Hamilton Tiger-Cats Caretaker Bob Young gave president Scott Mitchell a present three years ago and Mitchell put it on display for the first time at Monday’s press conference to introduce the newest member of the organization.
“All the staff and media here, you’re probably shocked to see me with a tie on for the first time since I’ve been here I think,” Mitchell said of his Ticats yellow-speckled tie.
“Bob Young gave me this tie three years ago and told me to wear it on a special occasion, today is the first time I’ve worn this tie.”
“This is a very special occasion for us, we are thrilled, excited – can’t tell you how excited we are – to bring in Kent Austin in as our Vice-President of Football Operations, General Manager and Head Coach.”
Less than a week after the Ticats parted ways with George Cortez, the team nabbed Austin to be the man to lead the franchise back to the top. The hiring process moved along at a rapid pace.
A day after Cortez was relieved of his duties - Wednesday, December 12 to be exact - Mitchell was in contact with Cornell University Athletic Director, Andy Noel, and received permission to speak with Austin about the job opportunity in Hamilton.
“I got a call Wednesday night from Scott and then everything went pretty quickly after that,” Austin said. “I’ve known Scott for many years and have a personal relationship with him. There is a trust there for me that was important.”
“The good news for me, from just understanding this opportunity, was that I talked to my agent about the coaching opportunity last year. I never talked with the Ticats directly, but I did talk a lot with my agent, who had many conversations with Scott Mitchell. We’ve been in a due diligence, information-gathering process now for quite sometime. This wasn’t just a cold turkey or stale environment that we were making the decision from.”
Austin turned down Hamilton’s head coaching offer at about the same time last year and he did admit that the chance to be head coach, general manager and vice-president of football operations this time around was very enticing.
“I’m not going to lie, it was a pretty big carrot,” Austin said of the two extra titles added besides being the head coach.
“As a coach I was wired to say if I’m going to be responsible for our product I wanted to have a little bit more say in who’s out there. So, it was important, I wouldn’t say that it was the clincher, but I would say it was a piece of the puzzle that we evaluated in the decision-making process.”
Austin’s move to the Steel City brings him back to the Canadian Football League after a five-year absence. The 49-year-old is batting 1.000 in terms of head coaching stints in the CFL and Grey Cup titles.
He led the Saskatchewan Roughriders to a championship in 2007, his only season as a head coach in the league. His new position with the Ticats reunites him with a handful of players who were a part of that title team in Saskatchewan.
Most notable of the group is receiver Andy Fantuz. The 29-year-old had a breakout season in 2007 in Austin’s offensive system, hauling in 56 receptions for 978 yards and seven touchdowns, to go along with 70 yards receiving and a score in the Riders’ Grey Cup win, earning him Most Valuable Canadian honours in the game.
“It feels like the same type of feeling when he came to Saskatchewan,” Fantuz said. “You immediately sense his confidence and energy that he brings.”
“Andy, I said at the time in 2007, he’s one of the best time and space receivers that I’ve been around,” Austin said.
“Our offence requires a lot of adjustments by the receivers within the passing structures and the pattern structures. Andy just had a knack to read the defence very quickly and execute his options almost flawlessly. He didn’t do it right every time, but he was very coachable and has high football intelligence.”
“I’m really looking forward to working with Andy again.”
Fantuz happens to be very fond of Austin’s coaching style.
“He’s one of a kind. He just is who he is. He’s definitely fun to be around, makes every day enjoyable at practice and meetings. I guess he’s a players’ coach, but that’s just a term,” Fantuz said.
“He’s approachable and I think his best quality is making adjustments in his game planning. He’s a guy that wanted to know what the players on the field were thinking and where their minds were and what they saw. Also, being a former quarterback he could easily read defences and make adjustments on the fly.”
Back in 2007 together in Riderville, Fantuz recalls Austin being so confident in his offensive plays that he was willing to put some tasty meat on the line.
“I remember him putting certain plays in, and he would jokingly bet steak dinners on the fact that it would be a touchdown the next game,” Fantuz explained.
“Did he tell you that?” Austin said, laughing loudly.
“He’s got a good memory. Part of that is just to have fun and keep the players loose. Listen, I want our players to have fun. But, this sport is not for everybody, it’s a difficult sport, it takes a pretty huge commitment, physically, emotionally and mentally, and I want our players to have an environment that they can thrive in. At times we try and make it as fun as we can.”
Austin, who has four Grey Cup rings of to his credit, two as a player and two as a coach, certainly sounds and appears to be the man who can make football fun again, for all with a vested interest, in the Hammer.