

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