More than an hour before the players arrived at McMahon Stadium Wednesday afternoon, Jim Barker was making the rounds, shaking hands and catching up with old friends.
Once the glad-handing with former workmates such as Henry Burris was done, the Toronto Argonauts head coach went to the field and soaked up the atmosphere of an empty stadium.
What will it be like coming out to face the team you spent six seasons with in a city you lived for seven years?
Barker will find out Thursday night as the Argos kick off the CFL season against the Stampeders (8 p.m., TSN).
“Even hearing the question, I get a bit of a chill,” Barker said. “It’s a big part of my life in the CFL here in Calgary.
“It’s the perfect scenario for me coaching my first game back in seven years in a town that was so important in my life.
“Ask me after the game. It’s hard to put into words. I got chills, so I’m guessing that’s emotion.”
On the surface, it would seem there is no hard feelings between the Stamps and Barker after the 53-year-old left the organization this off-season to take the helm of the Argos.
During his news conference, Stamps owner Ted Hellard lingered in the back of the room, waiting to wish him well.
But when Stamps GM-head coach John Hufnagel was asked his thoughts on facing Barker for the first time, he didn’t offer a glowing response.
“I have none,” Hufnagel said. “I don’t have any different thoughts about this football game than any other football game I’m trying to win.”
In January, Barker took a long vacation to New Zealand with his significant other Hilda, and came back feeling like he wanted a change.
There wasn’t going to be any in Calgary. Barker spent five seasons in charge of the Stampeders’ player personnel, which meant a lot of travelling throughout the U.S. searching out talent.
Barker had two previous stints as head coach, both for one season (1999 in Toronto and 2003 in Calgary). He wanted to run his own operation again, and the Argos offered him that chance.
“I felt like my job here was work,” Barker said. “I never felt like that before. I devoted five years to personnel. I wanted to be the best in the league at personnel. That was my goal. I was not going to coach.
“I needed Ted to teach me the salary cap and how to do spread sheets, to be able to put myself into that mode of finding players.
“Ultimately I was a coach for 30 years before this so when the opportunity came to put all of it together into an organization … it was a perfect scenario.”
There was no control during Barker’s first stint as Stamps head coach. TheN owner Michael Feterik wanted his son Kevin to play for the team and the situation was messy to say the least.
“When I came in in 2003, I was replacing Wally Buono and I should have known better,” Barker said. “Your ego takes over and you think you can do it. I was coming off an XFL championship and a Grey Cup win in Montreal.
“I thought I could handle an owner whose son was the quarterback. Ultimately, I couldn’t. I don’t know if anybody can. When Wally Buono can’t do it …
“This (Toronto) situation is closer to 2005 when Ted Hellard and John Forzani took over the team.”
Barker did have great times with the Stamps, noNE moreso than the 2008 Grey Cup victory in Montreal, which was Barker’s third time being part of a championship CFL team.
His experience being part of a turnaround season of 2005 in which the Stamps went from 4-14 to 11-7 and another step forward in 2008 when they won the Grey Cup under Hufnagel serves Barker well.
“I learned there’s a certain chain of command,” Barker said. “It’s one thing I learned from Huf. When Huf came in, it was clear. In 2005, we had a chain of command. Then it kind of got lost.
“When Huf came in, it was back in place. Someone needs to make the decision and everyone else has to buy in. In 2003, there were so many agendas here. In 2005, there were no agendas. It was all about turning it around and winning. You can’t have agendas and win.”
Even with a rebuilt roster and several questions surrounding his club, Barker is energized and excited.
It’s no longer work.
“It’s a labour of love,” Barker said. “I get up in the morning and get excited about being around these guys. It’s all about who you work with. The coaching staff is magic.
“I told the players it’s not about winning the Grey Cup. It’s about winning the Grey Cup with the right guys. We’ve tried to do that.
“I walk into the locker-room and we have guys I truly care for. It’s an exciting time professionally for me.”