HAMILTON -- Nobody in the Canadian Football League came further last year than the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Winners of exactly one game in the 2003 season, near extinction under owners who no longer wanted to be there, they were a tired institution in a tired city.
The renovation started with a new, upbeat owner in Bob Young, a man with unlimited vision and pockets deeper than any others in the CFL.
It just seemed to spread from there. Seemingly out of thin air, Young had assembled a front office with a drive and entrepreneurial spirit unrivalled in this league's history.
In Greg Marshall, the Ticats had a coach with local cachet who matched Young's positive outlook. The enthusiasm moved quickly through the community, which bought tickets on the promise, then revelled in the revival.
By season's end, under coach of the year Marshall, they were a game over .500 (9-8-1) and eager to keep the momentum headed in the right direction this year.
One of the common threads that has sustained the Ticats through thick and thin the past seven years has been 40-year-old quarterback Danny McManus, a class act and a true leader. But at what point is it time to hand the ball to a younger, more athletic man?
Marcus Brady, a McManus fan himself, hopes he can prove that his time is now.
"I started four years in college and now this is my fourth year out of college and I haven't started a full season yet as a pro," he said yesterday following a morning workout. "I'm anxious to get that opportunity.
"I've worked hard this off-season and I'm coming into camp after being with these guys most of last year, with the same offence. It takes away some of the mental stress and allows me to just come out here and make plays."
Brady is excited about the atmosphere in Hamilton.
"It all starts at the top with Bob Young," he said. "He and Ron Lancaster brought in good players and now we have a team that's willing to compete and last year we showed it. We went to the playoffs and now we have to build from there."
If they are to challenge the Argonauts and the Montreal Alouettes at the top of the East Division, they will be doing it with a revamped defensive front. Joe Montford and Tim Cheatwood are both gone and, now, so is Johnny Scott, cut this week.
Cheatwood jumped to the NFL's Houston Texans in the off-season but the Ticats were able to replace him with free-agent James Cotton, a former Calgary Stampeder who played briefly in the NFL.
Montford, one of the league's premier rush ends, was traded to Edmonton in exchange for Canadian lineman Dan Comiskey, another key puzzle piece.
The Ticats are high on a couple of young players to fill the roles of Scott and Montford. Defensive tackle DeVonte Peterson impressed so much in the early going that Marshall decided to cut Scott early, rather than late, so the respected veteran could have a chance to catch on with somebody else in the league.
In addition to Cotton, there are a handful of others who will compete for spots on the revised defensive front, which will feature Adriano Belli as the only returnee.
Hamilton's first game action will be June 11 in Halifax against the Argonauts, the first of a handful of 2005 installments in the CFL's longest-running and bitterest rivalry.
Until last year, too many years went by when one or the other or both of the rivals were among the league's also-rans. Now, both franchises are on the upswing, both as competitive teams and as business enterprises, presenting an opportunity for a new era of relevance for the rivalry.
Last fall, Young expressed some dismay with the Ticats supporters' penchant for the "Argos Suck!" chant. Forgive him. Give him a couple of years. He has been away.