Esks GM Tillman talks

Esks GM Eric Tillman reflected on his interview last week where he commented on the Ricky Ray trade...

Esks GM Eric Tillman reflected on his interview last week where he commented on the Ricky Ray trade to the Argos. (Ian Kucerak/QMI Agency)

GERRY MODDEJONGE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:07 PM ET

EDMONTON - Edmonton Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman pulls no punches in an exclusive interview with reporter Gerry Moddejonge as the two sit down to talk about everything from his comment last week about the Ricky Ray trade to dodging bullets from the media and, of course, the past, present and future of the team.

SUN: First off, Eric, I'm sure if you had a time machine this time around, your first stop would be right before last week's on-air answer to the question of whether or not you would still make the Ricky Ray trade. You have taken more than a little heat for your response, care to clear the air?

TILLMAN: "A little heat (laughing)? That's like saying volcano lava is a little warm. But, yes, of course, I'm open to your questions.

"Last week, less than 30 seconds of a 23 minute interview was played from coast to coast, minus any context of my clearly stated support of our coaches, players and philosophy during what was a very candid interview. After all, I strongly believe in the long-term vision of what we're building. But, that single controversial answer, which was, frankly, dumb on my part, came after Dan (Tencer) spoke at length about the personal criticism I've been subjected to for months and months. I responded to his question about the trade as a human being, even injected my wife into the dynamic, thinking it was about the harsh personal criticism that Dan had elaborated on. So it was not a football response, rather a human response to what I perceived to be a personal question. In fact, to Dan's full credit, he followed up quickly with a great question seeking clarity, asking: 'The personal anguish aside, Eric, how do you feel about the deal and the direction of your club?' That answer was crystal clear. I even went on to express my enthusiasm for the future of our club, but in doing so, was open that we expected to go through growing pains on offence in the early stages of this year. Of course, that wasn't juicy enough, so only 30 seconds or so, minus any balance, was picked up coast to coast.

"It was a little like a guy talking for 23 minutes about his enthusiasm for the young stages of parenthood, acknowledging it has been a transition, but saying he can't wait to see his kids learn to walk and talk, and how excited he is to have a great future with his wife, only to have that whole conversation framed by a poorly worded 20 second remark. Kind of like being asked about getting no sleep -- and, admitting that, yes, on certain exhaustive mornings he wondered if having kids so quickly was the right decision.

"Honestly, what human being hasn't had a conversation where their choice of words were poor? What media member hasn't expressed things in a way -- in print or on air -- that they wouldn't love to have an erase button or a do-over? But, that's no excuse. Those few seconds were very, very poorly framed. While the media coverage clearly didn't reflect the positive tone of 99% of that interview, it was the result of me choosing a few words so poorly. All I had to do was preface my answer to Dan's first question with: 'On a personal level.' But I didn't do so and regret it tremendously. It was my fault. Period."

SUN: Elaborate on the trade and your thoughts eight months removed. After all, that trade is the only reason any of this happened last week.

TILLMAN: "The night before we announced the trade, Kavis (Reed) said: 'Eric, you know this is going to be viewed as Ricky for Steven.' I went on and on about how unfair that was to Steven and to us too, but looking back, Kavis was exactly right. Well, some have been a little more colourful in trying to describe the deal. I think your sidekick -- the widely read Mr. Terry Jones -- labelled it as a trade of Ricky Ray for Steven Jyles and a bag of balls. That was funny, Terry has the gift of humour, but let's dig a little deeper and look at the facts.

"Let's start with Steven. Sure he has had good moments and tough moments, but that's to be expected when a quarterback is transitioning to a new system and a new team. He's been playing behind an offensive line that has lost three probable starters. And, hey, look at Ricky in Toronto, they only scored 14 points against us in the opener and they're 1-2 after three games. Like us, the Argos should get better as they go.

"But, let's go back to the deal and what we got in return. Grant Shaw is kicking off at an elite level and his field-goal percentage is better than Damon Duval's was last year. And by changing the ratio in our kicking game, we've been able to add an American to our defence. How do you like that defensive group, by the way?

"And, the Argos No. 1 draft pick turned out to be a lot more than just one pick. A whole lot more. On draft day, we made a deal with B.C., moving back from second overall to fourth overall. Not only did we still get the player we wanted -- Austin Pasztor, who had been a three year starting offensive lineman at Virginia -- we also picked up two extra picks from the Lions for moving back just a couple of spots. Those two extra draft picks were used to select Justin Capicciotti in the second round and Ryan King in the fifth round, both of whom made our 42-man roster.

