Access won’t be an issue during Brock Sunderland’s tenure with the Edmonton Eskimos.
Edmonton officially unveiled Sunderland as its general manager and vice-president of football operations Tuesday. And the CFL’s youngest GM — the native of Great Falls, Mont., is 37 — immediately opened the Eskimos’ locker-room, something that had become an issue under his predecessor, Ed Hervey.
“The first and foremost focus I’ll have is to put a winning team on the field and Len (Eskimos president Len Rhodes) and I agree on that,” said Sunderland, who holds a degree in communications. “We’ll have an open locker-room, we’re in agreement with that as is Jason (Eskimos head coach Jason Maas).
“And thirdly, I’m going to be open and available to what Len wants and I’ll follow his lead on that.”
Hervey was fired earlier this month after he and Rhodes had reached an impasse in talks on a contract extension. But they also had philosophical differences over stakeholder access to Eskimos players.
Last season, the CFL fined Edmonton $20,000 and Maas $15,000 after Maas and starter Mike Reilly refused to wear live microphones during a game against the Montreal Alouettes. The live microphones were part of a league-wide move to provide fans with access to the interactions between coaches and quarterbacks.
Maas and Reilly wore live microphones in Edmonton’s regular-season finale Nov. 6 against Toronto. But Reilly didn’t play in the 41-17 home victory while Maas pretty much stood silent after relegating play-calling duties to his offensive assistants.
Media access had become a hot-button topic in Edmonton since 2014 when the community-owned club abruptly closed its locker-room to reporters. The Eskimos made players available on the field after practice but since ‘14 had only opened up the locker-room following home games.
When Rhodes fired Hervey, he made it very clear Maas was staying put. Sunderland assumes his first CFL job as a GM after four years as Ottawa’s assistant general manager, working with Maas, who served as the Redblacks offensive co-ordinator in 2015 before becoming Edmonton’s head coach.
Sunderland had interviewed previously for GM positions with both the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Montreal Alouettes.
“Third time’s the charm,” he said. “This has been a lifetime dream and to be able to do it out west close to home is just icing on the cake.
“But the thing is I was very happy in Ottawa, I went to work happy every day. I always believe you’re where you’re supposed to be.”
Edmonton was 40-32 over Hervey’s four seasons, reaching the playoffs three times and beating Ottawa 26-20 in the ‘15 Grey Cup game. Sunderland doesn’t have to worry about a marquee quarterback as veteran Mike Reilly had a CFL-leading 5,554 yards passing last year.
“It’s professional football … there’s going to be pressure and expectations,” Sunderland said. ”If you’re fearful of that then you shouldn’t be in this industry.”
Sunderland began his CFL career as a scout with the Montreal Alouettes (2004-2007) before serving as a scout with the NFL’s New York Jets (2007-2012). He returned to the CFL with Ottawa, where in the space of three years he and GM Marcel Desjardins built an expansion franchise into a Grey Cup contender.
After losing the 2015 final, Ottawa won last year’s Grey Cup with a thrilling 39-33 upset overtime win over Calgary.
Desjardins said while the timing of Sunderland’s departure isn’t ideal, he’s glad for the opportunity Sunderland now has.
“We’re happy for him and thankful for what he brought to our organization,” Desjardins said. “But we’re also comfortable moving forward with the group that we have and we’ll look at all opportunities or options as it relates to what we’re going to do next in terms of staffing.”
Desjardins doesn’t see Sunderland’s departure impacting what Ottawa does in the CFL draft. Edmonton holds the fifth overall selection while the Redblacks have the final pick of the opening round at No. 9.
“Brock’s information relative to the Redblacks and the draft is really, right now, limited to his own personal views,” Desjardins said. “Anything to do with the bigger picture is not something that’s been shared as a group to this point so there’s no real concerns there.”
Sunderland comes from a football family. His father, Marv, spent four decades as a scout in the U.S. college ranks, CFL and NFL.
“He had as much of an influence as anyone can have,” Sunderland said of his father. “A lot of the things I believe I’ve learned from him and being around the game and hearing philosophies and how to build teams.”