Jim Barker steps gingerly as he negotiates the steps of the temporary-for-life construction trailer that is home to the Toronto Argonauts' at the Erindale training complex.
Since last coming this way as head coach in 1999, Barker is a little greyer, a little wiser -- and almost half the man he used to be.
"I want to be around to see my grandchildren," says Barker who has trimmed 120 pounds off a 6-foot-3, 380-pound frame that made him look like the A&W Root-Bear's bigger brother.
"I was the most famous fat guy in Calgary. I was huge."
As he embarks on his second tenure as head coach of the Argos when training camp opens June 6, he's gambling that his personal life isn't the only thing under-going a makeover. Like his waistline, he has every intention of making the Argonauts a leaner, meaner more efficient machine.
Barker's professional career and personal life both sound a bit like a sports soap opera.
And while he hasn't always come out a winner, life has never been boring.
The first inkling that he might be hitting a dead-end personally came in 2004 when he tried to clear some snow in his driveway and got winded just picking up the shovel.
"I had some heart issues, an abnormal heart rhythm." He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and underwent electrical shock to get it back in running condition.
With a resting heart rate of 160, Barker began to realize he had to do something about his weight. If not, he figured he'd probably be dead by now. A friend introduced him to the LA Weight Loss Diet and he began walking between three to five miles a day. That was almost four years ago.
"It just sneaks up on you," says Barker, who was then leading a sedentary lifestyle as general manager of the Stampeders. "You always think you have it under control, but you never do. I just never weighed myself and got bigger and bigger. This is a lifestyle where you're travelling a lot, living in hotels and you grab a burger here, you're eating late at night, you're doing things that aren't conducive to healthy living. It just sneaks up on you."
He'd walk around the field at McMahon Stadium while the players' practised. The heart problems are no longer an issue and he watches what he eats. Evidently real men do eat tofu. And, while he might not yet be quite ready for the centre-spread of PlayGirl, he feels better, looks better and has more energy.
"It hasn't been an overnight thing. I've taken years to work on this but I'm at the point where I've got about another 30 pounds to go and I'll be at my goal weight."
Barker has an open, easy manner about him. While many people might be embarrassed to talk about as personal an issue as their weight, he remains dispassionate if resolute. "We all have our issues," says Barker.
Barker has had his share of issues. Professionally he has been fired and rehired by CFL franchises in Montreal, Calgary and now Toronto. He was hired, fired or quit five U.S. colleges and won a financial scrap with Vince McMahon and the XFL. Personally, life has been equally idiosyncratic.
He's been divorced a couple of years but when it comes to being single he's not, well, married to the idea entirely. He's dating.
When it came to divvying up the ornaments of a marital lifetime, "my moving costs (from Calgary) was $283 for six boxes by FedEx." There is not a hint of bitterness.
It's part of being a gambler in life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you just fold.
He has four daughters, each as distinctive as their father in their own milieu: Erin writes and publishes erotica; Lisa "is kind of a hippie" who works in glass and Christian music, there's Kate who teaches English with ideas about a PhD and Holly who has three of those six grandchildren who made him decide to change his lifestyle -- possibly saving his life.
"There's no way I could have kept going the path I was going and survived."
So, now he takes over a team many people are wondering the same thing about. Can the Argos, who at times resemble the Black Hole of Toronto's sports universe, survive?
People see a team that has won just seven games in two seasons, a team that jettisoned whatever stars it had during the off-season, a team with four quarterbacks who's next CFL touchdown pass will be their first and a head coach who has never led a team to a winning season, let alone a Grey Cup.
Barker sees only opportunity.
"This job is my ultimate challenge. I've always been a risk taker in my professional life.
"You either are going to go for it; or you're not."
There is room to suggest that the guys in white coats should be running him down for even considering taking this job. But, says Calgary Stampeders owner Ted Hellard, "Jim's passion is really coaching. You could tell he was starting to miss being on the sidelines, the interaction with players."
Still, after a lifetime of playing hop-scotch at football postings across America and Canada, Barker had settled in comfortably in Calgary. He was tight with Hellard, made a name for himself as a keen talent scrutineer and recruiter. Since going to the front office, his team's had made the post-season five consecutive seasons from 2005-2009 -- a far better record than he'd ever achieved as a CFL head coach.
He was 9-9 with the Argos in 1999; a miserable 5-13 in 2003 with the Stampeders - an effort that got him fired by owner Michael Feterik, before coming back under Hellard's ownership group as general manager. So, who needs the aggravation; the insecurity; the stress and required 24/7 addiction to football minutia necessary to be a head coach?
"I probably could've stayed. But ... I woke up and realized it felt like I was going to work and for 35 years in football I'd never felt like that. I've always loved what I do; for the first time last year it got tedious."
There is another inconvenient truth. He and John Hufnagel, who took over as general manager in 2007, never did see the game, the players and the future of the franchise quite the same.