"So, if Austin Pazstor doesn't make the Minnesota Vikings, and we get him in September, or even next year, the deal will have quickly turned into one-for-five. Or, more specifically, Ricky for Steven Jyles, Grant Shaw, Justin Capicciotti, Ryan King and Austin Pasztor, with the latter four all being young Canadians with bright futures on our club. But, it never gets explained that way, does it?

"Austin reminds me a lot of Dave Mudge, who we drafted back when I was GM of the Argos. He was a Canadian kid playing at Michigan State and he opted to sign with the Buffalo Bills before coming to Canada. Same size and same kind of talent. To the delight of Bombers fans, J.I. Albrecht traded him to Winnipeg and Dave ended up having a nine- or 10-year CFL career, was a multi-year all-star and he was even named the CFL's most outstanding lineman one season with Montreal. Is that kind of talented draft pick worth waiting on? Heck yeah. So why do so many people act as if Austin Pasztor is just some guy floating out in space. He's a darn good prospect and, eventually, it's very, very likely he'll play for us in Edmonton."

SUN: Obviously your tenure here in Edmonton has included more than that deal back on that fateful December day, how far do you see the team has come compared to when you took over the reins midway through the 2010 season?

TILLMAN: "Hallelujah, someone actually remembers 2010 (laughing). For those who seem to have forgotten where this team was in comparison to how far we've progressed in 22 months, consider this: When I arrived, this club had two wins -- just like we do now, but that was in September. We were 2-8 and coming off losing the Labour Day series to Calgary by a combined score of 88-25. A few weeks before that, the Stamps had beaten the Eskimos 56-14. So without doing perfect math in my head, that's more than a 100-point differential in three losses to our arch rival.

"Beyond that head-to-head series between rivals, in the bigger picture, the club was on it's way to a fifth or sixth consecutive season without a home playoff game. And even worse, counting 2010's eventual last-place finish, the Edmonton Eskimos had only achieved two winning seasons in seven years. Let me repeat that -- only two winning seasons out of seven.

"So, I'll answer your question with a question or two of my own. Do you think going 11-7 in our first year, earning a home playoff game, which ended up being our third victory over Calgary in 2011, merits being called substantial progress? And even with all the anger and ridicule of the last few months over the Ricky Ray trade, do you know how many CFL clubs have a better record than us after three weeks in the 2012 season? The answer is only one -- Saskatchewan.

"And, if we have another winning season this year, which is certainly one of our objectives, do you realize this will be the first back-to-back winning seasons the Eskimos have enjoyed since 2002 and 2003?

"But somehow many in the media act like I've ruined the darn club with one trade? Well, how about a much fairer view of the truth. We were hired to rebuild a proud franchise that had collapsed in terms of our standards of success. Yes, the Ricky Ray trade was controversial, but I took a multi-year view when making a decision regarding a soon-to-be 33-year-old quarterback. Criticizing that deal is fair game. Totally fair. And hey, time may prove that I'm dumber than a stump, but until this season and the next unfold, is it unfair to expect some context on how far this franchise had fallen, and just how far we've come in 22 months? Like I said, right now we are 2-1 in 2012, which makes us 13-8 over the past two seasons. That's a long way from 2-8, isn't it?"

SUN: Eric, you took over from an 'unliked' regime, to say the least, which saw the end of a big point of pride for Eskimos fans and the franchise alike when the 34-year record playoff streak came crashing to an end under Danny Maciocia. I can't help but think that would leave whoever replaced him feeling a little like a rebound girlfriend -- if you will -- when it comes to public perception?

TILLMAN: "I wish things had worked out differently for Danny. For Richie (Hall), too. Like them both. But, when we sign up for this rodeo, we know that the horse is going to throw all of us a few times. So, someone was going to be next and I consider it a blessing to be here with Kavis. But yeah, in response to your question, Edmonton fans are probably a little jaded after all they've been through, but can you blame them? Five or six years without a home playoff game in a city with our rich history? Whoever thought they would see that in their lifetime?

"Our fans are very knowledgeable and passionate about their team. They simply want to win again. So in truth, the angry calls and e-mails I've received, only reflect how much our fans enjoyed last year and how much they want to keep winning. And the losing records aside, in his previous years as our quarterback, sentimentally, Ricky is associated with good times. We understand that because, in fairness, he played well enough to win a lot more.

