Ned's homecoming

TERRY JONES, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 11:47 AM ET

CALGARY -- Can you sell Calgary a used Edmonton football coach? A fella fired by the Eskimos hired by the Stampeders? It's never been tried before. No fella ever fired by the Eskimos was ever re-hired by the Stampeders. Or vice versa. It's just not done.

But when Tom Higgins was unveiled as new head coach and essentially general manager of the Stampeders here yesterday, it was the final act in the tearing down of the circus tent in front of McMahon Stadium. It gave Higgins his second chance as head coach.

After F-Troop, featuring the zany comedy of Fred Fateri, owner Michael Feterik and his son the quarterback - and subsequent sideshows starring Mark McLaughlin, Ron Rooke and Matt Dunigan - hiring the guy known up north as Ned Flanders looks like something resembling sanity for the first time since Wally Buono was chased away.

Then again, if anyone can do this Edmonton-Calgary thing, maybe it's Hoss Higgins. (Close your eyes and picture him in a white hat during Stampede week. Me neither.)

Higgins used to play here. He was an assistant coach here and finished second when Buono was hired as head coach. His wife is from here. All three of his kids were born here. Heck, this is a homecoming.

"When I told my son that we were going to Edmonton 11 years ago, he said 'But dad, we hate Edmonton.' ''

PERFECT PLACE FOR REVENGE

That was back when Higgins gave up his career as a coach to go to work in the Eskimos' front office under Hugh Campbell.

Higgins could have made a big deal about coming to the perfect place to get revenge. But as classy as he went out in Edmonton, he made his re-entry to the job every bit as classy.

"Working in Edmonton was as great an experience as I could possibly have had. To be tutelaged under that system ... It was the most pleasant experience I've had in my football career. I learned more in my 11 seasons in Edmonton than you could learn in a lifetime. It was my PhD in football. I got my diploma the day I fired myself.''

Higgins thinks his hiring here just juices up the rivalry. And he's probably right. "I think this is good for the rivalry. I think it's good for the West. We're going to be competitive.''

ONWARD AND UPWARD

So it's onward and upward for the man the fans never really warmed to in Edmonton, the coach who always seemed to be one loss away from losing his team until the loss in the West Semi-Final - which was that game.

"It's quite a treat. It's so great to have my family here. The last time I was named head coach of a football team, my family wasn't there,'' he said of the hurried press conference to replace Don Matthews in Edmonton four years ago.

"The only thing that was missing was the balloons,'' he joked. "I looked around the room and there were no sad faces. Everybody looked excited for me.

"This is a very good feel,'' said Higgins. "When I was last here, we had an S.O.S. (Save Our Stamps) campaign and I was out selling season tickets.''

He comes back in selling success sooner rather than later. "I think we'll be a vastly improved team the day we step on the field. I think we'll be very competitive immediately.

"My most important priority was to hire Denny Creehan as assistant head coach,'' he said of the former Eskimo assistant.

There were other moves yesterday, not the least of which was the return of Stan Schwartz to the business side, the hiring of former Stampeder Darrell Moir to head up marketing and the naming of former Stampeder coach Jim Barker as head of player personnel.

While Barker actually has the title of GM and Higgins the title of senior vice-president of football operations, it's Higgins who will make the trades and do the job which has traditionally been that of a general manager.

So, can we suddenly expect trades between Edmonton and Calgary?

"You don't ever want to help the enemy,'' Higgins said. "We're enemies.''

Now, that's more like it.


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