Tillman, Eskimos talking proud again

Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman talks to former NFL receiver Taye Biddle during last month's...

Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman talks to former NFL receiver Taye Biddle during last month's training camp at Commonwealth Stadium. (QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:15 PM ET

TORONTO - The whispers no longer follow Eric Tillman around. The wondering if there would be another football job for him, another opportunity to rehabilitate his troubled reputation, ended long ago.

Being in first place, being undefeated in a football hotbed such as Edmonton, can silence the loudest and most ardent of critics. It took both nerve and desperation for the once-proud Eskimos to reach out to Tillman, who had plead guilty to sexual assault and was granted an absolute discharge in January of 2010, and make him their general manager. Other CFL teams considered it. Others kicked it around. The previous owners of the Toronto Argonauts discussed it.

But only Edmonton, the erstwhile city of champions, last-place finishers in four of the past five years, acted on it — and here are the Eskimos now, the only 4-0 team in the CFL, benefitting from the hiring.

This is a new and bright beginning for a man in need of a fresh start. No one ever questioned Tillman’s ability to put a football team together. He’s done that rather nicely in just about all of his CFL stops. This was the job where’s he’s had to walk on egg shells, put the past behind him, and focus squarely on the future.

“It’s been good, really good,” Tillman said of his first full season in Edmonton. “There were questions about me being hired, questions about Kavis (Reed) being hired (as head coach), questions about Marcus Crandell (offensive coordinator) being hired.”

Questions that are no longer being asked. The football truth on Tillman: The man knows coaches. Kavis Reed is just the latest example of Tillman’s string of CFL success. In no particular order, he hired Reed, Jim Barker, Dave Ritchie, Ken Miller, Kent Austin, all men he had worked with as assistants, all for their first head coaching jobs. Reed, in his first year, is off to a marvellous start, having already established himself as both a coach and football character of substance in a league that needs both.

It’s never easy going in and tearing up a football team, trying to change the culture, trying to emphasize the future while clinging to a successful past, and all the while with people staring as you, uncertain whether to accept or applaud.

In all, Tillman has made 26 player changes with the Eskimos this season, sent more than half the team packing, but the single most important move he made was in elevating Reed, who before this season was best known for accepting responsibility (that wasn’t his) for the now famous too many men on the field defeat in Saskatchewan.

“Having worked with Kavis, I saw him as a bright young guy with an engaging personality, who was connected with the players and an excellent evaluator of talent,” said Tillman, on the eve of Friday’s game against the not undefeated Argonauts. “Kavis is a unique combination of toughness and love. There’s the jovial, fun-loving side of Kavis but there’s the other side. He doesn’t just show his teeth. He’ll bite when necessary.”

Tillman is a little excited, a little nervous, a little superstitious about being unbeaten after four games. He’s done this turnaround thing before. This is his sixth CFL team: Tillman has been around so long that one of the teams he managed doesn’t exist anymore, another one folded and then returned. He won in Saskatchewan — should have won twice — when no one wins in Saskatchewan. Now comes the challenge of remaking football in Edmonton, where football deserves to be so very much alive.

Tillman did inherit one thing most general managers taking over losing teams manage to get. When he was interviewed for the GM job, he was asked to assess the play of quarterback Ricky Ray. After too many troubled seasons, there were those who believe Ray needed a change of address. Tillman wasn’t one of them; Neither was Reed. Four games in, all Ray has done is lead the CFL in passing yards, percentage, quarterback rating, and is second behind Anthony Calvillo in touchdown passes.

“I feel very fortunate,” said Tillman, talking about the team, the town, and his past personal circumstance which he will not address. “We have a city hungering for success, a rich history, a proud tradition. A tradition we’re very respectful of.

“All of us are fortunate to be here. This is a place that cares about its football team and wants to be successful.”

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


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