MONTREAL — Trying to change the “Alouette way” was what got Dan Hawkins fired only five games into his first job as a head coach in the Canadian Football League.
With the Montreal Alouettes’ once-powerful offence sputtering, general manager Jim Popp announced Thursday that Hawkins was gone and that offensive co-ordinator Mike Miller would have a reduced role on the coaching staff.
Popp will step in as head coach for the third time in his 18 years with the club, while Hawkins’ adviser Doug Berry will run the offence.
“I won’t get into specifics, but there are some issues that we felt should be moving along quicker than they are,” said Popp., who made the decision along with owner Bob Wetenhall. “We feel it’s going very slow.
“We’re a veteran team. We’re looking for results now. Hopefully we can get ourselves back to the Alouette way.”
Hawkins was hired Feb. 19 to replace the popular Marc Trestman, who left to become head coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. In five seasons, Trestman took the Alouettes to three Grey Cup games, winning twice.
The chatty, gung-ho Hawkins had been working as a broadcaster after a career of coaching U.S. college teams. He was told of the decision by phone on Wednesday night and was to meet with Popp on Thursday.
Popp said Hawkins’ lack of experience coaching pro players was his undoing.
He called Hawkins a good coach, but said “the transition hasn’t been real smooth.”
The Alouettes, whose only losing season since returning to Montreal after a 10-year hiatus in 1996 was the last time Popp took over as coach in 2007, has struggled to a 2-3 start.
The attack led by all-time CFL passing leader Anthony Calvillo, with 11-of-12 starters back from last season, looked disjointed and tentative as it adjusted to a new approach brought in by Hawkins and Miller against the advice of Popp and Calvillo.
“We wanted the coaches to learn the language, instead of 12 people having to learn something new,” said Popp. “That didn’t take place.”
He didn’t go into much detail on what constitutes the Alouette way, but said there were ways of doing things the team had developed that made it a consistent winner.
“It’s a philosophy that works,” he said.
“When you start swaying away too much from that, if people say, ’I don’t care how it was done, I want to do it this way,’ you want to give the guy some freedom to do things.
“But if it starts rubbing too many people the wrong way, and you’re not getting results, it starts creating negativity, and then you worry if they’re going to lose the locker-room.
“I don’t think Dan lost the locker-room, but I think it was teetering. We’re trying to get things back on the path of how we practice, how we do things in our locker-room.”
He gave one example. The Alouettes had always spent 10 minutes before practice stretching, but that was cut to seven minutes, which upset some players.
“These things fester,” said Popp. “And if things aren’t going as well as you’d like, then they become a much bigger problem than they really are.”
Always the good soldier, Calvillo avoided any criticism of the coaching staff. He said that in his first three meetings with Miller before training camp, he was instructing the new OC on how the offence worked, but after that Miller began to make changes.
Calvillo said he went along with it because of Miller’s credentials as former offensive co-ordinator of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. And he said the offence had shown signs of coming around in recent games.
But he also didn’t question the decision to make a change.
“There’s been some frustration across the board,” he said. “We’ve had a certain standard here for a number of years and it’s been very tough to swallow the direction our team was going in.
“But I’ll continue to trust our owner (Bob Wetenhall) and Jim Popp. They’ve decided to make a change. I’ll trust in that and move forward.”
It was the second time in a row Montreal hired a coach with no CFL experience.
But while it worked with Trestman, Hawkins did not appear comfortable with the 12-man game.
“You can definitely look back and call it a mistake,” Popp admitted.
Hawkins bowed out a winner, however. Despite the team’s spotty play, the Alouettes are in second place in the weak East Division and are coming off a nervy 32-27 win over 1-4 Edmonton.
Popp said he hopes Miller will stay with the team and learn the Canadian game. Berry will become the de facto OC without getting the title for now.
Berry worked for the Alouettes as offensive line coach and later as OC from 1996 to 2005, before leaving to become head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He spent two seasons as OC in Saskatchewan before returning to Montreal to help Hawkins’ adjustment to the CFL.
Hawkins had previously coached mainly U.S. college teams, taking Boise State to four Western Athletic Conference titles from 2002 to 2005 before compiling a disappointing 19-39 record at Colorado from 2006 to 2010.
Popp, whose father was an NFL coach, first stepped in as coach to finish off a disastrous 2001 campaign under Rod Rust, but Don Matthews took over the following season.
He became coach again when Matthews fell ill during the 2006 season and brought the Alouettes to the Grey Cup game.
He stayed on for 2007, in which the rookie-laden club that was missing Calvillo for much of the season went 8-10 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Winnipeg.
Popp’s CFL regular-season coaching record is 10-13, with a 1-3 mark in playoff games.
He will be on the field for his first informal practice with the team on Friday.
He said coaching will help him as a general manager because he will get to know the players better and help his assessment of the coaching staff as the search begins for a new head coach, likely to take over next season.
He would not confirm that he will coach for the rest of this season, saying only that “ultimately there will be a new head coach.”