The Argonauts practised in downtown Toronto this week in advance of the first major home playoff date in this city since 2008, and they managed to overshadow themselves. Usually this is done for them, by other teams or the city’s bright lights or any of the gee-whiz options that don’t involve relative silence in a cavernous concrete dome. This time, the Argos cut out the middleman by giving the middleman a contract extension.
On Thursday, Toronto announced it had given head coach Scott Milanovich an extension of indeterminate years after just 11 months on the job. Which is fine, except that general manager Jim Barker is believed to have one year left on his contract, and the rumours have been circulating like rubber sharks in the swimming pool that the man Barker fleeced for quarterback Ricky Ray, fired Edmonton Eskimos GM Eric Tillman, has orchestrated a conspiracy to get the Toronto job.
“Clearly some of you are going to ask about the rumours that are going to go around about Mr. Tillman,” Argonauts CEO Chris Rudge said at the news conference announcing the Milanovich deal. “I can tell you unequivocally there have been absolutely no discussions with Mr. Tillman at any point in time about any position with the Toronto Argonauts football team since I’ve been here. The rumour mill will do what it does.”
This did not in fact stop the questions, which centred on why the head coach got an extension and the guy who hired the head coach and runs the team did not. The Argonauts didn’t have an awful lot of answers that made immediate sense. And afterwards, Barker admitted that he was upset by the notion that Tillman tanked the trade and his final season in Edmonton in order to segue seamlessly to the Argonauts, where Ray would be waiting for him.
“Well, the most frustrating, it’s kind of humil— … how do you put it, not humiliating. I worked hard to get that deal done,” said Barker, who sent unremarkable quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a first-round pick to Edmonton for the now 33-year-old Ray, one of the league’s franchise quarterbacks.
“And this conspiracy thing, and to think that any league could do something like that … I’ve been in this league for 16 years, and I’ve seen it all, and I have never heard of anything like a conspiracy from the league or from any person to [do this]. And that is the hardest thing to deal with. People are going to say what they want, but it doesn’t speak well on our league … Mr. Braley and Mr. Rudge have allowed me to bring in players and coaches, and I have this organization now exactly where I would hope it would be.”
The best argument you’ll hear in the CFL against this particular conspiracy theory is that this is highly unlikely to be a closely guarded conspiracy because Tillman, bless his loquacious heart, would tell someone about it. In the absence of that, the league has been largely flummoxed by the lopsided nature of the Ray trade all season, and Tillman was fired by the Eskimos in the same week his team is travelling to Toronto to play the East semi-final on Sunday, fuelling the rumours without any evident basis in fact.
As for Barker, he insists that he prefers shorter deals, always has, because he’s not worried about getting another job and prefers the flexibility. To him, that’s job security. To a younger guy like Milanovich, with a family, a longer contract is better.
Barker actually called Tillman to express his condolences this week, but they didn’t talk about the rumours; Barker has not sought nor received assurances from Rudge or owner David Braley, either, and Rudge tried his best to express the fact that Barker’s job as the architect of the franchise’s future is safe. It was all vaguely minor-league optics, and it probably didn’t help the cause. It didn’t really matter.
The question, of course, is whether the Argos do. They do bonanza TV numbers compared to the Raptors, and beat the Blue Jays, though the difference in the number of games and the predictability of TSN helps in both cases. But they’re constantly overshadowed here. Just ask Ray, who spent his entire career in Edmonton.
“Yeah, I mean it’s a little bit different,” Ray said. “In Edmonton you’re downtown, you’re practising at Commonwealth Stadium, you’re right in the middle of the city, so a lot of things are happening, you hear about a lot of stuff. Here, there’s a lot going on in the city, we practice out in Mississauga, you don’t feel caught up in as much stuff.
“When we hosted the Grey Cup in Edmonton a few years ago, you’re hearing about everything that’s going on, all the planning, and here we don’t really hear about much of it … You walk around out here and most people don’t know who you are, and you play out there, a lot more people will recognize you when you’re walking around. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. I mean, playing in a big city there’s just so much else going on, whereas playing in Edmonton, we were pretty much the only show until hockey started up.
“And out here there’s other sports teams, there’s all sorts of cultural things that are happening, and we’re not the hottest ticket in town. And you’ve got to do your excitement on the field, in winning football games, for fans to get excited and latch on to what you’re doing here. And we’re trying to do that.”
If it sounds like Ray went from the big city to the sleepy hamlet, that’s how the CFL works when it comes to Toronto. They are an afterthought tenant in their home stadium; they are working in a practice facility whose offices burned down earlier this year. Their good news gets sidetracked; the bad news just sinks. Well, this weekend they have a chance to command a slice of spotlight. Maybe they can make it in the big city, if they try.