CALGARY — Eric Tillman’s keen eye for talent and knack for recognizing potential head coaches are two big reasons why the Saskatchewan Roughriders are seeking their second Grey Cup championship since 2007.
But the general manager isn’t the centre of attention here in Calgary this week. Instead, he’s become a forgotten man, remaining in Regina on paid administrative leave waiting to stand trial in January on a summary charge of sexual assault involving a 16-year-old girl in August 2008.
Riders president Jim Hopson says Tillman, 52, made the decision not to accompany the team to Alberta for fear of becoming a distraction.
“Eric and I had talked about it and he actually said, ’I don’t think it would be good if I was there,’ and I said I had to agree with him,” Hopson said Thursday. “Given everything that has happened this year I think it would take away from it because he’d become the focus rather than the players and the game.”
The 2009 season has certainly been one to remember for the Roughriders (10-7-1), who finished atop the West Division for the first time since 1976 before dethroning the defending Grey Cup-champion Calgary Stampeders in a thrilling 27-17 conference final to secure a second Grey Cup berth since ’07.
But the Riders made headlines for all the wrong reasons in February when news of Tillman’s charge became public. The club placed Tillman on a paid leave but he has been involved in its operations. He hasn’t been allowed to visit the club’s offices or speak with reporters.
“We communicate almost daily by telephone,” head coach Ken Miller said. “I have seen him periodically at his home but most of our communication has come through the telephone or email.
“We’ve been able to work effectively and I’ve been pretty much in charge of coaching the football team and it’s worked successfully.”
Tillman has pleaded not guilty to the charge and is scheduled to stand trial Jan. 4, 2010.
Hopson said while the Riders have enjoyed a successful year on the field, he admits it’s been a challenge off of it.
“It has been an usual year and I’d be less than honest if I said it hasn’t been challenging at times,” Hopson said. “We went through a difficult year in some ways with Eric basically working from home and not being able to talk to the media.
“But I think the way we handled it has worked well for his situation and us because it never became a distraction for us at any point in the year. Eric was able to do his job of finding players and Kenny and the coaches were able to do the job of coaching the team and running it day to day. Brendan Taman (hired in July as director of football administration) was also a big asset. Yeah, it’s highly unusual.”
There’s no denying Tillman has played a big role in the Riders’ recent success.
Tillman took heat shortly after joining the Riders for hiring a rookie head coach in Kent Austin and making many difficult personnel decisions to shave more than $600,000 in payroll to get Saskatchewan under the then league-mandated $4.05-million salary cap.
But the Roughriders responded by posting a 12-6 record — second-best in the CFL — to secure their first home playoff game since 1988 en route to their first Grey Cup title since ’89. Tillman also did a solid job of trading for such stalwarts as receiver D.J. Flick, offensive lineman Wayne Smith, kicker-punter Jamie Boreham and running back Wes Cates to replace the veterans the club either released or lost to free agency.
And when Austin left Saskatchewan to become the offensive co-ordinator at Ole Miss, his alma mater, Tillman raised eyebrows again when he hired Miller as the club’s head coach. Again, the move paid off as Miller has compiled a 22-13-1 overall record and led the Riders to the playoffs in both of his seasons on the sidelines.
But Tillman enjoyed CFL success long before arriving in Regina, earning Grey Cup rings as the GM of the B.C. Lions in 1994 and Toronto Argonauts in ’97.
And Hopson says it’s unfortunate Tillman can’t be with the Riders during Grey Cup week and enjoy the fruits of his labour.
“He can’t but I talked to him by email (Wednesday) night and he’s at home watching and is very proud and excited,” Hopson said. “But it’s got to be tearing him up, I know that.”