Owners deserve kudos

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:16 AM ET

With the Calgary Stampeders on the verge of their first Grey Cup appearance in seven tumultuous years, now might be a good time to praise ownership.

Heavily criticized in this space last fall for the way they handled the hiring of John Hufnagel while Tom Higgins was still head coach, at the end of the day, they got the right guy.

And because of it, a franchise in disarray ever since Wally Buono departed is now back on solid ground, led by a man whose credibility, credentials, character and leadership turned the team around overnight.

While many believed the team had the type of skill that should've seen the club advance past the first round of the playoffs any of the last three years, it's Hufnagel who has brilliantly orchestrated the transformation that will see them host Saturday's West final against B.C.

"Absolutely -- no question," said managing partner Ted Hellard when asked if Hufnagel was the biggest reason the team bounced from 7-11 to 13-5.

"I don't know how that could be up for debate. He's created an environment in which this particular group of players feel comfortable that they can be successful."

Using Anthony Calvillo's career progression from stiff in Hamilton to stud in Montreal as an analogy, Hellard explained he figured the team just needed the right direction to get the most out of its players.

"I've known Huff 25 years and not only is he a dedicated and tremendous worker, I've always felt he has what it takes to be a leader," said Hellard, who hired Hufnagel.

"John was a thought in my mind from the day we bought the team."

Because of Hufnagel's success here as the Stamps offensive co-ordinator in the '90s as well as his enriching experiences in the NFL, Hufnagel had plenty of options before deciding to return to Cowtown. And with that came enough leverage to rid the franchise of owners meddling in football decisions dating back to Michael Feterik.

"Right from Day 1, it's been very clear to anybody: We gave him the ability to create whatever environment he wanted," said Hellard, admitting it was regrettable the team looked bad when the Sun reported Hufnagel had been hired while Higgins was still coach.

"Obviously, we wish the information that was brought forward by the media last fall wasn't brought forward. Do we wish it was different? Of course we do. But I would make the exact same decision in the end because we tried to do what's right for this club in spite of however people want to interpret it. My job is to find the best people possible to run this organization and when John became available, that's what I did."

Still, while most fans were excited by Hufnagel's impressive resume, several of his former players worried the man of few words would be unable to lead.

"He's not necessarily a yeller or a screamer, but I've never seen a case where he had a feeling or an opinion and you didn't know exactly what it was," said Hellard.

"I think he's a tremendous communicator. There's no grey areas with him, and to me, that's a leader."

The players know where they stand with Hufnagel at all times and have responded by improving the two things he set out to change upon arrival: Discipline and defence.

"He picks his words carefully and, trust me, whenever he says something, I always listen and that's how everyone on this team feels," said Henry Burris, one of the main beneficiaries of Hufnagel's tutelage.

"To have a coach who has worked with so many great coaches and players and who has changed the focus of this team, we definitely want to make him proud."

They'll have that chance Saturday.

"I believe the less you say the more you mean it --that's just my philosophy," said Hufnagel, flashing a smile.

"When I talk to the team , I get my point across. I don't need to sugarcoat it."

Ownership did the same when hiring Hufnagel. And for that, they need not apologize. It got them where they are today.


Videos

Photos