Clemons' strength in how he brought out the best in his players

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:10 PM ET

On that strange football day when Michael Clemons woke up as a player and found himself as head coach by afternoon, he was asked a rather direct question.

"How do you know you can do this?"

"I don't," said the Pinball rather honestly.

Seven years and one brief interruption later, the coaching life of Pinball Clemons, not the publicity stunt it began as, is expected to come to an end today. Decisions like this one don't come easily or irresponsibly, not when you love the Argonauts the way he does, not when your favourite colour is Double Blue.

Clemons has taken his time -- putting his heart into the decision, the way he puts his heart into everything that matters most to him. But today, he won't have to answer the question of whether he could coach. He did the job and did it well. The only way he knew. His way. Hands-on. Full of passion and emotion.

Differently than any coach who came before him and probably differently than any who will come after him.

In one capacity or another -- as player, coach, or team president -- Clemons has been an Argo since 1989, a one-team wonder in whatever position he has been asked to play. That likely won't change today. He probably can't separate from the team just as the team doesn't want him to separate from him.

But he apparently will disappear from the field, where once he danced his way to Argo Grey Cups and later coached his way to the one Grey Cup which he might secretly tell you mattered most.

"I can't be what the textbooks say I'm supposed to be," Clemons said, just days before winning the 2004 Grey Cup, an African-American champion before Tony Dungy won his Super Bowl. "I've just been myself and incorporated that into what I do."

What he did was unusual. It may sound like a cliche to some, but Clemons didn't just coach football: He coached life. He cared more for the people who played for him than he did about winning and he won because the people he cared for couldn't or wouldn't let him down. It didn't matter who he came across, he wanted to make a difference. It didn't matter if it was Andre Rison or Ricky Williams or Robert Baker or Bernard Williams: Each person, each player, meant something to him. Their past mattered. Their future mattered. He wasn't shy or apologetic about bringing in players with problems. He was Pinball: Always there to listen, lend a word, give advice, find a way to make today better than yesterday.

"His style is so personal," the former Argo Sandy Annunziata said. "If something is going on in your life, he wants to know about it. He wants to find a way to help you. First and foremost he's about the person. Football is a secondary thing for him. He wants to find a way to make you better."

He made the Argos better people -- and sometimes a better team. He won't say this, but the remarkable job he did as a coach came in the 2003 season, with the Argos basically bankrupt and bereft of fan support. Some players didn't get paid. The team easily could have fallen apart. But he kept everything in house, everything on course.

The next season, under new and vital ownership, the Argos won the Grey Cup. There would not have been a championship year had the previous season imploded the way it could have.

But that was the coaching brilliance of Clemons: He was never going to be Bill Belichick or Bud Grant or Don Matthews. He was not a strategist for the ages.

"He was the most unique coach I ever had," Annunziata said. "He saw something in everyone and wanted to pull it out of them. He was unique as a player, unique as a man in the community and unique as a coach."

Most coaches have an arm's-length relationship with their players, boss vs. players, just not Clemons. He never stopped talking, selling, encouraging, believing. Most of it with warmth and a smile.

And on the afternoon the Argos lost their opportunity to play the Grey Cup game at home this year, Clemons stood not far from the dressing room door as his players exited one by one.

Almost everyone stopped by for a hug, a pat, an encouraging word. One last time. It was goodbye to the season and goodbye to the kind of coach they'll cherish for the rest of their lives.

A coach with substance and today, a new office, a new title, still an Argo.


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