Let's just say that when the Argos open the season against the Stampeders, it is a game that Barker would very much like to win.
Hufnagel didn't run him out of Calgary but Barker wasn't feeling a lot of love to make him want to stay either.
"Last December I took off and went to New Zealand for a month, didn't take my cell phone or even my computer. I came to the realization that 'You're 53 years old Jim. You're not enjoying what you're doing. Maybe it's time to look into new challenges.'"
The gambler was back.
"I enjoy having my job on the line every week," he says.
So, Hello Toronto. Hello jeopardy.
"If I didn't think I could take this team and win the East Division I shouldn't have the job. In Calgary we went from the worst team in the league in 2004, and the next year we hosted the western semi-final. If we find the right people and put them in the right system, we can be equally successful."
Barker always has had some riverboat gambler in him. Tall, slightly greying, slap a black hat on him and he'd even resemble a grandfatherly-Black Bart. Risk is his ally. Some people fear it. Barker seems to embrace it. Always has. Personally. Professionally.
Since taking over the Argos, he's gassed all the quarterbacks including former CFL MVP Kerry Joseph. Gone is linebacker Zeke Moreno, fan favorite Dominique Dorsey, receiver Andre Talbot and the team's prime running back Jamaal Robertson.
"Half of our fans probably think I'm nuts; the other half think I'm doing the right thing. It'll go one way or the other ... I just believe you can't be afraid to be successful. I've never been a conservative type."
Born in Pasedena, Ca., his first love was baseball. "What I really wanted to do was become a professional umpire," says Barker, who considered dropping out of USC to attend umpire school. "I was a Dodger fan. I knew every player, every player's number. My birthday present every year until I was 10 were baseball tickets to a Dodgers game."
At age 18, he had 80 umpires working for him in the San Diego Valley baseball association and at 19 he became the youngest person to ever work a UCLA game. At the same time, he was coaching a Pop Warner and a high school football team.
If he was married to baseball, coaching was his mistress.
"I was at USC and went home and told my mother I was changing from a business to a phys-ed major ... she said, 'Ahhh, I know you love that stuff but you can't earn a living that way.' I said, 'You know, mom, one day ...' "
So began a lifelong flirtation with the risky, peripatetic lifestyle that is professional sports.
He walked away from his first Division I job at Las Vegas because he thought the twins he and his wife adopted should have a fresh start. "Moved back to California without a job. I ended up teaching math to eighth graders."
He could have stayed as a tenured professor at a tiny private college named Pomona. But, he traded that for the unknown of the Canadian Football League when he joined the Alouettes in 1996.
"A few years earlier, Pat Pearles, who's now with Kansas City, brought me to Saskatchewan as a guest coach. I remember there were mosquitos everywhere. I'd never been out of the U.S. and I was fascinated by the whole league. Until then I'd just been thinking about U.S. colleges ... It was just eye-opening. The Montreal job was for less money than a job at a junior college in Pasadena. But I had my settlement from Pomona and I felt I could take a risk."
He quickly discovered the life of a gambler comes with equal doses of ecstasy and disillusion. The next season, as the Argonauts' offensive co-ordinator he built one of the most potent offences in CFL history behind Doug Flutie. Within three years he would become the Argos' head coach, get locked out of his office, turn quarterback Tommy Maddox into the XFL's most valuable player and end up working in a sweatshop as a telemarketer.
"They sold (the Argos) in 1999. I never got fired. My key just didn't work. That's how I knew that was that," says Barker, laughing. "I guess my contract had been taken over by the league and I was being paid by the league. So, when the team was sold my contract didn't go with the team as an Argonaut asset. It was just up. J.I. Albrecht, or the new owners, never called me and said we're going with a different head coach. I was never fired ... I just couldn't get in the building."
So, he got into a new league, gambling that Vince McMahon was less blarney and more business. Wrong, as it turned out. But he joined the XFL and helped the Los Angeles Xtreme to its 2000 championship and produced a system that earned Maddox the nod as Player of the Year.
"McMahon told us he'd keep operating three years minimum even if nobody watches ... then they just dropped the league. In May we were told everything is great. One week later we went from being head coaches to guys selling cars and real estate to make ends meet. I worked in a boiler room as a telemarketer in Las Vegas. You talk about families being destroyed. No income. No benefits. No job."
In the end, McMahon was shamed into paying the coaches for one more season. It is a bitter memory. It was also quickly forgotten when he rejoined the Alouettes as offensive co-ordinator and quarterback coach and the club won its first Grey Cup in more than 20 years. Quarterback Anthony Calvillo enjoyed his finest season. And Barker threw the dice again.
"I felt I was on top of the world. I'd coached Maddox and he was the MVP; Calvillo and he won the MVP. We won the Grey Cup. We won the XFL championship. So I get a call from Calgary and Feterik is the owner. His son is the quarterback but I figured I could deal with this."
He couldn't. Snake eyes.
