Milanovich leads Argos by example
TORONTO — As his Toronto Argonauts filtered into a hotel restaurant for a media breakfast, Scott Milanovich was already hard at work.
Sitting in a nearby chair, the tall Toronto coach was absorbed in his notes. The more time the better to plot the downfall of the Calgary Stampeders in Sunday’s Grey Cup.
Milanovich had already warned his players there was work to do after meeting their media responsibilities.
“The first thing I hear him say was ‘All right we need to get back and work on our first down install,”’ running back Chad Kackert said. “He’s really focused on the task at hand.”
The 39-year-old rookie head coach, who also directs the Argo offence, comes across as calm, professional and very, very thorough.
At Wednesday’s coaches’ news conference, Milanovich was unfailingly polite and showed John Hufnagel, his 61-year-old Calgary counterpart, nothing but respect — referring to him throughout as Coach Hufnagel or Coach Huf.
He even prompted Hufnagel, who has hearing problems, by repeating questions as needed.
Milanovich, who has won two Grey Cups as an assistant coach with the Montreal Alouettes, also showed a dry sense of humour and was self-deprecating, saying the Argos’ Grey Cup march was not about him.
“My name being on that Cup is not important to me. I have two (championship) rings. I also lost one to this gentleman sitting next to me,” he said, referring to Hufnagel and the 2008 Grey Cup when Calgary beat Montreal 22-14.
“What is important to me is for our players’ names to be on there. This is about them, this has never been about me.”
Milanovich says Toronto’s championship quest is also about general manager Jim Barker, the community, the organization and growing the Argo brand.
“I’m just fortunate and thankful that they gave me the opportunity to be a part of this,” he added.
It was a speech that might not have sounded right coming out of some mouths. But it seemed a good match for Milanovich.
When the topic came up, Milanovich acknowledged he could have better handled the off-season hiring of defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones — a close friend — from Hufnagel’s Stamps.
“What had originated as Chris calling me to congratulate me (on getting the Toronto job) turned into more than that,” Milanovich said.
The Argos were fined by the league for mishandling the hire.
Milanovich made fun of his own quarterbacking career, mischievously noting that then-Cleveland Browns quarterback coach Hufnagel released him before his contract became guaranteed — and opened up about his upbringing.
The son of a high school football coach in Pennsylvania, Milanovich appeared to almost tear up when recalling how he and his dad used to watch game film on a white bed sheet.
His father taught him the game and it’s clear the message stuck.
“His message to me was always about poise,” Milanovich said. “When you’re the quarterback and you’re a leader, everybody looks to you when things go badly or when things go well, to see how you’re going to react.
“His mantra to me was always stay even-keeled. And I learned the same lesson from Tony Dungy when I was fortunate to have played for him in Tampa Bay.”
Milanovich exudes calm, although his players say there is a sterner side.
“For the most part, he’s very professional and treats us like men,” said receiver/returner Chad Owens. “But when he needs to step up and let us know that we’re messing up, he’s going to do that.
“He’s a tremendous leader, he’s a winner and you can tell what kind of player he was by the way he coaches.”
Said Kackert: “He’s a fair coach and he does a good job of staying focused on what needs to be done.”
In a season that sometimes saw the Argos shoot themselves in the foot, Milanovich patiently answered question after question about costly penalties, although as the season wore on, it seemed clear he was clenching his teeth as he did so.
He refused to throw players under the bus, taking the blame himself.
“Clearly I didn’t have them ready to play tonight,” Milanovich said after a 36-10 loss to Saskatchewan on Oct. 8. “And I’ve got to do a better job of getting them ready to go, giving them the chance to be successful offensively.