TORONTO, Ontario — It has been quite a rookie season for Scott Milanovich.
The first-year head coach led the Toronto Argonauts to a 9-9 record and back into the CFL playoffs in 2012. He capped his season to remember by hoisting the championship trophy over his head after guiding the Argos to victory in the 100th Grey Cup game.
And on Wednesday, Milanovich was named a finalist for the CFL’s coach of the year award. He’ll be up against John Hufnagel of the Calgary Stampeders and Mike Benevides of the B.C. Lions.
“It was a great year for us and it’s a great honour,” Milanovich said. “Coach Huff and coach Benevides both had great years to.
“Our organization did a great job, our coaches, our players. Really, the award in my opinion is all about what kind of success you had as an organization. I know they’re talking about my name but there’s a lot of people who go into that.”
Voting was conducted by the Football Reporters of Canada. The award winner will be honoured Feb. 28 in Regina.
Toronto made huge headlines in December 2011, first hiring Milanovich from the Montreal Alouettes before landing quarterback Ricky Ray in a blockbuster trade with the Edmonton Eskimos.
But Ray and the Argos started slowly. The club was 4-4 up to its Labour Day showdown with Hamilton before losing five of its next six contests to stand 7-9 late in the campaign.
Toronto was 1-2 when Ray went down with a knee injury, then lost a 44-32 decision to Winnipeg in his return. However, Ray led the Argos to victory in their final five games, including a 35-22 decision over Calgary in the Grey Cup before a rapid Rogers Centre gathering of 53,208.
The Argos’ late-season resurgence just reinforced what Milanovich had learned while playing for head coach Tony Dungy with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“That was, have a plan, implement your plan and then stand by it,” Milanovich said. “Coaches go into a season and have a philosophy and a way they were going to go about doing things and if it doesn’t go well right away some coaches will change.
“Tony Dungy was one that taught me, we started 0-5 one year, and he came in and told us that when we started to buy into what he was selling that’s when we’d start winning and he was right. He didn’t change a thing and I felt like we stuck by our plan this year and it took us a little longer to get it going than we had hoped but ultimately in the long run it served us well.”
Milanovich said he won’t feel any extra pressure in 2013 with Toronto being the defending Grey Cup champion.
“The staff and I are still trying to decide how we want to approach the season but our philosophy has always been to concern ourselves with what’s going on in our locker-room,” he said. “If we do our job and concentrate on our team getting better, then the wins and losses will take care of themselves.
“There’s no question it’s a challenge. There’s maybe a little less hunger from some of the guys but the true champions are the ones that are going to want to do it every year. So we’re going to have to figure out who those guys are and get more of them and make sure we have the same attitude we went into last year with.”
Hufnagel, the CFL’s top coach in 2008, led Calgary to second spot in the West Division with a 12-6 record despite losing starter Drew Tate to injury for most of the season. The Stampeders defeated Saskatchewan and B.C. in the playoffs to make their second Grey Cup appearance in five years.
“Both Mike and Scott did excellent coaching work in 2012 and I’m honoured to be named a finalist for the coach of the year award along with those two men,” Hufnagel said. “I’m humbled by the nomination but I would point out that our success in 2012 was a team effort on the part of our players and the staff.”
Hufnagel is entering his sixth season as Calgary’s head coach and GM.
Benevides guided the 2011 champion Lions to a league-best 13-5 record in his first season as head coach.
The 13 victories tied a Lions’ club record for most wins by a first-year head coach but he credited his assistant coaches for that success.
“They’re the ones who do all the work, they’re the ones who make us look good and put the players in the right position,” he said. “This is about them and I’m really proud about that.”
B.C. finished the season with a defence that led the CFL in 18 of the league’s 25 categories, including fewest points (19.7) and yards (294.6) per game and most sacks (47).
But the Lions’ attempt at repeating as Grey Cup champions ended with a 34-29 home loss to Calgary in the West Division final.
“There has been a time to reflect and recover and refresh and get excited about the upcoming season,” Benevides said. “But when you look at the entire body of work, I’m tremendously proud of what we accomplished and the guys did everything we wanted them to do … so there’s a lot of things there that validate what I believe in and what we believe in.
“It’s just a matter of staying the course and finding a way to get better and improve. There’s a lot there to take from and a lot to be proud about.”
Benevides could become the second B.C. coach in as many seasons to win the award. Lions’ GM Wally Buono claimed it last year after leading the club to its Grey Cup title.