WINNIPEG — John Hufnagel is about to take a well-deserved vacation.
The Calgary Stampeders head coach/GM followed up his team’s 2014 Grey Cup championship by being named the CFL’s coach of the year Wednesday.
“I have to go to work (Thursday) but the day after I’m heading on a plane to go across the ocean for a week so I’ll be sipping a mai tai,” he said of his Hawaiian holiday.
Hufnagel, 63, earned his second Annis Stukus Trophy after leading Calgary to a CFL-best 15-3 regular-season record. The franchise then claimed its seventh championship with a 20-16 Grey Cup victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at B.C. Place Stadium.
Tom Higgins of the Montreal Alouettes and Chris Jones of the Edmonton Eskimos were the finalists. Hufnagel received 43 first-place votes on the 65 ballots cast by members of the Football Reporters of Canada.
Hufnagel’s first coach-of-the-year award came in ’08 when he led Calgary to a Grey Cup title in his first season back with the club.
The Stampeders lost the 100th Grey Cup game to the Toronto Argonauts in 2012.
Hufnagel has one more season to try and claim a third Annis Stukus Trophy. He’ll return to the sidelines in 2015 then hand the coaching reins over to offensive co-ordinator Dave Dickenson and focus on his GM duties. On Wednesday, Hufnagel said there was no temptation for him to go out on top after winning the championship.
“This whole thing was an agreement put in place last year to keep Dave in the building,” Hufnagel said. “In fact, Dave told me right after the Grey Cup game, he said, ’Now don’t do anything stupid.’
“We have a plan and we will follow through with that plan. I enjoy coaching and so I have one more year to enjoy it.”
Calgary defensive back/linebacker Keon Raymond was proud to see his head coach honoured. Raymond, a CFL Players’ Association rep, on hand as part of the league’s annual meetings.
“I’m extremely happy for coach Huf,” Raymond said. “For him over the last couple of years to be coming so close and for him to win, and not just to win, but to have the season that we’ve had.
“Words can’t express how important he is to our team, our organization. A lot of people on the outside see him as the Grinch, per se, but honestly he’s a coach that I wouldn’t mind watching my kids. I mean, he probably won’t hear them a lot of times breaking stuff (Hufnagel has a hearing impairment), but he’s such a players’ coach because he played, he understands the situations we go through as players.”
For example, Raymond said Hufnagel supported a company that approached the Stampeders to try to help players prepare for careers after football. Hufnagel wants similar programs across the league.
“He sees you as a human first, then a player,” Raymond said.
“He understands the man, then the player.
“So when you can get a coach who understands the aspects of what you bring to the table and who you are, you want to lay it out on the line for him.”
Hufnagel said he tries to be up front with his players.
“I always say to the players, I try to be completely honest because I’m not smart enough to remember the lie I told them yesterday,” he said.
Hufnagel joins Wally Buono (1992-’93) as the only Calgary coaches to receive the award on multiple occasions.
Besides Buono and Hufnagel, the other Stampeders coaches to capture the honour include Jerry Williams (1967), Jack Gotta (1978) and Higgins (’05).
Higgins, the former CFL director of officiating and a two-time coach of the year winner, led Montreal to a 9-9 record and second spot in the East Division in his first season with the club. That’s an impressive feat considering the Alouettes opened the season 1-7.
“Now it’s become a joke,” Higgins said of Montreal’s early struggles. “When we were 1-7, it’s difficult to lose that many games because it seems like it’s over a three-month period of time you haven’t had any success.
“(My wife) Sharon and I, I continued to tell her, ’We didn’t sign up for this. This isn’t what I went to Montreal for.’ But life’s a journey, so is each and every season. You’re going to have ups, you’re going to have downs.
“We just happened to have a whole bunch of downs and all of sudden it turned because all of a sudden there were some athletes that were injured that came back and we were able to make a change in some certain positions, so it was such a rewarding year.”
Edmonton posted a 12-6 record — second-best in the CFL — under Jones, its first-year head coach, after registering a 4-14 mark in 2013. But the Eskimos couldn’t solve the Stampeders, losing all three regular-season games and the West Division final to their provincial rivals.
Jones credited his coaches and players for turning the team around.
“Unfortunately, winning and losing are both contagious,” Jones said. “Sometimes you get on a string where you’re not playing well or you’re losing a game or two and people lose confidence. I think that’s just human nature.
“So to have them come back and this year play as hard as they played, it’s a tribute to them.”