HAMILTON — Bob Young has lofty expectations of Kent Austin.
Austin has led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to three East Division final games, two conference titles and a pair of Grey Cup appearances. But Young, the franchise owner, is expecting Austin to emphatically end the team’s 17-year championship drought this season.
As incentive, the team signed Austin to an extension Tuesday to remain the team’s head coach, general manager and vice-president of football operations through the 2019 season.
“He (Austin) is excited to be able to bring the Grey Cup here a couple of times over the next couple of years,” a beaming Young told reporters at Tim Hortons Field. “Kent has standards where second-best isn’t good enough.
“It doesn’t matter how high second is. No pressure, that’s exactly right.”
Austin, 52, was heading into the final year of the deal he signed upon joining the Ticats in December 2012. He has done a solid job of rebuilding the Ticats, who were 6-12 and last in the East Division in 2012.
Under Austin, Hamilton has posted a 29-25 record and reached the playoffs three straight years, including 2013 when it played home games in Guelph, Ont., while Tim Hortons Field was being built.
Austin did a stellar job last year after Hamilton lost starting quarterback Zach Collaros to a season-ending knee injury. The Ticats were 8-3 under Collaros, who at the time led the CFL in passing yards (3,376), touchdowns (25) and passer rating (113.7) with an impressive 70.2 completion percentage.
With youngsters Jeff Mathews, Jacory Harris and Jeremiah Masoli all starting, Hamilton (10-8) finished second in the East. With Mathews (concussion) sidelined, Hamilton retooled its offence to suit Masoli’s skillset and he responded by leading the Ticats past Toronto 25-22 in the East semifinal — Masoli’s first career post-season start — before passing for 349 yards in a wild 35-28 East Division loss to Ottawa.
Austin, a native of Natick, Mass., didn’t have to think long and hard to remain in Hamilton.
“The decision, really, was pretty easy,” he said. “The litmus test isn’t too hard when you’re happy, you feel challenged, you work with great people (and) an organization that cares and gives you an opportunity to run.
“They’re smart, they’re bright, they’re discerning, they’re shrewd, all the superlatives that you can think of are actually embodied here. It makes it easy to get up and come to work . . . and for me to do my part to help this organization be as good as it can possibly be.”
Collaros, now walking without crutches, applauded the Ticats’ extending Austin.
“I’m a big believer in continuity and I think in the CFL it’s hard to come by at times,” Collaros said. “Knowing that coach Austin is going to be around not only as the head coach but the GM and every other job title he has, it’s comforting for us as players.”
Austin was a finalist in 2013 for the CFL’s coach of the year award, an honour he claimed in 2007 after leading Saskatchewan to a Grey Cup title in his first season as a head coach. Overall, Austin has won four Grey Cups as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
Austin will return in 2016 with virtually the same coaching staff he had last year, including offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell, defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer and special-teams co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold. Austin said the status of one assistant remained unclear but wouldn’t say who that was.
“That (return of co-ordinators) is huge for us,” Austin said. “The players respond to them, they know how to coach and how to develop, how to evaluate and they’re completely unselfish, they just want to win.”
A pressing duty for Austin is the start of CFL free agency Feb. 9. Hamilton has over 30 pending free agents, including slotback Andy Fantuz, defensive linemen Ted Laurent and Brian Bulcke — all Canadian starters — as well as defensive back Emmanuel Davis and kicker Justin Medlock.
“We certainly have what-if scenarios in the event things don’t play out the way we want them to with a particular player or group of players,” Austin said. “We’re executing the plan to the best of our ability and I think it’s playing out pretty decently right now.”