Mike Hogan is the play-by-play voice of the Toronto Argonauts on TSN 1050 Radio and contributes articles about the team for TSN.ca. On draft day, he was granted the rare opportunity to report on this year's draft from inside the Argos 'war room'.
"You're only as good as your Canadian talent."
It's a well-worn cliche among those who follow the Canadian Football League, but it happens to be true. The stakes are high in the annual selection process, so the tension at the Argonaut head office in downtown Toronto was understandably high, particularly as it became closer to the beginning of the draft.
Argo general manager Jim Barker sat down with TSN.ca at 4:30 pm et, two and a half hours before the first round commenced, to discuss what could and could not be included in this article. The only restriction was that the names of any players not drafted by Toronto, or names of players involved in trade discussion would not be used. Anything else was fair game.
At that point, Barker explained that a trade with Edmonton had been completed. The Boatmen had acquired the third overall pick in the draft and intended to select Anthony Coombs if he was available. Barker had acquired the No. 3 and No. 21 picks in exchange for the No. 6 and No. 15 picks, as well as veteran import offensive tackle Tony Washington. The two teams also exchanged the rights of one player each from their negotiation list. The trade would not be announced until later, but was not contingent upon Coombs being available.
The Argonauts love Coombs, a running back from the University of Manitoba. One person inside the room confided that it was a unanimous feeling about Coombs, and among a collection of people within an organization leading up to a draft, that's a rarity.
The dye was cast. The Argos had done what they had to do, move up in the draft and get the highest pick they could without giving up too much. They had accomplished that, but now came the toughest part of the day; the waiting.
The braintrust tried its best to kill time. Coaches and members of the player personnel department had already completed a mock draft and now had little to do except wait. Coaches asked questions about scheduling that they likely already knew the answer to. Some in the office watched the St. Louis Rams news conference announcing their draft picks to the media. Small talk was the order of the afternoon, and at times it seemed forced. Everybody involved was simply in the mindset that Coombs was out there, and the lead-up to finding out if he would be available with the third overall pick was, at times, excruciating.
The malaise ended at 6:20pm et when a report from TSN's Farhan Lalji surfaced, indicating that the Ottawa Redblacks had traded the first overall pick in the draft to Calgary for offensive lineman Jon Gott. That announcement would ratchet up the tension in the office even higher. Would Calgary select Coombs to complement Jon Cornish? It was a possibility, and one that would do nothing to make the following minutes move any faster.
At 6:35pm et, Barker and his staff met once more behind closed doors. After a few minutes, the staff emerged, grabbed a last-minute bite to eat and prepared to enter what has been dubbed 'the war room'.
In this case, the 'war room' was on any other day an average-sized board room. By the time all had assembled, there were 13 people sitting around a table, another handful sat just behind. It was, to say the least, somewhat crowded. A high-speed fan sat on a mini fridge in the corner of the office. On the wall at that end of the room was a television, tuned to SportsCentre in anticipation of TSN's draft coverage. A collection of photographs was on one of the side walls, featuring a collection of the organization's greatest players who had been honoured as "All Time Argos". They were staring across the room at a wall featuring just the words "Toronto Argonauts. Honouring Tradition".
Along the wall at the front of the room was a giant whiteboard. This would be the centre of attention for the next three hours. Along the left side of the board were the logos of the nine CFL teams. Along the top, which ran the entire length of the wall, were the numbers one to seven, representing each round. A grid pattern was drawn up with the overall number of the pick written in the top right corner. If a pick had been traded, a magnetic logo of the team that acquired that pick was placed in the lower right-hand corner. To the left of the grid was the most important aspect of the wall, the list of available players, in the order that the Argos had ranked the prospects. Each magnet has the name, school and stats of the player, with a picture added for good measure. The player atop the list was indeed Anthony Coombs.
The man with the most responsibility on this night is general manager Jim Barker. He's no stranger to the procedure, as this is his fourth draft as the Argos GM. He was also Calgary's GM, then Senior VP of Football Operations for five years before his arrival in Toronto.
Also in the room with Barker was Chris Rossetti, the 23-year old who took over the reins as the team's director of player personnel this offseason, Vince Magri, the Argos Canadian scouting coordinator, Demetri Betzios, the team's U.S. scouting coordinator, as well as head coach Scott Milanovich, the members of his coaching staff, three other members of the football operations department and a reporter from TSN.ca.
A speaker phone sat in the middle of the table. The teams were connected via conference call, with the league running the show. A roll call was taken as the tension continued to build. The nervousness increased even more as Barker learned of a rumour that Calgary was talking to BC about potentially moving the first overall pick in a deal.
All eyes turned to the TSN broadcast and seeing Rod Black, Duane Forde, Paul LaPolice and Chris Schultz seemed to emphasize that it was time for football. The majority were glued to the screen as the Ottawa/Calgary trade was dissected. Opinions were exchanged, albeit in subdued tones, about the ability of Gott and who came out ahead in the deal.