"But, in a cap era you simply can't have it all. In Saskatchewan, I took a ton of heat for trading or losing all-stars like Kerry Joseph, Andrew Greene, Kenton Keith, Fred Perry, Reggie Hunt, Anton McKenzie, Mo Lloyd, etc. But our cap approach, while not popular, produced big winners. While the Eskimos were getting big names in free agency, we were going younger and less expensive. The bottom line is we went to two Grey Cups in three years and earned three consecutive home playoff games after previously going 18 years without hosting a single playoff game in Regina.

"On the flip side, in Edmonton, even with an elite quarterback, what happened in the new cap era while paying your quarterback $500,000? That's not a criticism of Ricky. Just being candid about how hard it is to build a winning team with that much money tied up in one guy. Albeit less money, Montreal has done it with Anthony Calvillo, but they are the exception not the rule. Look at the opposite approach. In Saskatchewan, one mistake by a nameless respected veteran precluded us from winning two Grey Cups in three years -- and that was with two different starting quarterbacks, each of whom were making less than $250,000.

"Like I said, you can't have it all in a cap era. So Paul Jones, Ed Hervey and myself have to identify inexpensive young talent. It's a challenge the three of us embrace."

SUN: You've mentioned the media several times. TSN has been pretty hard on you. In particular, Milt Stegall has been very outspoken about the Ricky Ray trade.

TILLMAN: "You noticed that, too. Milt seems to have a bee in his bonnet when it comes to the Eskimos. He was the only member of the panel who said J.C. Sherritt's tackle on Alex Brink was illegal. Both Matt (Dunigan) and Chris (Schultz) said while it was an aggressive and violent hit, it was within the rules. So, yes, Milt has been like a pitbull in his criticism of our club and of me in particular. Wally (Buono) and I were talking about that recently. Remember last year, it was Milt who said it was probably time for Wally to step down when B.C. was 0-4, or 0-5. A few months later, of course, the Lions were hoisting the Grey Cup. Between the two of us, Wally and I have 10 Grey Cup rings. No doubt, Milt is worthy of tremendous respect as a player, one of the best ever. But it's interesting how he feels so comfortable lecturing guys like Wally and myself on how to build elite football teams, when he's never had his name engraved on that trophy one time.

"Like I said, I have tremendous respect for Milt. Off the charts as a player and the people who know him best say he's terrific as a person, too. But I've also been on that TSN panel for three years, along with being GM of several clubs, too. Having done both, no doubt about this: It's a heck of a lot easier to criticize than it is to do. Building winners in a salary-cap era is complicated. Very. That's one of the things I respect most about Matt Dunigan. He was one of the all-time greats in our league, but he had a tough coaching experience. In truth, he had no chance because of that ownership situation. But having worn that coaching hat, Matt understands the complexity of the other side of the game. He doesn't think having a microphone suddenly means he has all the answers."

SUN: So, then what makes it all worthwhile, in the end?

TILLMAN: "If we restore a winning tradition to Edmonton, it will be more than worthwhile. There's no doubt I hired the right coach. Kavis is special and I just love the fact that Kavis has reached out to so many alumni: Gizmo (Williams), Leroy Blugh, Glen Harper, Jed Roberts, Rick Walters, Bayne Norrie, Bill Manchuk, Larry Wruck, Sean Fleming, Willie Pless, Shannon Garrett, Ed Jones -- the list goes on and on. Dave Cutler came back and spoke to the team. It's just great to have them around, and if we can become a consistent winner again, it will mean so much to them and our fans. The best way for Kavis and I to say thank you for these opportunities is to win."

SUN: Speaking of Kavis, he was the defensive co-ordinator of a 4-14 team in 2010. He was in his 30s. What made you want to hire him?

TILLMAN: "Well, we had worked together twice, so I knew him. It wasn't just interviewing well. I knew from first-hand experience Kavis has many strengths. He is smart -- how many coaches are biology majors? He is meticulously organized, has great communication skills, he has a unique mix of toughness and love. And, last but not least, he loves this community. He understands the rich Eskimos history and issn't intimidated by the challenge of meeting high expectations. So, I felt Kavis was the perfect guy to make a difference in a place starved for success."

SUN: Where do you see this team going from here on in?

TILLMAN: "We have two visions: one short-term, which is to try and win the championship this year, and one long-term. Right now, as we transition on offence, we'll have some good days and probably some challenging ones, too. That said, remember last August we went 10 quarters without scoring a single touchdown with Ricky Ray. As great as Ricky was, he couldn't do it by himself. Quality depth and strong Canadian content are essential for sustained success. We've improved dramatically in both of those areas and I believe in our coaches, our players and our vision. Right now though, as our offense grows -- and it will -- we'll lean on a superb defence to win several more games in the first half of the season. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but no doubt we've come a long way from 2-8 just 22 months ago."


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