Doctor of football is in

Tom Higgins, is introduced as the head coach of the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, January 14,...

Tom Higgins, is introduced as the head coach of the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, January 14, 2005. (SUN/Darren Makowichuk)

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 12:10 PM ET

Sun football writer Dan Toth speaks with Tom Higgins, the man tasked with returning the Stampeders to their glory days of the '90s when they were a picture of stability and the flagship franchise in the CFL.

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Tom Higgins was sure he had avoided all surprises before trekking to Calgary for the first time in 1976.

A trip to the library at North Carolina State had filled in some gaps for the brainy New Jersey native researching the Stampede City, located in a far-flung province somewhere north of Montana.

He was expecting, and arrived at the foot of the Rockies to find, a scaled down version of Denver. Calgary was clean and vibrant, just like the books said, with signs of a prosperous oil industry at every turn and friendly faces -- including his future wife's -- providing a warm introduction to the city.

Yet despite doing his homework, Higgins' first tour through the Stampeders locker-room offered a surprising jolt for the mop-topped Wolfpack linebacker, accustomed to the relative luxuries of the NCAA.

"It was quite a shock coming up from North Carolina State where there was plush carpeting on the floor," remembers Higgins, who knew little about the CFL but was eager to win his first pro football job.

"The dressing room here was cement and what else was a little strange is there were tuna cans taped to the lockers and I'm going, 'Tuna cans? This is odd.'

"They were ashtrays. Smoking back then was so common there were players smoking before the game and at half-time."

Less than two weeks into his new job as Stampeders head coach and senior vice-president of football operations, Higgins is still settling into his McMahon Stadium office that looks onto the south endzone.

While he won't be reintroducing nicotine rushes to the Stampeders' game day routine, his return is a throwback to the 1990s when the franchise was revered for its stability. Experience in the front office and coaching staff were the club's hallmark and will be again, Higgins insists, under the new regime.

Even though his entire staff hasn't been hired, at least four members of the new crew are qualified to work as head coaches. And the group is bolstered by decades of experience.

"With the coaching staff we're putting together, I like to think we give the players more than just the X's and the O's," Higgins says. "How to present yourself, act and react. We create an environment that by being here they're better people when they leave than when they first come in. We're trying to create an environment that is more than just, 'You are a football player, you play, then you leave.' "

While his return to the franchise has been touted as a coup for the new ownership group eager to rebuild the team, the football boss is much more than just a coach.

Away from the field, Higgins is a motivational speaker, woodworker, father, educator and an amateur magician bound to one day spring some slight-of-hand on his new troops.

Speaking engagements and prestidigitation were both sparked by his relationship with legendary former coach Lou Holtz, who guided Higgins through four seasons at N.C. State.

"I had the best motivational speaker probably in the world, and a lot of people have their own favourite, but I had Lou Holtz," Higgins declares. "Very, very good and he actually has a speech impediment. A lisp.

"He was quite a treat. He was an amateur magician and now I also can do magic when I speak publicly."

Wife Sharon was born and raised in Calgary and met her future husband during the Stampeders' miserable '76 season, Higgins' first and only year playing for the club, when the team won just two games.

After being cut by the Stamps (with none other than then-assistant coach Stan Schwartz, who has returned as a consultant, delivering the sad news), Higgins headed to the University of Virginia to work in his masters degree.

He returned to football by signing with the New York Giants but was hurt before once again being cut. The next year he started with the Cleveland Browns but was traded to the Buffalo Bills where he played the whole 1979 season before getting cut the following year.

The young couple, married in 1980, loaded up the car and headed to Regina for Higgins' second CFL stint where he was again cut, ending his playing career and catapulting the couple back to Calgary where they both found teaching jobs.

Higgins has a bachelor of science in education and an undergraduate degree in vocational industrial education, with a heavy emphasis in math and science. It's a strong safety net for someone pursuing a tenuous career as a player or coach.

Sharon learned from the '76 season in Calgary that a long-term relationship with a football man could be plagued with detours.

"It was a good fit because she understood the ups and downs of this profession," Higgins says. "It's not always rosy and people make it out to be a great profession but it's a very transient profession."

After a year coaching at Crescent Heights high school, Higgins spent three seasons at the U of C, helping the Dinos win two conference championships and a Vanier Cup.

He left the campus in 1985 to join the Stampeders staff led by then-head coach Steve Buratto, last week rehired by Higgins as offensive co-ordinator.

Higgins remained with the Stampeders in various capacities for nine seasons before heading to the Edmonton Eskimos for the next

11 years where he resigned as head coach in November.

His return to Calgary where his pro football career began three decades ago, means Higgins has come full circle, now bearing the battle scars of a life in football.

"I thought I was ready to take on anything when I left here (in 1994) after nine years in the CFL as well as two as a player," Higgins says. "I knew it all. I thought I was ready to be head coach, ready to run a football program. But now, after 11 more years, only now do I qualify to do what I thought I could do 10, 15, 20 years ago.

"This can be a very overwhelming position. Even just being the head coach can be an overwhelming job. The day I resigned (from Edmonton) I said I felt I'd gotten my PhD and it's interesting because all of a sudden it just came to me. I've now had the opportunity to do everything. I've fired myself, the crowning day that I received my doctorate."

That education included a crash course on the fanatical behaviour of a tiny minority of fans who occasionally go over the edge when expressing their disappointment.

Higgins says he had garbage dumped in the yard of his St. Albert home and paint thrown on his garage door by angry Eskimos fans, affecting his family and providing a poignant lesson for the Higgins clan.

"What hurt me more in Edmonton was what my family had to go through because

I don't mind fans cheering and booing," Higgins explains.

"Lou Holtz said, 'One day you're drinking the wine, next day you're picking the grapes.' It comes with life, the ups and downs, but when it becomes personal, that's when you begin thinking it's a little scary."

After attending last week's press conference, Sharon has returned home along with all three children -- Holly, Hillary and Thomas. All were born in Calgary and are all attending the University of Alberta. Holly (physical education), the oldest, intends to move to Calgary with her parents while Hillary (business) and Thomas (physical education), a Golden Bears football player last season, are undecided.


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