EDMONTON - So far, Eric Tillman has been running the Edmonton Eskimos from the same place he ran the Saskatchewan Roughriders last year.
His house. In Regina.
But you thought Tillman spent the entire 2009 season being on “paid administrative leave” as general manager of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
That was not entirely accurate.
He was paid.
He was administrative.
And he did not leave the house.
That, your correspondent has learned, is the way it really worked, although he did occasionally leave the house to pick new players up at the airport, and did take long evening walks in the park with Brendan Taman, who had a devil of a time getting Tillman home one night when his back went out on him.
Which is to say, Eric Tillman was general manager of the Saskatchewan Roughriders last year in every way. On every day.
“That’s absolutely correct,” Tillman confirmed.
“I got the nickname The Wizard of Oz because I did everything from behind the curtain. Rob Pletch, the chairman of the board of directors gave it to me.”
Lots of people have an office in their house.
Tillman’s house was minutes from the stadium on the Green Mile in Regina.
“Coaches came to my house on a regular basis, virtually every day, in different combinations,” he also confirmed.
They brought DVDs of every practice. He signed every contract, did the waivers and the recalls, etc.
All true, he admits now.
“Did the rooming list for the road trips, too,” he volunteered.
They even had him speak at two board functions and invited him to go to the Grey Cup in Calgary. His wife Francine went in his place.
Tillman laughs, looking back at the Calgary Grey Cup home alone.
“All week long several friends were teasing me that my wife was Rob Pletch’s date at the Grey Cup. They were seen dancing together at Riderville.”
The entire season, while officially on “paid administrative leave,” Tillman spent actually running the Riders, just as he’s been running the Eskimos (with a 3-2 record since his hiring) mostly from the same house, minus the traffic until now, as he begins his longest stretch in the actual GM chair in the Eskimos actual offices.
That’s why this is a big week for Tillman — a chance to be himself, visible and very much on the scene, not flying in the night before games as he did in Montreal and Moncton, so as not to become a focus.
Now, for this one, it’s more than OK for Tillman to take his place openly as the Eskimos’ general manager, as the Saskatchewan Roughriders come to town.
It’s not only OK for him to be a focus, he very much should be for this game. Except good luck getting him to say that.
“I’m going to be one of 50,000 people in Commonwealth Stadium,” he said.
“This is about the Eskimos securing a playoff spot and Saskatchewan attempting to finish first.”
But it is also an appropriate time for Tillman to make some statements about Saskatchewan and he does that without reservation.
“It was just a magical three years,” Tillman says of his time spent in Saskatchewan.
“The people are wonderful people. Unbelievable people. The manner in which I was treated, particularly in the last nine months, speaks volumes about the genuine goodness of Saskatchewan people. They are so kind and so warm. They have an incredible affection and devotion to their football team.”
And times, despite what happened, were good for him, too, even through he had to resign in the end.
“I had the good fortune to build off a solid foundation. The team had not had a home playoff game since 1988. We had two Grey Cup game appearances. And we were one penalty away from winning two Grey Cups in three years,” said Tillman of the too-many-men penalty that turned victory into defeat last November.
“The board was incredibly supportive. I can’t possibly say enough good things about the board of directors and how they treated us. And the people …
“I can’t tell you how many of them have said, ‘Say hi to Richie Hall and we hope you come second to Saskatchewan every season.’ ”