TORONTO — There was no doubt in Ryan Dinwiddie’s mind this off-season that he was ready to become a CFL head coach.
But nothing could’ve prepared him for the challenge of preparing for his first season amid the uncertainty created by a global pandemic.
“Your first year you don’t expect something like this but it’s a speed bump in the road,” Dinwiddie said with a chuckle during a telephone interview. “Each week, it’s something new.
“Right now we’re kind of waiting to hear and see so we can at least have a plan going forward.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is put the 2020 CFL season on hold. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie has said an abbreviated campaign could begin as early as next month but that no football also remains possible.
The CFL and the federal government continue to discuss a $30-million, interest-free loan. League sources told The Canadian Press on Monday the government still requires some cost certainties, a specified CFL repayment plan and breakdown of health-and-safety protocols it would implement during a shortened season.
The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because neither the CFL nor federal officials have publicly divulged potential funding details.
Dinwiddie, 39, was hired as Toronto’s head coach in December following four seasons as Calgary’s quarterback coach. Over that span, Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell was twice named the CFL’s outstanding player and guided the club to three straight Grey Cup appearances, winning in 2018.
Dinwiddie, the CFL’s youngest head coach, took over a Toronto club that’s missed the playoffs the last two years since winning the ‘17 Grey Cup. He also served as an assistant coach with Montreal (2013-15) after five seasons as a quarterback with Winnipeg (2006-08) and Saskatchewan (2010-11).
In a normal 2020, Dinwiddie would be preparing for his eighth regular-season contest. But these are hardly normal times for Dinwiddie and other CFL head coaches.
“I did our original training camp schedule … then we went to a 14-day training camp and put that together,” Dinwiddie said. “Then we heard it’s going to be a 10-day camp and put that together and now it might only be a week.
“You’ve got to keep your knees bent and ready for whatever is thrown at you next.”
And maintaining a sense of humour doesn’t hurt, either.
“I joke around with my family and friends like, ‘Wouldn’t you know it? I get my first head-coaching job and this happens,’” Dinwiddie said. “It’s similar to when I get on flights, I don’t know how many times I’ve had flights cancelled, been stuck in cities or been delayed five, six hours.
“Everyone says, ‘Don’t travel with Ryan.’ It’s just one of those things you joke about.”
But the novel coronavirus is no joking matter, having caused nearly 700,000 deaths worldwide. If there’s a shortened season, the CFL Players’ Association has negotiated opt-outs for players with safety concerns.
However, coaches have no such representation. Many CFL assistants are over the age of 60 and some have pre-existing medical ailments.
Fortunately for Dinwiddie, his staff is committed to participating in a shortened season. But he can understand other coaches being worried.
“There are guys across other staffs that are older and maybe have some outlining health issues that people don’t necessarily know about,” Dinwiddie said. “They could feel like they’re putting themselves or their families at risk.
“Football is important, it’s life for us. But at the same time there are other things that are far more important.”
The current situation has allowed players and coaches to remain with family at a time when it’s usually difficult to do so. And that’s not lost upon Dinwiddie, a married father of a 16-month-old son.
“I’ve been teaching him how to swing a golf club, he’s not quite there yet,” Dinwiddie said. “But he’s picked up the baseball bat pretty good.
“I’ll probably never get a chance to spend this much time with my family, that’s kind of the blessing of this. My wife and I would’ve liked our families to come up … but there are plenty of Skype meetings.”
A shortened season would be held in Winnipeg, the CFL’s tentative hub city, without spectators. The league’s nine teams would play six regular-season games in an anticipated one-division format.
The first eight clubs would make the playoffs with the final two squaring off in the Grey Cup game, which would also be held in Winnipeg.
Dinwiddie doesn’t think coaches will have trouble adjusting to life in a bubble. But that could be different for CFL players, who usually are obligated to spend roughly 4 1/2 hours daily doing football-related activities.
“You’re going to be away from your family and locked in your room outside of meetings and practices, that’s going to be tough,” Dinwiddie said. “I think coaches will be fine, we’ll be chugging along watching film, we’re not going to have time to do much else anyway.
“But some guys are going to have to find hobbies or something to do.”
Dinwiddie feels a shorter training camp with no exhibition games will make it hard on rookies to push established veterans heading into an abbreviated campaign. But an option could be starting the year with younger players and banking on them hitting their stride come playoff time.
“Who knows how it’s going to work out,” Dinwiddie said. “I think more guys are going to hang their hat on a veteran because they’ve seen them do it before.
“But maybe you take the six weeks and build with your younger players. By the end of your season you’re playing where you need to be once playoffs hit while also building towards the future.”
Regardless of the approach he takes, Dinwiddie is anxious to get going.
“We want to win the Grey Cup every year,” Dinwiddie said. “Is that realistic? No, but we want to be in the playoffs every year competing for the Grey Cup, that’s the expectation here.
“There are many good coaches across the league doing really good things that I respect. I understand it’s not going to be easy but at the same time there’s nothing better than a challenge and I’m really looking forward to this one.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2020
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press