Like a glove

DAN TOTH, CALGARY SUN

, Last Updated: 9:49 AM ET

He walked back into the Calgary Stampeders organization yesterday with all the flash and dash of a librarian. Unlike Matt Dunigan, Tom Higgins is balding, wears wire-rimmed glasses and exudes a bookish demeanor that inspired some Edmonton media to dub the former Eskies coach 'Ned Flanders.'

It's a sarcastic tribute to the do-gooder Christian cartoon character on The Simpsons, whose 'okilly-dokilly' attitude drives neighbour Homer Simpson nuts.

Sweet and cheerful, Higgins can also be as bland as a Sunday sermon but Stamps fans should thank heaven he's a great football coach.

In quiet conversation, Higgins sounds sickeningly high-spirited, just like Flanders, void of juicy quotes for the probing media.

But CFL people across Canada know behind that outward appearance is a respected and experienced football mind, able to rebuild the Stampeders into a Grey Cup contender.

"Tom's well-established in the CFL, in Alberta and in Calgary," suggests Wally Buono, who Higgins coached with in the Stampeders organization during the late 1980s and early '90s.

"He's a CFL veteran as a player, head coach and an administrator, so it's a tremendous fit."

Higgins' hiring comes more than a decade after both he and Buono were vying for the Stamps' head- coaching job in 1991.

Then-president Normie Kwong overlooked Higgins in favour of his colleague, a slight the former Eskimos coach now laughs about. It's similar to the position of current defensive co-ordinator Denny Creehan, who had been considered for the head-coaching role. Instead, Creehan has been promoted to a dual role, adding the title assistant head coach, although he's destined to be the boss as early as 2006.

"It's very reminiscent of a number of years ago when Wally Buono and Tom Higgins were competing for the head-coaching job with the Calgary Stampeders," Higgins says with a smile.

"I still, to this day, think I beat Wally but it really didn't matter. Norm Kwong picked a damn good one but I thought if he'd picked me, it was a win-win situation."

Before the '94 season, Higgins headed to Edmonton, where he handled a variety of front-office jobs under Hugh Campbell before taking on the head- coaching duties in 2001. Despite winning a Grey Cup and coach-of-the- year honours in 2003, it's been suggested Higgins 'lost the room' in Edmonton last season.

The nasty accusation hints the men in Green and Gold would no longer play for him, something Higgins denies.

"You're always going to have some people not pleased with what the coach is doing," argues Higgins, who resigned his post in Edmonton after losing the West semifinal, averting being fired.

"It's no different if Wally came back here. Half the people would say he was here too long and the other half would welcome him back. It's the same thing for me in Edmonton. I was there for long enough that there were quite a few players (who wanted me replaced). It depends who you ask. That team was not lost. That team fought tooth and nail."

Now Higgins is back in Stampeders' Red and White, on the payroll of old teammate John Forzani, a key player in the team's new ownership group.

Higgins' college-aged son Thomas also is receiving paycheques from Forzani, working in a St. Albert SportMart, part of the The Forzani Group's empire.

Forzani said at yesterday's press conference Higgins' down-to-earth persona is the perfect fit for the rebuilt Stampeders organization.

Higgins is just like your next-door neighbour.

Just like Ned Flanders.

Forzani added his new head coach has "both feet firmly planted on the ground."

And that's good news to hear and a sure sign it's an "okilly-dokilly" day to be a Stampeders fan.


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