Pinball defies the profile

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:48 AM ET

The winding trails toward athletic goals are many and varied but the one taken by Grey Cup champion head coach Michael (Pinball) Clemons was unique. He loved his Argonauts to the title.

Little coaches nicknamed Pinball don't win Grey Cups. Guys named The Don do.

Coaches without a lot of experience don't win Grey Cups. Black guys don't win Grey Cups. Guys with ancient quarterbacks don't win Grey Cups.

But mostly, guys who breathe love and peace instead of fire don't win Grey Cups.

But Clemons did it and more on Sunday when his Argos upset the B.C. Lions in the 92nd renewal.

What are we to make of this? That success in this unforgiving game is no longer the product of equally unyielding leadership?

No. But there are different ways to reach the top and Clemons' way works for him.

Coaches from the Vince Lombardi school of football tyranny succeed their way. As one of the legendary Green Bay Packers coach's players once said, "He treated us all equally -- like dogs."

The benign -- but firm, when necessary -- approach clearly does the job for Clemons.

It works because he remains in character, which is to say he is extremely personable and thoughtful, the kind of guy who, when asking how you are, actually is interested in how you are.

For a time, the smallish chap who won three Grey Cups pinballing through the enemy on kick returns and as slotback seemed almost too good to be true. Nobody could be as constantly upbeat as the ever-smiling Clemons.

But he is, as the kids at Thames Valley Children's Centre will tell you, or the folks who heard him speak at the London sports celebrity dinner last winter. What you see is what you get, which is not always the case in sports.

There is a differentiation. There is Michael Clemons, who can discuss complex matters deeply, and there is Pinball, who is in the constant cheerleader mode, whether it's on behalf of his Argos or one of many charities with which he is associated.

Either way, Clemons will find something good to say about anything.

Yet another "singer" massacred the national anthem before Sunday's game, yet Clemons probably would note the off-key, stylized performance by the rhythm and blues performer was delivered in the two official languages.

One upbeat part of Clemons' success was the lack of emphasis on the fact he was the first black coach to win the Grey Cup. I've always found the issue of first black anything as beside the point as first blond coach with green eyes or first Danish-American quarterback or something.

Clemons predictably downplayed it. "Maybe I don't appreciate it as much because I live here year-round now and we're more of a colour-blind nation," he said. "Maybe it does have some level of significance. The reason I have a problem appreciating the significance is that I feel I'm the smallest part of our success."

The guy who has become the face, voice and soul of the Argonauts managed it from a rather unfashionable position. When he was named head coach two years ago, it was seen as a ploy by the previous owners to help eliminate a lot of bad air left behind by the previous coaching regime.

Everyone liked Pinball, the thinking went, so he went virtually right from uniform to his trademark Argo sweater. But he knows people and gave his assistants their head, stepping in only to deal in personnel disputes and whenever the ship's direction went awry.

Things could hardly have turned out better. B.C. coach Wally Buono criticized Clemons for resting some key players during a meaningless game down the home stretch.

Those same players ended up beating him for the Grey Cup.


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