Forde: Six Months in A Leaky Boat

Duane Forde
12/18/2009 9:12:42 PM
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Like many people in my age demographic, I'm a bit of an eighties music aficionado but I really hadn't thought about the 1982 hit “Six Months In A Leaky Boat” by Split Enz until this week, when I thought about how to best describe Bart Andrus' only season as skipper of the Good Ship Argonaut.

Five Defining Quotes Of The Bart Andrus Era

1. “Our team is a work in progress,” was Andrus' frequent defence of his club's poor record. No one ever disputed the “work” part of that statement...but “progress”?!? The team's best performance of the year, by far, came in the opening quarter of their opening game, and they lost thirteen of their last fourteen outings, including eight straight to end the season. “Our team is a portrait in regression,” would have been a more accurate assessment of the situation.

2. In setting the roster for the Labour Day game in Hamilton, Andrus and his staff decided that they wanted to dress both of their import kickers, punter Eddie Johnson and placekicker Justin Medlock. Since the Argos were only using two of the three roster spots allotted for quarterbacks, they listed Johnson as the second string QB on their official depth chart for the game (under CFL rules, the third string QB isn't allowed to kick). However, at his press conference on the day before the game, claimed that “It was a clerical error,” and went on to explain how the depth chart is done using a template in Microsoft Excel, which only had one slot for a kicker, so they had to find another place to list Johnson. What he should have said was, “As a rookie head coach, with little experience on his staff, I made a misguided attempt to circumvent the rules. While none of the four former CFL head coaches employed within my organization tried to stop me, the rather unimpressed folks at the league office did. Unfortunately, you members of the media have already witnessed my attempt to cheat so, rather than face ridicule and feel shame, I'm blaming it on our public relations staff, despite the fact that they had nothing whatsoever to do with the mistake.”

3. The day before the Argonauts' Week Six matchup with Montreal, Andrus discussed the importance of sticking with your starting QB through tough times, stating, “A quarterback has to have the confidence of knowing that he's your guy.” However, a week after the Alouettes shut out “his guy”, Kerry Joseph and the rest of the Argonauts 25-0, Cody Pickett began a run of seven consecutive games as “his guy”...until his 1-6 record made Joseph “his guy” again.

4. With the Double Blue defence playing well, Andrus tried to diffuse criticism of his team's non-existent offence, saying, “It would really help if our defence could score. We haven't scored a defensive touchdown all year.” It's easy to appreciate his desire to transfer the pressure from a struggling part of his squad to a unit that was more emotionally equipped to handle it but the comment was ill-timed. You see, the quote came just days after Andrus' refusal to play two–time All-Star cornerback Byron Parker led the team to basically give him and his six career interception return touchdowns away.

5. For the last two seasons, whenever someone has asked Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman what the most difficult adjustment is to coaching Canadian football after a lifetime of operating under American rules, his response has consistently centred on how timekeeping differences between the two games make managing the last three minutes of each half very challenging. When Bart Andrus was asked the same question after questionable coaching decisions in the last three minutes had cost his Toronto Argonauts three games in the month of August, he replied, “It has to be the ability to kick the ball at any time.” I don't even know what he meant by that but it was clear that he wasn't learning from his mistakes.

Five Misconceptions About Bart Andrus' Time With The Argos

1. He couldn't get a team into the playoffs – Andrus was actually fired, in part, because he /did/ get a team to the playoffs. The problem is that that team was the rival Hamilton Tiger-Cats, whose postseason hopes received a huge boost when Andrus elected to run star receiver Arland Bruce out of Toronto...and into Steeltown.

2. He was unsuccessful in improving the football team – Success is a relative term. Andrus' winning percentage of .167 is actually .167 higher than that of his predecessor Don Matthews. Also, with three victories in 2009, Andrus ranks as the second-winningest head coach hired by the Argonauts in the last two years. Had he been retained for 2010, he was actually on pace to collect his fourth win as Argos head coach, tying Rich Stubler for top spot on the list, somewhere around mid-August.

3. He didn't bring any fresh ideas to the CFL – Ideas don't have to be good to be fresh. Andrus is believed to be the first head coach in CFL history to hire a tight ends coach. He also broke new ground by dressing two import kickers for a game...and by playing a man short of the 42 player roster limit for games, rather than dress a third string QB...and by dressing an offensive tackle who didn't play a single snap on offence, defence, or special teams as one of his designated imports...and...Never mind. You get the idea.

4. He didn't respect the history or tradition of the CFL – Part of the proud history of Our League is the way that it has chews up and spits out cocky American coaches with no experience in or understanding of the nuances of the Canadian brand of football. Clearly, Andrus embraced the hell out of that tradition. It's that ridiculously humble Marc Trestman with his back-to-back Grey Cup appearances who isn't respecting tradition.

5. He didn't have a positive impact – Did you not read my opening paragraph? Until Andrus, the only Split Enz song I had thought about in the last two decades was “I Got You”. Bart Andrus reminded me that this fine band was not a one hit wonder. That has to count for something.