That discussion abruptly ended when CFL commissioner Mark Cohon appeared on screen and was asked about the ongoing CBA negotiations. The room was as quiet as it had been all night. Someone spoke up and asked if they should make an offer to Calgary for the top pick. It underscored how worried they were that their man may not last until the third spot.
Coombs was ranked No. 5 on Forde's list of the top prospects, higher than most had him going in mock drafts, although now it didn't matter. The speculation was about to end. The CFL once again took a roll call to make sure everyone was ready to go. The procedural rules were explained and then the words that started the draft echoed through the room.
"Calgary, you're on the clock".
At 7:10pm et, the tension was at its highest level. Calgary was on the speaker phone and ready to make its pick. Each player had been assigned a number on a master list of draft eligible players, Coombs was number 84 on that list. The team would make its selection by giving the player's number, name, position and school. John Hufnagel's voice came booming through the speakers as some of the assembled Argo staff stared at the phone while others looked blankly into space. Hufnagel made the announcement that had everyone in the room holding their breath.
"With the first pick of the 2014 CFL draft, the Calgary Stampeders select player number 219..."
The Calgary GM didn't have to get to the name of Pierre Lavertu, the first overall pick in the draft, before a bizarre combination of excitement and relief was exhibited by those in the room. Some physically rose from their chairs, while others simply exhaled. One down, one to go.
Winnipeg was now on the clock. The tension had crept back into the room. Eventually the CFL office gave the Bombers a one-minute warning. Someone evoked the name of the BC Lions again. Would they move ahead of Toronto? It was assumed the Bombers would select an offensive lineman, but if someone traded for that pick, all bets were off.
There was an immediate sense of relief when the Bombers held onto the pick, and it was almost anticlimactic when the Winnipegers welcomed Matthias Goossen to the fold. There was no fist-pumping or high-fiving in Toronto, just a massive sense of relief when they realized they had their man.
The trade with Edmonton had not been filed to the league. Barker didn't want to let others know he was high enough on one of the prospects to move up. The GM told director of football operations Ian Sanderson to contact the CFL to confirm the trade. It was still surprisingly quiet in the room, even though the Argos now knew they would be able to draft the player who would make or break this draft. The pick was confirmed when Chris Rossetti announced to the league something he was hoping he'd have the opportunity to do.
"With the third pick, the Toronto Argonauts are pleased to select player number 84, Anthony Coombs, running back, Manitoba."
Smiles and laughter finally filled the room. The prospect that the football operations department firmly believed was the best pick in the draft was now a member of the Argos. A phone call was made to the newest member of the oldest pro football team to welcome him aboard. Both Jim Barker and Scott Milanovich spoke to Coombs, congratulating him and reminding him to keep working hard.
Almost as soon as the pick was made, multiple teams contacted Barker to inquire if Coombs was available. It seems they were playing the same waiting game, but the Toronto GM's ability to aggressively acquire the pick he thought he needed turned out to be the difference.
The discussion in the war room turned to what other teams were doing, some of the trades that were made, and what lay ahead. There was discussion about trying to move up again. At the end of the first round, there was a brief break, giving people time to grab a quick bite to eat and reflect on what had been an interesting, and very successful start to the draft.
The team didn't possess a second round pick so there was some down time. Barker was inquiring to see if he could trade up. As picks were made, it was apparent that the mood in a pro draft room wasn't much different than a group of friends holding a fantasy draft. Some of the selections made by other teams were acknowledged as being very good, while others were questioned or even mocked.
Another interesting aspect of the process was how good staff members were at predicting who other teams would pick. While a team would be on the clock, a staffer would mention that one of their scouts was really high on a prospect, and more often than not, that player would be selected. There was some self-congratulation based on how accurate Toronto's mock draft had been.
As the second round progressed, there was great surprise at some of the picks. All of a sudden, there were two names on the war room board that occupied the ninth and 10th slots, and there was now a chance that they would not be chosen before the No. 21 pick. One of the two was selected, but the other one was available when the Argos were once again informed they were on the clock.
Jaskaran Dhillon, an aggressive offensive lineman from UBC, was one of three players Barker mentioned in the pre-draft interview as being someone the team would love to obtain. His name was in the 10th spot on the team's prospect list. Because they didn't have a second round pick, the Argos had to wait an hour and 23 minutes to make their second selection in the draft. They felt it was worth it.
Six more players would be chosen by the Argos, including Eric Black, the younger brother of Matt Black, the team's starting safety. At 9:52pm et, the Argos night was over, and in their eyes, just as it likely was in eight other war rooms across the league, the night was a success. The room cleared out quickly, most had flights to catch the next morning to spend two more weeks with their families before returning to Toronto to prepare for training camp.
They will soon see what these eight newest Argos look like when competing against pros.