True classic

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:46 AM ET

Feel free to again tack 'Classic' onto the annual Labour Day dispute. Stampeders head coach Tom Higgins contends the somewhat pretentious designation is legit once more after a few years where the Calgary-Edmonton football battle was about as special as one of those half-time mascot scrimmages.

Not that Labour Day hasn't always provided added significance for the players and especially the rabid fans, who turn up in record numbers to spew venom at their provincial rivals. It's just that now the Stampeders, with Higgins reborn as Calgary's boss after 11 seasons in Edmonton, are again legitimate playoff contenders.

Better yet, they aren't bashful to note they have the second-place Eskimos squarely in their sights with just four points separating the clubs.

Although the Eskies have dominated the season series 7-1 the last three campaigns, the Stampeders are intent on swinging the pendulum the other way beginning Monday.

"They're coming down here knowing this is a solid football team," says the always reserved Higgins, by his standards teetering dangerously close to participating in trash talk.

"This is not a football team that they are better than by a huge amount, which has happened the last few years. They can't say, 'Hey, we're bringing the better football team down, we should win this football game.' That's not the case this year. They're coming down to play a pretty even football team and I think we match up pretty well."

Monday's McMahon Stadium joust is the first of three meetings in the second half of the season, likely determining second and third place in the CFL West. After the rematch next Friday in Edmonton, the teams bang heads for the final time Nov. 6 at McMahon. In the best of all possible scenarios for the Stampeders, that contest would determine home-field advantage for the West semifinal.

"It would make the last game of the football season a very, very important game and I'm hoping we can sell the stadium out again," says Higgins before adding a disclaimer.

"But you've got to be careful to narrow the focus onto the most important thing, which is Monday. You can get carried away with the big picture -- where we are and where we want to go. We haven't done anything yet. We're not even over .500. We haven't won two games in a row yet. We haven't done anything yet but be competitive in every game we've played."

Higgins might be best qualified in assessing his Stampeders and how they match up with Edmonton. After all, his fingerprints are all over the Eskimos after stints as GM and head coach before suddenly 'resigning' last November after losing the West semifinal.

"I don't think there's anybody in Alberta who knows these two teams better than myself," Higgins says.

"You can't spend 11 years and not know the personnel, although they have some new players. I know the families, where they've been and where they're going. In one way, it's refreshing to see they're having success this season because you don't automatically just gain success."

Depending on your perspective, Higgins was either pushed or jumped from the Eskimos organization.

"It's irrelevant because it all depends on who you ask," Higgins argues when prodded for clarification. "I fired myself and through lengthy discussions with (president and CEO) Hugh Campbell, (COO) Rick LeLacheur and myself, we came to an agreement the best thing for the football team was that I was no longer there, so I left."

Now he's well into the first phase of rebuilding the Stamps.

"What's occurred here is this is being set up to be an organization than is going to be solid for many years to come," says Higgins, whose 4-5 club has already won as many games as all of last year. "We're doing all the right things, we're not taking short cuts, although we felt it was very important to be competitive immediately (by entering free agency). I don't think anyone could say this season hasn't been entertaining and hasn't been competitive."


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