Jim Popp’s fingerprints are all over this Eastern Division final.
He hired Marc Trestman to be head coach of the Montreal Alouettes. Before that, he hired Scott Milanovich, first as quarterbacks coach, later as offensive coordinator of the Als.
When Trestman replaced Popp as coach of the Als, he wasn’t told to inherit Milanovich as his offensive coordinator. He chose to.
Popp’s fingerprints are all over the game today between Toronto and Montreal, this game so important for the Argos and the upcoming 100th Grey Cup Week. As general manager of the Als, Popp hired a defensive coach named Chris Jones. The same Jones the Argos semi-stole from the Calgary Stampeders in the off-season. The same Jones whom legendary quarterback Anthony Calvillo says is the most difficult to play against.
These are Popp’s people and this is his CFL: He brought Calvillo to Montreal when Hamilton and Ron Lancaster no longer wanted him. He kept this little guy, Chad Owens, on his negotiation list and tried to hide him on his roster before Owens determined he didn’t just have to run back kicks, he wanted to catch some passes too. He basically let Owens head to Toronto because he had a player he liked better: His name, Andy Hawkins. He’s in the NFL now making the kind of plays for the Cincinnati Bengals that leave people saying: Where’d he come from?
Popp was a finalist for the vacant general manager job in Indianapolis last winter, the same place where Trestman, now with a career record of 59-31 — a Hall of Fame winning percentage of .655 — was a finalist for the head coaching opportunity. Neither of them left and the Als are back in first place, looking to go to the Grey Cup for the eighth time in 11 years. Their rite of autumn. And for Trestman, that would be five years in the CFL, four trips to the Grey Cup should he happen to get by the Argos on Sunday.
Trestman got to the Grey Cup and won it as a rookie head coach in Montreal. His pal, Milanovich is hoping to do the same thing with Toronto. If they didn’t have to play each other, they’d probably be cheering for each other: They aren’t just friends, but professional colleagues with deep respect for each other.
On the day after last season ended badly with a playoff loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Milanovich met with Trestman and told him there was interest from other CFL teams. At that moment, just as they shook hands and Trestman wished him well, he knew then he was losing his offensive coordinator. He sensed it before Milanovich knew. The best always do.
Popp first got to know Milanovich when he was a coach in NFL Europe. In that league, coaches did their own scouting and Milanovich’s had been assigned the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles — him being from Pennsylvania — as two of the teams he had to keep tabs on. Each year Milanovich would show up at Steelers training camp and each year Popp would be there, scouting for the Als.
It led to a job offer: “And I figured, Europe is a long way away. Montreal was a lot closer to home for me. So I took the job.”
“He proved everything and more when he was here,” Trestman said. “He showed me he wouldn’t be here for long.”
Trestman, a college quarterback, made his reputation coaching Bernie Kosar at University of Miami and with the Cleveland Browns. Milanovich, a college quarterback and professional backup, made his reputation coaching the ageless wonder, Calvillo. On Sunday afternoon, he is charged with coming up with a way to beat Calvillo, a game against his quarterback, his team, his CFL city, just not anymore.
Ricky Ray, who has been around the CFL forever, has never played for a coach who demanded and expected as much of him. The detail work is endless. The preparation is like nothing he’s experienced before.
Milanovich is doing it the Montreal way. “I don’t do it much differently than we did it here.”
The mutual admiration society in the smallest of professional leagues. This first season has been challenging yet building. The Argos are a better second-half team than they were in the first. The offence, under Ray, is more threatening than it was early on. It’s taken Milanovich more time than he had hoped for, but he kept changing people, until he settled on the lineup he was comfortable with.
This is his team. This is first season. Sunday’s game will say a lot about where he is and how far he’s come.
“Say something outrageous,” someone said flippantly to Milanovich as he sat down for his pre-game press conference.
He laughed. “Outrageous? Do you know how boring I am?” Just dull enough to win Sunday. Just dull enough to knock Jim Popp and Marc Trestman out of the Grey Cup that is normally theirs.