Tillman's team, not time

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:45 AM ET

Eric Tillman's football team is going to the Grey Cup -- but Eric Tillman isn't.

You would think that would be painful or personal for a football lifer. But it's not. Not after all that Tillman has been through as absentee general manager of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, apparently running a football team from home while on paid leave from his job.

The details of the case against Tillman cannot be reported. But hopefully, in January, when it goes to court, the truth will come out. What has seemed forgotten in all the speculation of what Tillman may or may not have done with a 16-year-old babysitter, understand this: This is not David Frost. This is a summary matter. The charges against Tillman are misdemeanour charges. The truth is, if it wasn't sport and it wasn't football in Saskatchewan and it wasn't him, most of this would may have gone away by now.

And so Grey Cup Week goes on, without the general manager of the West Division champions, with whispers about what he might or might not have done, and with Tillman at home in Regina with the team he built ready to play ball in Calgary.

Tillman's not allowed to tell his side of the story -- or talk at all -- and that's part of the conditions of his situation. Those are the rules with which he must abide. His life has become an open season of sorts in very small Saskatchewan, where people love to talk.

"It has been an usual year and I'd be less than honest if I said it hasn't been challenging at times," Riders president Jim Hopson said. "We went through a difficult year in some ways with Eric basically working from home and not being able to talk to the media.

"But I think the way we handled it has worked well for his situation and us because it never became a distraction for us at any point in the year. Eric was able to do his job of finding players and Kenny and the coaches were able to do the job of coaching the team and running it day to day. Brendan Taman (hired in July as director of football administration) was also a big asset. Yeah, it's highly unusual."

And from the home office that isn't official but everybody knows exists, Tillman has his team in the Grey Cup again, the second time in three seasons, miraculous numbers of sorts for a football team with more fans than championship titles and a history more about feel-good than big square rings.

How good a football team has Tillman built from his home office and with the help of those around him?

The Roughriders finished first in the West this season. In most cities, that's reason to shrug. Everybody finishes first in the Canadian Football League. Except, when the Riders finished first this season, it was the first time in 33 years that had happened.

It's not just that. Tillman has been in Saskatchewan three seasons. In each of those seasons, the Riders have played host to a home playoff game. Before he arrived, the most rabid fans in Canadian football had not hosted a home playoff game since 1988. And this is Year Three for Tillman on the job: While victory isn't expected tomorrow against Montreal, it's not impossible. Should that happen, it will be Saskatchewan's second Grey Cup title in Tillman's three years on the job.

Two Cups in three years.

Before that, they had two Grey Cups wins in their entire history.

That is the pain and the difficulty of Tillman's life in Saskatchewan: To the good people of his province, he is either genius or predator, hero or scum.

In some cases the same people who hugged him on the streets after he brought a championship home now look the other way when he walks by.

People from his football team aren't supposed to call this week, but they have. He was even invited to join the team in Calgary but declined. The last thing Tillman wanted to be was anyone's distraction.

Nobody in the CFL would have given Ken Miller a shot at head coach, but Tillman did, just the way he had hired Kent Austin before him. He just gets it. He understands.

Two years ago, you could see Tillman outside the Roughriders dressing room after their Grey Cup win at Rogers Centre. It was his team, his time. Now it's his team, just not his time.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca


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