HAMILTON - The timing was never right for George Cortez.
There was that head coaching opportunity in Ottawa in 2002, but before the discussion turned serious, the University of California had already been calling.
There were the calls from the Toronto Argonauts and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers along the way, wanting to interview him for head coaching jobs at various times, but each time he had another job offer on the go. The last time, when the Argos were phoning, he went to the Buffalo Bills instead.
This time, it’s different and unusual, which really tells you a lot about Cortez. NFL coaches don’t tend to take CFL jobs. They snub their noses at such opportunities. They often consider it a step backwards salary-wise, promotion-wise. But the new head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats doesn’t view it that way, at all.
For most of his 60 years, Cortez has been waiting for the right opportunity. He is, like so many football people, a lifer in the sport. He has coached 18 seasons in the CFL in five different markets, 13 seasons of NCAA football at four different universities, the past two years in Buffalo. He has coached Aaron Rodgers and Doug Flutie and Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jeff Garcia and Dave Dickenson and taught his latest quarterback, Henry Burris, what the CFL was all about when he was a kid.
“This is a great opportunity to be a head coach,” said Cortez. “There only only 40 franchises in North America that play outdoor tackle football. This is an opportunity to do that.”
It’s more than just an opportunity. It’s a checklist match for Cortez, who won four Grey Cups as an offensive co-ordinator with four different starting quarterbacks. His best years were the Wally Buono years in Calgary in the 1990s, with the Stampeders dominating the league. He later worked with John Hufnagel on the Stampeders staff. He knew what he needed to be successful if the opportunity ever came his way.
He wanted control of the football environment, the way Buono and Hufnagel had. He wanted the security to know it was his way. The often wayward Ticats have promised him all that and more.
And now it’s time to go to work in Southern Ontario, where football has been too quiet and has a chance to pick up a little steam. The Ticats have a new, old head coach. The Argos have a new, young, head coach. The Ticats have Burris at quarterback. The Argos have Ricky Ray. Suddenly, Alberta is Ontario and all the colours have changed, if only the interest would do the same.
What has translated is the excitement in Burris, the quarterback who was replaced late last season in Calgary, but honestly believes he hasn’t lost a step or a throw. He can’t wait to work for Cortez, again. When Burris was coming out of Temple University, his first professional stop of consequence was as the third string quarterback in Calgary.
He remembers his first meetings. He remembers how many questions he was asked, how much detail he was asked to absorb. He remembers the relationship they built and have maintained.
When last season started to go bad for Burris, he figured he was going to be traded to Toronto. That’s what he hoped for. When he was traded to Hamilton, he was not exactly open to the idea. But when Cortez was hired in Hamilton, Smilin’ Hank knew all was well.
“When I heard George was coming, my eyes got that much bigger and the smile got that much wider,” said Burris. “When he was named head coach, it made it so much more comforting for myself. Knowing the guy who taught me this game was going to be on my side again is one of the ultimate feelings I could ever have experienced at this stage of my career. I told people before this happened, I had a great feeling about what this year had in store for me. Having George part of this, puts icing on the cake for me.
“I know I’m jumping up and down and I’m all over the place with this.”
George Cortez can’t wait to get to work. Henry Burris can’t wait to take some snaps. It’s the middle of winter but an old coach and an old quarterback, with brand new challenges, want to party like it’s 1999 again.