So-called rookie coaches inject new life into CFL

Cam Cole
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Trestman, Hufnagel established their reputations as tutors for some of the NFL's top quarterbacks

It strains the laws of probability that the Calgary Stampeders and Montreal Alouettes haven't met in a Grey Cup game since 1970, considering one or the other has been here 17 times in that span.

The odds of it happening are . . . well, roughly the same as the odds of the streak finally ending in a year when both sides have rookie head coaches.

Montreal - It strains the laws of probability that the Calgary Stampeders and Montreal Alouettes haven't met in a Grey Cup game since 1970, considering one or the other has been here 17 times in that span.

The odds of it happening are . . . well, roughly the same as the odds of the streak finally ending in a year when both sides have rookie head coaches.

"What's your definition of a rookie coach?" Stamps' John Hufnagel pointedly asked on Wednesday morning.

"In this league," amended the questioner.

"In this league . . . thank you," said the longtime CFL quarterback, who held up his end of what always promised to be, and was, a no-kidding-around coaches' press conference Wednesday, the first official function at the 96th Grey Cup.

Hufnagel's air of professionalism has penetrated even the difficult noggins of the formerly loosey-goosey Stampeders in 2008, and that same sense of educated purpose is everywhere you look when Montreal's Marc Trestman is presiding over a fast-paced, super-efficient 70-minute practice session at Olympic Stadium.

So you can perhaps forgive them if the one moment of levity in Wednesday's joint newser came when someone asked what Trestman's suit and tie and Hufnagel's tee-shirt under a sports jacket said about their personalities.

"What it says about me is that I don't listen to my wife," said the ultra-reserved Hufnagel.

"It says that I do listen to my wife," said Trestman, whose manner and build are reminiscent of the man Hufnagel replaced in Calgary, preacherly Tom Higgins. "It's the only suit I own, and it's the second time I've worn it."

So they'll never be stand-up comics. The notion that either one of these guys is a rookie, though, is just proof that the dictionary needs updating.

Credentials, please?

The Minneapolis-born Trestman is 52, a former U of Minnesota quarterback who went on, as either quarterback coach or offensive co-ordinator, to extract many of the best seasons' work out of Bernie Kosar at the U of Miami and again in Cleveland, Steve Young in San Francisco, Jake Plummer in Arizona, and Rich Gannon in Oakland, among others. In the midst of all that, he earned a law degree at the University of Miami. He was brought into pro football as a running backs coach in Minnesota by Vikings (and Winnipeg Blue Bombers) legend Bud Grant. He spent the 1996 season as the 49ers' offensive coordinator, arguing play-calling with the master, Bill Walsh, sitting next to him in the spotters' booth. That's an education.

Hufnagel, 57, was an All-American quarterback for Joe Paterno at Penn State before a long CFL career distinguished by a single Grey Cup with Winnipeg in 1984. He coached under Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, Bill Belichick in New England and Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville and New York. Among the passers he helped develop or refine (as quarterback coach or offensive co-ordinator) were Peyton and Eli Manning, Mark Brunell and Tom Brady.

But neither was going to be a head man in the NFL, a major break for the Canadian league last off-season when their simultaneous arrival injected new blood and fresh ideas into a CFL coaching circle that B.C.'s Wally Buono has often noted is in dire need of some.

All these two have done, in the space of a single year, is shake the CFL by the scruff of its neck, and wake it up. They came in with NFL-level ideas about positional discipline and strong beliefs about preparation and personal responsibility, and their football squads have bought the works.

"The one thing that doesn't get mentioned with coaching is the ability to change the culture of a team, and that's what John has done," Buono said prior to the West final.

A similar transformation has happened in Montreal. Trestman admitted from the start that he would be learning on the job, and the Als were won over by his honesty.

"I spent an awful lot of years in an office, thinking of players more like chess pieces or pieces of a puzzle and never looking at the human side of it," he said. "The last six or seven years that's changed. I think that winning goes much deeper than X's and O's, it's about getting to know other people, what they're about, building a locker-room with the right kind of characters in it."

"This is his first time as a head coach," said the Als' Hall of Fame-bound pivot, Anthony Calvillo, "but he's learned from a lot of great, great coaches in the past, and he's kind of gotten to pick and choose what he liked about what each one did."

"When he came in here, he didn't have an ego, he was an open book to us, he told us he didn't have all the answers, he was going to ask questions - and immediately we respected him because he didn't try to act like someone he wasn't," said Bryan Chiu, who's played 12 years on the Montreal offensive line under six head coaches.

"I think he's an offensive genius. He stresses detail, detail, detail. In my 12 years, this is the most we've ever met as an offensive unit. The offensive line will sit in meetings and watch our receivers run routes. And vice versa, they'll sit and watch us run-block. A few weeks into it, (Trestman) said: 'It's to let you know that everything's connected.' He wanted us to appreciate each other."

Trestman, who had the slogan "Everything Matters" stencilled on each Alouette player's locker, has the look of a chartered accountant, and Hufnagel comes across as a Belichick-style curmudgeon. But in each case, appearances are deceiving.

Injured Stamps QB Dave Dickenson, a former Lion who had never played for any other CFL head coach but Buono until this season, sees a great many similarities between his ex- and current bosses.

"But I think Huf's a little lighter," Dickenson said. "I love the way he coaches, because he's fun. Very personable. But he'll step on you when he has to, and I have no problem with that. I don't think any of the guys feel like they've been lied to, or mistreated."

Hufnagel has never denied how much of his approach to coaching he owes to Buono, whom he calls "arguably the best coach in CFL history."

"The things we were able to do in the 1990s when I coached with Wally (for seven years in Calgary), a lot of those were his ideas that I ran with," Hufnagel said last week, perhaps overmodestly.

Neither he nor Trestman got here without ideas of their own - and, finally, the authority to call the shots.

Organizations: NFL, Calgary Stampeders, Montreal Alouettes University of Miami Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Geographic location: Montreal, Calgary, Minnesota Olympic Stadium Minneapolis Miami Cleveland San Francisco Arizona Oakland Penn Winnipeg Indianapolis New England Jacksonville New York

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