Popp goes the world

JIM BENDER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:27 AM ET

It's been a 'Poppsy-turvy' world for Montreal's GM-turned-head-coach this season.

When Alouettes head coach Don Matthews stepped down towards the end of last year, GM Jim Popp named himself Matthews' replacement. Although his credentials as a GM are unquestioned, his coaching skills are.

Yet Popp led the Als to top spot in the East with a 10-8 record and to the Grey Cup, where they lost to B.C. here in Winnipeg last year.

Not only has it been a struggle for Popp to get his troops back into the CFL playoffs this season, he has had to put out fires that have erupted in his own backyard all year:

- There have been reported troubles and ill feelings among Popp's assistant coaches;

- Popp once told his players they were making him look bad, which upset quarterback Anthony Calvillo;

- Linebacker Tim Strickland publicly criticized Popp as a mentor;

- Kicker Damon Duval, who is married to club president Larry Smith's daughter, was so upset with one move Popp made, his wife reportedly called Smith to complain (since denied).

- And, there was a reported rift between Calvillo and slotback Ben Cahoon.

The Als also suffered a number of injuries to key personnel, including Calvillo and Cahoon, and lost Calvillo for the season when his wife was diagnosed with a cureable form of cancer.

Strickland's criticism was the most damaging.

"It hasn't been a smooth transition," he told the Montreal Gazette earlier this year. "I've embraced Popp, but there are different things I haven't seen. There are things I see going on I don't agree with. Things just don't seem the same. I don't feel a winner's attitude (in the dressing room).

ROOKIE MISTAKES

"Popp still has things to prove as a coach and has made some rookie mistakes. There's a learning curve involved. It's difficult being the coach and GM, and there are certain things you do."

Montreal finished the season in third place in the East at 8-10, their first losing record since returning to the league in 1996.

But the Alouettes, who face the second-place Blue Bombers in the Eastern semifinal today, can wipe out some of those woes if they can do some damage in the playoffs.

"The record itself is different from a year ago, but it's not a whole lot different from a year ago," Popp said yesterday. "A lot of people doubted us, didn't give us a chance with the (six-game) losing streak we had and coach Matthews stepping away. No one dared believe we even had an opportunity to do anything, and then we end up winning games people didn't think we were capable of, securing home-field advantage and then going to the Grey Cup."

Popp still likes Montreal's chances this year.

"A number of our vets have already experienced this," he said. "The players we have are very seasoned in the playoffs. Our coaching staff is well-seasoned in the playoffs. No matter where you play the game or the battles you battle, we've got a number of battle-tested people -- moreso than maybe the other two teams that are in our division playing for this thing right now. But that's where we are.

"What happened during the regular season's gone now, it's past. We all have 0-0 records and we have to come to Winnipeg to play the game, and that's as simple as it is. That can all be thrown away at this stage."

Cahoon is certainly anxious to put the season behind him.

"We got ourselves in the playoffs, and that's all that matters," he said. "We have a chance to go to the Grey Cup. I'm not dwelling on the past. After it's all over, then I'll reflect back on the season."

As a GM, Popp has also been questioned for allowing receiver Terrence Edwards (Winnipeg), kick returner Ian Smart (B.C.) and safety Barron Miles (B.C.) to go elsewhere and passing on deals to acquire some talented players.

"Nobody's perfect, and I never said I was," Popp said earlier this year. "Anything I've done I'll reflect on. I've learned and am moving forward, but I don't know all the answers."

But he might know enough to get them back to the Grey Cup.


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