"That was the most dysfunctional situation I've ever been in," says Barker. "Our kicker (Mark McLoughlin) became the president. He got tired of being the president and wanted to come back and be the kicker. It was the biggest zoo ... a schmoozle that had no chance.
"The man owned the team just so his son could play quarterback. As much as he says you have control, it was never that way. It was a nightmare. At the end of the first year, I cut his son and he fired me two days before Christmas.
"Here's my mother flying in to Calgary for the holidays. She leaves California and I have a job; by the time she lands not only do I not have a job they want me to have the office cleaned out by 8 a.m. Christmas Eve. I say, 'you're kidding! It's Christmas. My mother is flying in!'
"They said, 'No, you have to be out.' So, I picked her up at the airport and instead of going home to see the kids and all that holiday stuff we went to the office and she helped me clean it out. At midnight the Calgary Sun guy came over and took a picture of me carrying out boxes."
A year later, after Feterik sold the team, the new ownership group hired him as general manager. Barker plays with dynamite and bounces back more often than Wile E. Coyote.
Now, back on the sidelines in Toronto, nobody including Barker is sure what to expect.
"He was always emotional but he's older, more experienced -- so he might be a bit mellower," says Hellard.
But he's not betting on it.
For once, neither is Barker. "I hope I've matured, but it's going to be interesting. I was always fiery. I always felt I was too involved with the officials. It's hard for me. I want (to win) so bad. I'm an emotional guy on the sidelines and that will be a challenge for me ... to keep my head focussed."
Too many penalties and undisciplined play were among the Argos' major downfalls last season.
"The thing is how can I ask someone like Adriano Belli to channel his emotions and aggression (which I'm doing); then not do the same thing myself. But it will be one of the biggest challenges I face in this job."
Well, next to winning anyway.
"He's somebody who's going to be really good at finding sound personnel," says Saskatchewan Roughrider head coach Ken Miller, who has been competing against Barker since both were baseball coaches in college. "The work is difficult because you have to change the culture around the team. That involves a lot of teaching, whether its Xs and Os or discipline, camaraderie and sacrifice. It is about teaching guys what winning is all about."
Barker has never been able to do that as a CFL head coach but then he was working under some rather bizarre circumstances both in Toronto and Calgary.
"I don't think either of those examples is a fair indication of what he can do," says Miller. "There were (extenuating) circumstances ..."
Says Hellard: "Anyone who reads anything into that is crazy."
So, now that Barker has rejuvenated himself, he just has to revive the moribund Argos. He did it with Pomona, transforming a baseball team "that averaged three or four wins a year ... with a horrible atmosphere and we got to 22nd in the nation and built a new stadium."
He saw it happen in Calgary as GM and as a coach in Los Angeles with Maddox. He talks a lot about building trust.
"There's a strong core of players here but there was also something drastically missing. When a team wins seven games in two years there's more wrong than just the talent level."
If there is a mold from which to build the new Argonauts that 1997 team wouldn't be a bad place to look. It was built not just on talent but also on the trust Barker likes to talk about, not to mention camaraderie and tenacity.
"That was a special team. I want players I love being around. That's what we had in 1997 -- Pinball (Clemons), (Paul) Masotti, (Robert) Drummond and Doug Flutie. We had people who cared about each other and winning. That's all that mattered. It wasn't about how many yards Drummond was going to get; it wasn't about how many catches Mookie Mitchell had. Nobody talked about that stuff. You never heard (Mike) O'Shea talk about how many tackles he had at linebacker or that he didn't like this or that scheme. It wasn't about that; everybody believed we were going to win."
Nobody exhibited the combativeness of that team better than Flutie.
Barker recalls: "Doug put a ping-pong table in the dresssing room just so he could kick everybody's ass. When you have guys who are highly competitive like that it permeates through the whole team."
This time, there is no Flutie. No matter. Barker figures on finding a reasonable facsimile among CFL neophytes Dalton Bell, Danny Brannagan, Ken Dorsey, Gibran Hamdan or Cleo Lemon -- or a player to be found later.
"I believe what I do well is work with quarterbacks," says Barker.
As with his own life, he wants a team that will take risks and seize opportunity.
"I think people are afraid to be sucessful. That's human nature. It's easy to be conservative. One of the problems in coaching, especially in this league, is that they have a tendency to fire you real quick.
"But, I've been fired so much it doesn't matter to me anymore. So, I can do what I need to do without worrying about that. This is the first job I've had where I feel I have a little more control over what's happening to me. If this doesn't go well, there's nobody to look at except myself. I've never had that."
The team isn't folding under him; there are no owners who think their sons should be the quarterback, and Vince McMahon isn't in charge here.
There is just Jim Barker and for once he's the one holding all the cards.
"There's a fine line between risk and opportunity. If we were depleted in Canadian talent I would say it's going to take a long time to turn around. But we're not. It's not like the cupboard here is bare. This is the best opportunity I've had in my career."