Rebuilding the ship

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

Brian Burke was surrounded by microphones. Jesse Litsch, one year removed from minor-league obscurity, was being quizzed about suddenly being the Blue Jays No. 2 starter. Paul Kelly, executive director of the NHLPA, blinked into the TV lights. The most famous hockey dad in history, Walter Gretzky, was getting face time yesterday as celebrities gathered at a news conference to promote last night's Conn Smythe Sports Celebrity Dinner.

Off to the side of the room stood Bart Andrus, recently anointed head coach of the Argos. Mostly alone. Not ignored really, but hardly creating that celebrity stir. The world may not be paying the Argos or their head coach much attention right now and the headlines may be all about players defecting to the NFL but none of that matters to Andrus.

Been there. Felt this. The Argos are just his latest Lazarus Project.

In his 25-year coaching odyssey he has not yet turned water to wine anywhere. But he has brought life and hope where there was neither -- and after missing the playoffs last year the Argos had precious little of either. He knows he is walking into a situation where his team is not master of its own city.

"From an expectation standpoint it makes it easier. My first coaching job in college I took over a program that hadn't won in four years.

"In one year, we turned it around."

That was 1996 when he led Rocky Mountain College to a 6-4 record and earned the NAIA coach of the year award. Then came Europe where they like their football to come with guys in shorts. In comparison, says Andrus, CFL rosters are an oasis of stability.

"As a head coach in NFL Europe 90% of the players are different from year to year," Andrus said. "You were rebuilding entire football teams, the atmosphere around the team, management, everything. You learned to teach ... and how to teach quickly. If you told us we were getting 50% of the roster back, we'd have said, 'Wow!' "

So, it may not be the first, or even the biggest, rebuilding job he has undertaken. But it does look daunting. The rebuilding to bring the team back into the public consciousness will have to begin by finding a replacement for Dominique Dorsey. The CFL all-star and special teams player of the year has signed a three-year deal with the Washington Redskins, after also looking at offers from the Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts.

In a conference call from his Las Vegas home, Dorsey admitted leaving is: "Difficult. It has kind of dawned on me. I made the decision a couple days ago. Playing the last two years in Toronto were the funnest I've had."

Dorsey put up spectacular numbers accumulating at least 200 all-purpose yards in a game nine times last season. "This is a hard moment," Dorsey said. "I couldn't see myself anywhere else in the CFL than Toronto. That's where my heart has been."

Argos general manager Adam Rita admits he'll be difficult to replace with anyone not named Dominique. "Dominique and I have an agreement. If something unfortunate happens and he doesn't make it with the NFL he will be home with the Argonauts. We don't feel good about him leaving but we feel happy for him."

For Andrus, it has become a familiar scenario. Dorsey is the fourth Argo to be signed by an NFL club. But, so far, he doesn't have the team shrink on speed dial.

"This will be very similar in terms of rebuilding and I believe we'll be very competitive," he said. The team also has lost defensive lynchpin Byron Parker (Philadelphia), receiver P.K. Sam (Buffalo) and tackle Cliff Washburn (Houston).

"These kids all grow up with a dream of playing in the NFL. (Dorsey) wants to follow that dream. If he is successful, more power to him. And, if he isn't, we'd be interested in having him back," said Andrus, who once dreamed the dream himself. First as a college quarterback, then by getting to the NFL as an offensive assistant in Tennessee. "There's an obvious difference between the CFL and NFL and it's about $150 million in the salary cap. Those guys are chasing the dream, as well as attaining financial security, so you can't blame them."


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