HAMILTON - The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have had good games. The Tiger-Cats have had great players. They have had players who made great plays and players who had great games.
What the Tiger-Cats have not had in more than a decade is the ability to put them all together in one place, in one season, culminating in so much as even one Grey Cup.
Good teams. Bad teams. It hasn’t mattered. Always, they have fallen short.
“Most people spoke fairly highly of the personnel here, but that maybe the level of consistency wasn’t there last year,” George Cortez said Tuesday at a press conference introducing him as the Tiger-Cats’ new coach. “I was told flat out that when the three phases of the game came together, they were easily the best team in the East. But they didn’t play well at the same time very often.”
Such has been a familiar refrain in seasons of misplaced hope. Not since Ron Lancaster was in charge in 1999 has Tigertown celebrated a Grey Cup championship.
The past two seasons have been marked by wild inconsistencies, lopsided wins, inexplicable failures, and never more than a .500 record.
“With the young guys, the great receiving corps here. This is one of the most talented teams in the league. There’s no doubt this team should’ve been contending for more Grey Cups than it has.”
So says Henry Burris. A cruel indictment of a franchise gone wrong. But accurate.
Tiger-Cats management seems intent on reversing that course, placing its faith in a first-time head coach and an aging quarterback, both of whom come with Grey Cup credentials.
It will be Burris’ responsibility to change this culture of mediocrity, along with Cortez. The two won a Grey Cup in Calgary in 2008 so, with dreams of an encore, Tuesday’s press conference was filled with renewed hope and confidence.
Set aside, at least for now, was another reality — the one of a team that specialized in heartbreak, culminating with a loss in the Eastern final.
“I’m here for one reason,” said Cortez, who was talked into giving up his job as quarterback coach with the NFL Bills. “That’s (owner) Bob Young. He talked about winning. About winning a Grey Cup. Actually, about winning multiple Grey Cups but we’ll start off with one.”
It was that kind of afternoon. One filled with optimism. Cortez won Grey Cups in 1992, ’98, 2001 and ’08 as an assistant. Burris won in ’08 and earned MVP honours. Cortez was the offensive co-ordinator of that Calgary team.
“There’s familiarity here at this front table. There’s a lot of wins at this table, there’s a lot of Grey Cups won at this table. Hopefully, this will get us over the hump,” said Bob O’Billovich, who had his title bumped from general manager to vice-president of football operations. All of which is just semantics. O’Billovich had to take a bit of a step back. In order to get the 60-year-old Cortez, they had to give him control over personnel. No big deal, Obie said.
“I consider myself a resource person. He’s older than I am, so I don’t have to mentor him like I might’ve done with some younger coaches,” O’Billovich said. “He’s an experienced guy who knows our league. If we get into a shooting match, it’s George’s responsibility as far as the active roster.”
Cortez admits having control of his own destiny was key to accepting this job and leaving a comfortable situation with the Bills. Who plays, who stays, who goes, and what goes in the playbook; it’s all down to Cortez. That was the way he needed it to be.
“In the 1990s with Calgary, the coaching staff made the decisions about the team on the field and, when you’re winning, it influences how you think things should be done,” said Cortez. “I’ve been in other places where it wasn’t like that and we weren’t winning. That influences how I think things should be done.”
Cortez has more than three decades of experience as an assistant dating back to the long-forgotten Montreal Concordes. He has made winners out of quarterbacks with limited upside such as Marcus Crandell, and Hall of Famers such as Tom Brady. So, it’s all good. In theory.
How that translates on to the field next summer remains a question. Cortez admitted Monday even he doesn’t know how much Burris, who turns 37 next June, has left after losing his job in Calgary. “I don’t think even the player can tell you that,” said Cortez.
If this is Burris’ opportunity to be the CFL’s rennaisance man it was also Cortez’s best and, perhaps, his last chance to run his own show.
By coming to Hamilton, he gives up some NFL money but gains power and a chance to live a dream.
“It wasn’t easy to leave (Buffalo). It was a good job. I enjoyed being there but I think this is a opportunity that I probably didn’t think would come along,” Cortez said. “I’ve always had the vision of what it would take for me to take a head coaching job. That came about.”
The question that remains is whether that vision can take him and the Tiger-Cats to the Grey Cup.