Coach a blank page

Michael

Michael "Pinball" Clemons. (Stan Behal/Sun)

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 10:14 AM ET

TORONTO -- Pinball Clemons was near tears, barely able to contain himself, and saved only by a question about strategy for today's football game.

It was one of the those moments that define the Toronto Argonauts head coach, expose him for what he really is: five feet, six inches of heart.

The question that nearly broke the dam was simple enough: what's the last thing Clemons plans to say to his team before today's CFL East semifinal against the visiting Blue Bombers?

Clemons paused for a moment, uttered three words and then fought like hell to keep it together.

'I LOVE MY GUYS'

"Together we rise," he said, each of his friendly eyes holding back about a gallon of water.

Three words first uttered by the coach a couple of years ago, then printed on T-shirts by a player earlier this season and repeated with extra meaning at times like this.

A reminder that to be a great football team, his players need each other. If they don't rise together, they don't rise at all.

"It's important to me," Clemons said, explaining why the phrase had stirred so much emotion in him. "I love my guys. They mean a lot to me."

That is Clemons, perhaps the ultimate motivator-by-emotion, more father than coach, more mentor than taskmaster.

And more successful than most, with five consecutive playoff seasons and a 5-3 post-season record, including a Grey Cup title, to his credit.

If Clemons has already defined his CFL self, his opposite number on the Winnipeg sideline today has no such identity to fall back on.

Bombers boss Doug Berry will be coaching the first playoff game of his one-season career, and nobody knows yet what kind of legacy he'll be leaving.

Will the gap in experience make a difference today?

Clemons insists that's overrated, although his comment perhaps revealed more than he realized.

"Coaches don't win football games," he said. "Coaches lose games, but they don't win 'em."

They say teams reflect the personalities of their head coaches, but the Bombers and Argos also reflect their levels of experience.

The Argos are loaded with playoff graybeards, while many of the Bombers have never picked up a razor.

That's why Berry's motivational speeches this week haven't carried a dramatic, backs-to-the-wall, win-or-we're-out flavour.

The way Berry sees it, this is simply Game 19.

"The only difference is there's a tentative one after this," he said. "Instead of a guaranteed one."

Other than that, it's just another game against a good opponent.

Aside from squinting at the brightness of the TV lights, Berry actually looked pretty comfortable in the spotlight yesterday.

Earlier in the week, he'd said he wasn't focused on the finality of this game, and he sure wasn't about to pile that burden onto the shoulders of his young team.

"Half our team has never been in the playoffs," Berry said. "So to approach it as a playoff game, they have no idea what the heck I'm talking about."

It's an interesting tact by the first-year CFL psychologist. Why get his players all tied up in knots?

Berry has had this no-nonsense demeanour about him all season, so changing now probably wouldn't look right. Players often follow their coach's lead, after all.

Besides, he's no Pinball Clemons. Asked what his final words will be today, Berry played it coy.

"I'll share that with you after the game," he said.

He's got it all planned, though.

And, who knows?

Maybe those words will begin to define him as a head coach, too.


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