Still taking the hits

PERRY LEFKO -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

Matt Dunigan, the Calgary Stampeders' rookie general manager/coach, walked around the SkyDome hotel yesterday searching for the room in which to address the media about tonight's game between his team and the Argos.

Finally, after what seemed like an endless search, he found the appropriate location and used it as a metaphor.

"That's what we're trying to do as a football team -- find our way and get better on a daily basis," Dunigan said.

At times, Dunigan has looked helplessly lost, in dire need of direction or assistance. He has won only three of 14 games, the worst record of the nine teams in the CFL.

ELF-LIKE

He has been criticized for hirings, firings, trades and roster decisions. Even his choice of game-day clothing, specifically a stocking hat that made him look like an elf, had people shaking their heads in disbelief.

Dunigan absorbed some incredible hits during his 14-year pro career, including one in 1996 that led to his eventual retirement, but rarely was he criticized. In fact, he was lauded as a quarterback who played with the grit of a linebacker. But he has been an easy target this season.

No one promised Dunigan the job would be easy. He gave up a cushy job as a football analyst with TSN to take over a Stampeders team which had been beset the season before by management backstabbing, in-fighting among players and an owner who did everything to ensure his son, a fledgling professional quarterback, would have a chance to play. The Stamps became the butt of many a joke.

Enter Dunigan, whose collective experience in football operations following his career included a one-year stint as an offensive co-ordinator/quarterbacks and receivers coach at a Division II college in Georgia.

Then again, Pinball Clemons had been hired as coach of the Argos midway through the 2000 season without apprenticing at any level. In fact, he had still been an active player at the time.

"We entered similarly but quite different," Clemons said. "Matt actually asked for this."

Said Dunigan: "My (job) at TSN was part-time work. It was six months work and I tried to massage that into full-time work but (fellow football player-turned-broadcaster Glen Suitor) kept getting in the way.

"The opportunity (with the Stamps) came up and I jumped at it. I love Calgary. It's absolutely a wonderful place to live. I'm enjoying every minute of it. There hasn't been one minute when I wanted to go back to the studio."

CONVINCED

Clemons is convinced Dunigan will be successful in the long haul. He played with Dunigan and saw his leadership skills first-hand, such as in 1991 when he played for the Argos in the Grey Cup with a broken collarbone that had to be frozen. That was a physical test; this is more of an emotional and mental one.

"I think this is what you have to go through and I think he understands that," Clemons said. "Matt understands what it is to win and he will make that happen. He's the best leader I've ever seen."

Dunigan came to realize when he took the job he needed a bona fide quarterback to succeed. And now he has one. This past weekend he acquire one-time league MVP Khari Jones from Winnipeg in a multiple-player deal has at least bought Dunigan some time. This is the deal that will ultimately reap him success or prove to be his biggest failure. Jones hasn't played well in a season and a half and experienced tendinitis in his throwing shoulder this year.

"He's a winner, we'll win with Khari," Dunigan said.

Dunigan was asked if he expects to have the last laugh on his critics in two to three years.

"I'm not looking to laugh at anybody," he said. "I'm looking to turn this franchise around."


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