Barker aims to make T.O. a CFL kind of town

Toronto Argos head coach and general manager Jim Barker chats with Cory Boyd during an Toronto...

Toronto Argos head coach and general manager Jim Barker chats with Cory Boyd during an Toronto Argos practice at the U of T Erindale Campus in Mississauga on Tuesday June 21, 2011. (Ernest Doroszuk/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:19 PM ET

It is Jim Barker and his team against the world -- and the coach of the Toronto Argonauts wouldn't have it any other way.

This is how he brings people together. This is his rather loud mantra. This is why everyone doesn't just sign a contract with the Argos: They sign a covenant.

It is all about a surprising coach whose time has come late in a football life and for a team looking to win both games and fans -- and yes, even the Grey Cup. That's what Barker talks about, boasts about, sitting in his office on the day the Argos are leaving for Calgary to begin another Canadian Football League season.

"I make everyone sign a covenant," said Barker. "In the off-season, the returning players sign it. When the new players sign their contracts, they have to sign it. If they don't want to sign, they don't have to be here. This is pro football. This is about winning Grey Cups. Every decision we make is based on that. It makes cutting players a little easier, because they understand.

"I can come in and cut every quarterback who's here and I don't care what you guys in the media say. I know I was called arrogant last year -- I'm going to do it. David Braley and Bob Nicholson hired me for the experience I've gained as a GM and as a coach. Ultimately, it doesn't bother me what you guys say. When I was younger it did. When I was younger I cared about how I was perceived. I wanted to keep my job. I don't think about things anymore."

He is 54 years old and basically unencumbered. It is, he says, a wonderful age and a terrific time of life. He is divorced. His kids have grown up and moved away. And now it's him and his football family. There are no distractions. There are no external pressures. There's just players to find, players to coach, games to win.

"Don Matthews is the guy I learned the most from," said Barker. "Players always enjoyed playing for him. But honestly, a lot of (the change in him) came from the liberation of turning 50. I hate to say this, but when you're younger in this business and you've got kids in school and you have to pay bills you have to do things you probably shouldn't do to keep your job one day longer, to keep your job one year longer, to buy you as much time as you can before you get fired, because you know you're going to get fired.

"The liberation of being 54 now is I don't have that pressure anymore. If they want to fire my ass tomorrow, they can. And that's OK. I'll go and be an offensive coordinator somewhere else or I can be an offensive line coach somewhere else and I'll enjoy my life. I don't need this and it's liberating that it allows me to relate to players differently because I'm not worried about myself. I'm not in this for anything but to win a Grey Cup. Your fanny's not tight about everything like you were in your 30s.

"We have this feeling in the organization that we're all in this together. We don't have coaches looking for other jobs, backstabbing people. Everyone's here for one reason. This is about winning a Grey Cup and the day you can't help us do that and I can't help us do that, that's the day to go."

But first, there is Friday's game against the perennially strong Calgary Stampeders. This is a less than friendly start to the new season. There is Cleo Lemon back at quarterback, which is hardly something to dance about. And there is the annual Toronto ambivalence about the CFL and the Argos to deal with. Some of that Barker can fix. Some of it may beyond even his scope as the unlikely face of the Double Blue.

"I don't think of myself as the face of the franchise," said Barker. "I think of Chad Owens and Cory Boyd. We're creating stars our fans can get excited about. What's important is that we get the fan base to believe in us." And then he relates how difficult that can be.

"When I was here in '97 and we had Doug (Flutie), we still didn't draw. To me, the biggest thing in this job is getting the people of Toronto talking about the Argos, excited about the Canadian Football League.

"The Canadian Football League is the epitome of Canada. It's why I choose to be here instead of in the U.S. Everything the CFL is about -- being fan friendly, not in it for the money, busting your ass to put a product on the field, reasonable ticket prices, all the things that Canadians talk about that are important to them, yet they gravitate towards the other side. To me, getting Toronto back to being a Canadian Football League town is important to me."

Important and yet it might be impossible. Just don't tell Jim Barker that. He walked on water last season as Argo coach. He's looking for his next miracle now. Only he doesn't consider any of this a stretch. He believes. It's time for the season to begin.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


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