Okay, Seriously...

The Toronto Argonauts' issues at the head coaching level began months before Bart Andrus took the reins. The root of the problem can be traced to the firing of Rich Stubler, ten games into the 2008 season. Stubler's Argos were 4-6 and in second place in the East at the time of his dismissal. The club has gone an abysmal 3-23 and hasn't been anywhere near the postseason since then...but that's really not why Stubler's departure is viewed as a turning point. It's all about the message that the firing unwittingly sent to the rest of the CFL's coaching fraternity.

Stubler, a highly successful and respected defensive coordinator, had been with the Double Blue since 2003, meaning he joined the organization a year ahead of the ownership regime of David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski.. Not only was his defence the main reason that the franchise had remained competitive for the four seasons prior to his promotion but they were also the driving force behind the team's '04 Grey Cup win.

Yet, despite his impressive history with this regime, Stubler's "opportunity" as their head coach lasted all of ten games...and, during that time, he was left to deal with a quarterback controversy that he didn't create, publicly questioned by ownership, and thrown under the bus by others in the front office. He was never given a chance to succeed. Throw in the fact that, despite all those obstacles, he had his team in a playoff position, just two games under .500, when he was sent packing and his firing just seems unfair. Any future Argonaut head coaching candidate would have to ask himself, "If that's the lack of patience and support that the organization showed Stubler, how would they treat a coach with whom they had no history?"

Making matters worse, by the time the Don Matthews disaster was over at the end of last season, the league-wide impression of the Argonauts was that they were an organization in disarray. Finger pointing was rampant, as people tried to save their own jobs and reputations, and the perception throughout the CFL was that this club, which had failed for years to unearth new talent, would be a difficult one to rebuild. That combined with the poor optics surrounding Stubler's ousting made the Toronto head coaching job horribly unappealing to anyone familiar with the league. As a result, when the search for a new head coach began last offseason, highly regarded candidates within the CFL either withdrew their names from consideration or turned down the job when it was offered. Thus, the Argos had to look elsewhere.

Enter Bart Andrus. He had head coaching experience in NFL Europe and his profile, as a former NFL quarterback coach, bore some similarity to those of John Hufnagel and Marc Trestman, who had led their respective teams to the Grey Cup game as rookie CFL head coaches a few months earlier. Andrus also preached discipline and wouldn't tolerate complacency - two qualities which would appear to be a good fit for a team in need of an attitude adjustment. His biggest weakness though, was that he had absolutely no experience with Canadian football.

However, that could be overcome. After all, Trestman's only CFL experience prior to taking over the Montreal Alouettes last season was a single training camp as a guest coach, yet he has enjoyed immense success in his two years in the league. It certainly helped that Trestman arrived with an open mind and an eagerness to learn about the Canadian game, rather than the "Football Is Football" mentality that contributed to Andrus' demise but the most significant difference between the Montreal and Toronto situations is that Trestman was insulated on all sides by experienced and effective CFL people.

Immediately above him in the Alouette food chain is general manager Jim Popp, who had been with the organization for fifteen years, including some time as its head coach. Immediately beneath Trestman are his coordinators, Tim Burke and Scott Milanovich, both of whom had been around the league for a few years.

Surrounding Andrus, the Argos had the requisite experience to mimic the Montreal model, with four former CFL head coaches in general manager Adam Rita, player personnel director Greg Mohns, special teams coordinator Steve Buratto, and Pinball Clemons employed by the club in 2009. Things went wrong though, because none of those people were proactive. Of that quartet, only Clemons can be excused, as he had absolutely nothing to do with the team's football operations in '09. As for the others, they have to be considered three gaping holes in the "Leaky Boat".

Privately, other CFL executives have questioned the fact that Rita didn't make Andrus surround himself with experienced CFL assistants as a condition of his hiring. They've also wondered where the GM was while his rookie coach was muddling his way through the intricacies of CFL roster management. In a late season conversation, Andrus innocently suggested that he was looking forward to 2010 because he would be more familiar with the personnel on his own team and around the league to start the season...which makes it sound like Mohns wasn't much help in that department. And it's a complete mystery why Buratto, who was considered by most observers to be a weak link on the previous staff, was the only coach retained if not to provide advice in critical situations like the final three minutes of each half. The owners can share in the blame as well, as it's hard to imagine that keeping Clemons involved in the football ops wouldn't have helped Andrus with his player relations (see Arland Bruce).

For as much as I've mocked Andrus' tenure earlier in this article, the reality is that every mistake he made can be traced back to the same two very foreseeable issues - his lack of familiarity with the CFL and his reluctance to acknowledge that shortcoming. Had anyone in the Argos power structure been proactive at all in dealing with those issues when they were "potential problems" rather than waiting until they were costing the team victories, Andrus would still be the head coach of the Toronto Argonauts.

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